Between the Raindrops

David Bromwich

  • James Stewart at the NFT

People always liked Jimmy Stewart and were amazed by his good luck. In the late 1930s, he worked under contract for the studio moguls at MGM. Almost alone in the industry, he later professed to have pleasant memories of the experience. He had affairs with many of his leading ladies, including Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich, as well as Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland and others, with no hard feelings on either side except in the case of Dietrich. Maybe he ‘walked between the raindrops’, as a marvelling collaborator once said. But reports are just as consistent about less flattering traits. Though he was an amusing companion, nobody ever called him a warm man. Even at home, he left himself at home; the depths only show in what he became on screen. Critics have paid their respects over the years with an admiration that has often seemed to catch the admirer by surprise: Otis Ferguson, a reviewer who never puffed, thought Stewart in The Shop around the Corner ‘a young American with as broad and unaffected a base in a country’s experience as Huck Finn’. It has been the way of critics, and the habit on the whole of audiences, too, to take Stewart as something the native climate effortlessly produced. But Stewart for his part never cared for the praise of his friend Henry Fonda that he was a natural actor. Carole Lombard, who had worked with Fredric March, Charles Laughton, William Powell and John Barrymore, thought him more remarkable than any of them. On screen, his name appeared as James Stewart, and he worked hard at every detail.

He was a canny businessman. Before the Second World War, he invested in a small airline. Soon after the war, taking advantage of the new freedom from studio contracts, he was one of the first actors to arrange to be paid a percentage of the profits on individual pictures. His change to a different kind of presence in movies of the 1950s, after a bad stumble in the postwar years, was as carefully planned, self-disciplined and sustained as such a major shift of direction in an artist’s work can be. It led from the enviable lustre of a sentimental star in films by Lubitsch and Cukor to the troubling singularity of the violent heroes of Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Hitchcock’s thrillers – an impressive plurality of the films of the 1950s that have lasted because they have psychological depth. Two other front-rank directors who favoured him were Frank Capra and John Ford: Capra served Stewart extremely well and was more than reciprocally rewarded three times, in You Can’t Take It with You, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Ford called on him for a pair of late films. In Two Rode Together, Stewart and his co-star, Richard Widmark, are lost to their better qualities, lazy, loud-voiced, working from an undernourished script, with the stupefied strut of the American male who has inherited the world in 1961. Soon after, to brilliant and opposite effect, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Stewart would play a man whose virtues of prudence and honesty mark him as an inheritor rather than a maker of the West.

One thing a casual viewer learns to love, if he is going to like Stewart at all, is a kind of stammer that trips in naturally and convincingly – a signature touch he seldom allowed to pass into self-parody until his late fifties. An anomaly almost as emphatic is the frequent decision to speak in a soft voice, always with perfect clarity and conveying a range of available senses for words. Stewart does this often in intimate scenes with women, but not only with them, and it shows the passage from theatre to a broader naturalist domain of feeling that the movies uniquely made possible. Even now, when fewer actors bring the wrong kind of theatricality from stage to screen, the freedom to modulate a speaking voice downward is rarely grasped; and if you listen to the better-known stars of the 1930s and 1940s, only a select company of them appear to have glimpsed and taken the opportunity: Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda – were there many more? Even within that group, Stewart is exceptionally resourceful. His voice can be put in the service of feelings as they bubble slowly from confusion to clarity. Or it can be used to signal the intimation of half-thoughts, shadowy promptings of a kind that only a first-rate writer may catch in words. There is a scene early in The Shopworn Angel where he sits in a taxi beside Margaret Sullavan, a soldier accepting a lift from a posh woman, speaking softly partly because he is shy of her beauty but also because he feels in the wrong: she is taking him to his barracks after her taxi clipped him when he daydreamingly stepped into its path on a New York street. Asked how he could be so clumsy, he says it seems strange for someone like him, from Texas, to find more cars than people, and no horses at all, since, in Texas, there are mostly horses, and anyway more people than cars and the cars, more or less, look out for the people instead of the other way around. She treats this charming apology with contempt, and he looks back at her benignly, a man in love.

Sullavan and Stewart were fond of each other, and observers of his early work often say that she brought out the best in him. Andrew Sarris has noticed the particular delicacy of the scene in The Shop around the Corner where she reads the letter from her anonymous correspondent, and Stewart, its author, watches and waits, yearning to tell the truth but playing as ever by the rules. It is a subtle moment of earnest empathy and awkward self-consciousness – genuine, utterly real, easy to pass by. One cannot easily recall another actor who could pack so much into moments like that. In Vertigo, the drama again is all in Stewart’s face as his car winds up and down the hills of San Francisco. He is dutifully following Madeleine (Kim Novak), each minute more bewildered and attracted. The leisurely sequence goes on for ten minutes or more – the visit to the flower shop, the cemetery, the museum, the hotel – and nearly to the end, it is composed almost entirely of Stewart’s reaction shots supported by the music of Bernard Herrmann. It is a tour de force: a justification, in itself, for the existence of movies, since no other art could accomplish quite this.

In comic as well as dramatic roles, Stewart has the weakness of a man who can be wounded. He absorbs many moods: self-pity, cynicism, a compulsion that does not know its name – and always there is a disturbing something left over. It is strange to find such susceptibility in so definite a face. But all of his performance in Vertigo builds on a look he could be seen to hold through many frames of his earlier films: the complicated look of a man who is starting to have a bad conscience. In several of his films of the 1950s, Stewart plays a man to whom things are done, who gets his own back, though he is not vengeful so much as baffled in the end and all but destroyed. His face knows all the crooked paths from fear to anger to regret. From the same capability, he is also an actor who can bring out major recognitions, even where the plot and editing already serve the viewer reasonably well. In Vertigo once again, after the first lover’s apparent death, Stewart’s change to active self-deception is made visible by degrees. Just before the terrible moment when the two women are shown to be one, he can be seen gazing at the second with a possessive love that is complacent to the point of serenity. An instant later he will look through her, with a sneer deadened by self-hate.

Asked to specify his strength, Stewart once said that there were actors who were tremendous at acting: he supposed his speciality was reacting. Some lines in his movies sound as if they were written to cue his reactions, and they are the more memorable for that. In Made for Each Other, opening a bottle of wine at the dinner party for his boss that he and his wife (Carole Lombard) have barely squeezed into their two-room apartment, Stewart launches what will turn out to be a bad night with words of ingenuous cheer: ‘It’s burgundy and it sparkles!’ Then there are the reactions beyond words, to which a muttered phrase may serve only as an afterthought. Midge, the confidante in Vertigo to whom he tells everything and gives nothing, gets her revenge by drawing a travesty-portrait of the enchanted woman – in fact a self-portrait of her own pretty but unglamorous face imposed on the swept-up hair and iconography of Madeleine. Stewart looks at it silently without a smile, shaking his head, ‘No, it isn’t funny,’ sunk in bewilderment and longing. That reaction, and not any action, tells how far gone he is.

He fought in the war, like Henry Fonda, like Sterling Hayden, but unlike a great many of America’s best-loved actors then in their prime. He was rejected by his draft board because he weighed too little for his height. By his own account, he told the physician to run the tests again and this time not to weigh him; informed that such a thing would be irregular, he replied that wars were irregular, too, but ‘sure as hell there’s a war coming.’ He trained the crews for B-17s in New Mexico before being made commander of the 703rd squadron of B-24 Liberators. Based in Tibenham, Norfolk, with 20 planes under his command, he was cited for keeping his squadron together in dangerous missions over Germany with fewer losses than most. Altogether, in uniform, he logged 1800 hours of flying, and was widely known for the care of his preparation for every mission. Once, over Bremen, where his target was a munitions plant, he went in for a second run after failing to spot the target on the first: an almost unheard-of extra risk. When asked about it by a friend, he said he simply had not seen the target the first time over, and was going to get it ‘no matter how long it took’.

Stewart came back to America uncertain whether he was an ex-actor or an ex-pilot. The film that marks his re-emergence, It’s a Wonderful Life, now seems as sure a thing, sentimentally speaking, as any Hollywood picture of the 1940s: big, clever, brimful of good intentions and keen emotions. But it was a flop when it first came out, widely considered a ‘throwback’, almost a protest picture, and one whose egalitarian moral would raise questions a few years later from the House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s a Wonderful Life does, in fact, exhibit tell-tale symptoms of a belated liberal populism of the 1930s, whether or not the Committee knew that Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo, among others, had worked on the screenplay. Stewart here plays George Bailey, a banker who succeeds his father as head of a benevolent mortgage company that alone keeps the town of Bedford Falls out of the grip of the property and lending monopolies of Mr Potter, the evil tycoon played by Lionel Barrymore. One of Bailey’s projects is a co-operative low-income housing development for working-class families; Potter’s wish to eradicate that symbol of collective hope is a significant strand of the plot. Stewart, whose politics were conservative, never failed to cite George Bailey as the part in which he took the most pride, and the film’s box-office failure, which he put down to the insipid postwar taste for nerveless domestic comedies, rankled with him to his last days.

It’s a Wonderful Life is very long, and exactingly centred on the character of George Bailey, and Stewart is unquestionably what holds it together. Bailey’s life is presented in flashbacks as the quintessential good life of a man often in adversity who responds to circumstances. He comes close to killing himself when a threatened bankruptcy and a paid-up insurance policy render him ‘worth more dead than alive’. He says then in the flatness of despair that the town would have been a better place if he had never lived, and he is overheard by an angel metaphysically equipped to show him that this is far from the truth. Without the life of George Bailey, Pottersville would be the name of the town, and it would be a huddle of dives and honky-tonks, with goons controlling everything. Also, his brother would have died when young, unrescued by George from the frozen pond, the troop transport that his brother saved from the German attack would have perished, and so on. We see George Bailey’s haunted face in tracking shots as he runs estranged from every familiar place and memory, his panic deepening now at the absence rather than the presence of his past life. It is all thoroughly melodramatic and utterly convincing. And yet it is Stewart’s reactions, more than the camera technique, that carry the film so adroitly to its end.

This film nearly ends on a miserable Christmas Day, just as Made for Each Other nearly ends on a miserable New Year’s Eve. To be shut out from a scene where all others are celebrating is one of Stewart’s typical fates, the other side of his good cheer. Still, this is a Christmas movie, frankly modelled on A Christmas Carol, and there are scenes of exhilaration in Stewart’s early courtship of Donna Reed. Her other suitor, the official one, preferred by her mother, calls her on the phone long-distance, and hearing that Stewart is there, offers him a job – in the plastics business, where he can get in on the ground floor. ‘He says,’ she reports, ‘it’s the chance of a lifetime.’ The phone receiver dangles between them, they look at each other, barely breathing, and Stewart’s speech comes in a rush: ‘Now you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. And I don’t want to get married ever to anyone. You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re . . . and you’re’ – at which he surrenders completely. The speech has the Odets touch (whoever wrote it), and Stewart is oddly angry, exasperated, defensive, petulant and, by the end, half sobbing. He gives in to emotion all the way, as, according to movie cliché, only the woman is supposed to give in.

Stewart is excellent in a quite different realist mode in another film of the early postwar years, Call Northside 777, a film whose reception convinced him that he still had new resources and a note or two to add. Dwarfed here by a badly paced noir script, whose real heroes are the new technology of a lie-detecting machine and a wire-photo machine, Stewart nevertheless buoys up the movie nicely. Against the grain of his real-life prototype, he chose to portray the heroic reporter in hard-boiled style: as marked a departure from his usual range as the stoical-heartless spy in Notorious was for Cary Grant. ‘Well, I hit it pretty hard,’ he says cynically of one of his tabloid stories, ‘but don’t start believing it.’ Stewart underlines a brief romantic scene with his wife as few other actors would have done. She has no other business, the scene is there for family values and the censor, yet he brings it into line with the character and tone of the rest. He wakes up in the night: ‘Maybe it’s something I ate.’ ‘I ate the same things,’ she says. ‘Well, maybe it’s something I wrote.’ Then a touch written purely for him. ‘Will you marry me? Oh, yeah, you did, yeah.’

He made five Westerns in all with Anthony Mann. The best of them, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, are all good in different ways. Winchester ’73 has a design somewhat on the John Ford pattern, close to fable or legend, about the one-in-a-thousand rifle won at a contest by a good brother and stolen from him by the bad. As the film winds through its memorable episodes – the rifle shoot in Dodge City, the poker game in the prairie tavern, the cavalry defence against an Indian attack, the bank robbery at Tascosa by the wicked brother and the final shootout among the high rocks outside town – knowledge of the characters and their motives is passed on incidentally in the epic manner. Both in this film and in The Man from Laramie, Stewart receives many compliments on his gentleness and decency. He has not always earned them, on the face of it, but is able to make you feel he has earned them deeper down. In the latter film, his companion on a long ride to the town where his brother was killed is asked by Stewart why he wants to stay on and track down the killer. ‘I don’t guess we spoke ten words coming up here,’ the man says. ‘But I feel that I know you. And I like what I know.’

Was any other leading actor so often or so badly beaten up? In his films of the 1950s, Stewart suffers every kind of injury, most of all the betrayal of trust. Rear Window puts him in a wheelchair with a broken leg through all the action, impotent to save his lover and at one point whimpering with fear, withdrawing into the shadows, so that the murderer will not spot him. In The Man from Laramie he is shot in the hand by the maniac brother of the county’s big rancher and landowner. In The Naked Spur – a tight, suspicious portrait of the solitude of frontier life, with no ease in it – he wakes up screaming at the memory of being deserted by his wife. This remarkable film begins by dividing its characters between the good and the wicked, pretty cleanly, but by the end none of the them, including the bounty hunter played by Stewart, is admirable or even quite trustworthy. It closes with his disgraceful vow to the woman (Janet Leigh) who loves him and hates his profession, that he is now going to take back the criminal’s body for the reward, just to prove that he is as bad as she thinks. Then he breaks into tears and throws down a shovel to bury the man. No other Western has ever ended or will ever end remotely like this.

Many people think The Man from Laramie is the best of the 1950s Westerns. The Searchers may be more classical, but it could be a silent film. The Big Country has tremendous scale and scenic power, but every tableau is heavy with purpose both leading up and going away. The Man from Laramie is, by comparison, intuitively paced, its violence always unexpected and unsettling. The plot weaves together two disappointed revenges: a motif sustained from the first crisis, the hero eyeing the burned wreckage of an ambushed cavalry troop on the salt flats, his watchful look changing to consternation as a crowd of men ride in, unhorse him, burn his wagons and shoot the mules. Stewart in this film, a man of justice in his own eyes, is, instead, to the old rancher Alec Waggoman (gravely played by Donald Crisp), a ‘man I saw in a dream’, the man who will surely ruin his life. He does that involuntarily as his quest proceeds, and there is no satisfaction and no pleasure in it. A peculiar dryness gets into the inflection of certain lines by Stewart: the one he speaks for instance to the town spy, murderer-for-hire and all-purpose factor when he catches him on his trail – ‘Just who’re you thinking of selling out? Wouldn’t be me, would it?’ The character he plays in the Westerns directed by Mann is capable of the sort of bitterness that drains the human voice of every trace of kindness. Clint Eastwood later learned to carry that inflection much of the time. But the reason it is affecting in Stewart is that we are made to feel that the character has come down to this from something bigger. His is the bitterness of a man who once knew trust and goodwill, who has been drained of it all in an instant.

Stewart had several walks, quite distinct from each other. A lope, a stride, a saunter, a shuffle, a half backward half sidestep. Tall as he is, he can show the inclination of the head by which gentler tall people, interested in the goings-on of the lower-down, always indicate their interest. He will stand up anyway, as the occasion warrants, erect with courtesy or rigid with antagonism, or leaning forward to make an inquiry. Near the start of The Philadelphia Story, he is left to wait in the drawing-room where the presents are stacked for the wedding of the immaculate Tracy Lord. Here Stewart plays a fiction writer who works for a trashy magazine to make ends meet. He is feeling awkward and wrong-footed on assignment for a story about a rich marriage. He has just got off a deadpan-brash delivery of a half-baked witticism to the butler, ‘The, uh, queen’ll have bread and honey at the usual time,’ when he is caught by the butler’s accusing second look – he has spent a few too many seconds admiring the table with the objets d’art. And this is when he takes the sideways backward step. A less casual variant appears in Call Northside 777. He is leaving the prison cell of a condemned man whose possible innocence his articles have suggested but whom he has only just begun to believe. Stewart pauses, half hesitant, as he backs away, a step or two extra: the first unemphatic hint of a change of mind.

Somebody said that Stewart’s walk showed more reflection than his politics. A fair and not an unloving assessment – but the obvious facts here are apt to mislead. He belonged to a minority in Hollywood opposed to the American liberal mainstream, when it was still the mainstream, and he endorsed the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. There were other stars for whom that position became a major fact of life. Yet Stewart remained a friend through every disagreement with Henry Fonda – his housemate in New York in the early 1930s and in Brentwood after the war, and the embodiment on screen of Hollywood’s liberal conscience. When in 1940 the Academy voted Stewart best actor for The Philadelphia Story, he said that Fonda had deserved it for The Grapes of Wrath. To feel the difference between him and, say, John Wayne or Glenn Ford, it is only necessary to recall the way he talks and holds himself. You cannot imagine either of them saying, like Tom Destry, ‘trouble is my business,’ and meaning that he is going to help trouble to get out of town with as few shots as possible. Stewart gives more than they do, reserves more, is more, and the difference has finally to do not just with talent but with a certain self-withdrawal. He carries in him the salutary misanthropy of a man who has occasionally found himself unpleasant company – an intuition that can act as a restraint and that has nothing in common with the swagger of assured innocence.

Of the stars of Hollywood’s great age, he stands out only when you think about it. His name and face, the idea of James Stewart, do not have a magic bigger than the parts he played. He does not radiate, like Cary Grant or Myrna Loy, an intelligence that seems to pass from him into the things he touches and evade contamination by baser objects. There is not the kind of glamour, peculiarly an actor’s own, that one feels with Cagney and Bogart and Stanwyck; let alone, as with Robert Mitchum, a dangerous allure, or, as with Gloria Grahame, an unbetrayable charm that makes her stand out in any crowd. Yet between 1938 and 1962, he played comic and serious parts with a versatility, a variety of lights and shades that puts him easily in this company. Nobody was more essential to the making of so many great and good films: The Shop around the Corner, You Can’t Take It with You, Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Rear Window, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to stick to the ‘indisputable’ category. But that is to leave out The Shopworn Angel, Made for Each Other, The Mortal Storm, Magic Town, Harvey, Bend of the River, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Flight of the Phoenix; and whatever one’s resistance in principle, one cannot but feel a touch of awe at the way Stewart’s passion cements the platitudes of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. See him as the circus clown in a stone-dead blockbuster like DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth, and the intensity remains. He is the only reason to stop for a minute, but with him you stay a while longer. When he was working hard, James Stewart was the most generous team player that the movies have ever had – making others good by the way he took them, or took them in; making a situation interesting in his eyes and voice and body. Add up the reactions, think about how they add up, and you are amazed at the subtlety and the humanity of the work – two words for the same thing, perhaps.