Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of James Stewart. TCM will be showing several of his films. Though the stammering Boy Scout of his earlier films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) etched out for Stewart a career persona like none other at the time, one of the most interesting aspects to his career is how he aged.
When Mr. Stewart came to Hollywood it might have been clear what he was not, but not so clear on what he was. His all-American lanky “aw shucks” personality was unlike that of perennial hero Gary Cooper, even if Cooper wore that mantle first. Stewart lacked the sexuality of Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn. And though his friend Henry Fonda may have given him a run for his money in the slapstick department, and in the serious-young-man-fighting-against-the-odds department, Stewart was still different.
Though he could appear cynical and witty, such as in the role which won him his Academy Award, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) it was ultimately his vulnerability that may have given him a career longer and more productive than most.
Consider how James Stewart’s films of the 1950s stand out from his earlier movies. What may have begun in the post-war “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), a heartwarming movie that actually spent most of the film showing a man becoming completely unhinged, ultimately led to “Rear Window” (1954), and the penultimate, “Vertigo” (1958).
In a decade when matinee idols Gable, Cooper, Flynn, and Tyrone Power were becoming puffy, flabby, and aging beyond their years, James Stewart, though possessed of a hairpiece and a hearing aid, appeared more vital. His appearance was not of a young man, yet he had reached a stage where his maturity suited him and gave him an authority he did not possess as a lanky 30-year old. By the time he did “Vertigo”, Mr. Stewart was 50 years old and still playing a romantic lead, unusual for the time. By the 1960s he may have been relegated to character parts, but even these were still lead roles, such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) and “This Rare Breed” (1966).
James Stewart aged well, and more importantly, continued to grow emotionally. He was able to tap into sick fear and animal rage, and poignant tenderness far better than he could at 30, and far better than those other actors mentioned ever could. He played comedy and drama with equal skill. He was believable in westerns, which not all actors plunked into them were. More than most actors of the day, he made growing up and growing old something to admire.