Wednesday, 8 December 2010

James Stewart -Stuttering his way to immortality

What is it with the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema, that period in time that threw up so many great actors that somehow seems to eclipse contemporary stars? Were they better at their craft? No, I don’t think so. I think both are good but being first on the scene helped.

Who could deny the easy, natural style of Spencer Tracey or that tough edge of Humphrey Bogart? I think it has little to do with talent even if those chaps oozed it. I think it has more to do with the fact they were pioneers. They were the Drake and Magellan of moving pictures. They came first and they dared to do what no one had before. They set the stage and made their own rules up as they performed. 

Take James Stewart as a fine example, easy going with that slight stutter that presented him in an unaffected way. He didn’t seem to be acting at all, he seemed as though he were merely being himself then speaking the lines as he felt they should be said. He wasn’t a bad looking man but hardly a Brad Pitt yet still he exuded a charm that reached out and connected with the audience. I guess that is what those guys had, charisma. This combined with  them being ordinary people. It made you feel that anyone could do what they did.

He was, in his quiet, unassuming way, a remarkable man who fought in World War Two. As a fully-fledged pilot, one who used to fly to his parents at weekends where he would follow the tracks of the railway as guidance, the American Air Corps seemed the obvious choice.  He signed-up just about the time of Pearl Harbour in 1942 as America joined the war. Much to his dissatisfaction he didn’t at first get to see action. He was in fear that he would only be used, due to his star status, as a back-room-boy. Finally though he followed in the path of his father, a veteran of World War One and of his grandfathers, both of whom had fought in the American Civil War, and saw action in 1944. After the war ended he continued to serve whilst as a reserve. Eventually, by the time he retired from service in 1968, he was a Brigadier General. Many years later President Ronald Reagan promoted to him to Major General.
Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20th 1908 of Scottish and Irish descent James Maitland Stewart was destined to follow into his father’s business. Funny how so many talented people are meant to do that but never do. As a student Stewart excelled. His thesis on airport design won him a scholarship. But scholarships do not fuel passion, at least not in this case. Stewart turned to acting.
His career in Hollywood gifted us a marvellous actor. His films include ‘Harvey,’ ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ (surely the best Christmas film ever?) ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ ‘The Glen Miller Story’ and ‘Anatomy of a Murder.’  I liked his mumbling, stumbling portrayals. He managed to invest a rare truth of human humility into his roles. Even in his last film, the one he made with John Wayne, 'The Shootist, he remains the stout hearted, noble personification of the quiet, honest but strong man, a man of the everyday.

For me 'Harvey,' with its deceptive scrutiny dressed as a charming comedy, is one of my all time favourite films. It portrays a man whose polite dislike of avarice and the way the world is turning ever more to a shallow, make-what-you-can-anyway-you-are-able to society remains a magical memory yet still relevant parable. 'Wonderful Life,' often cited as being one of the all time greats, is similar. Both carry a weight of introspective humility, a thing too often neglected in modern times.
The other film, the one that broke his typecast wholesome, good guy mould, was 'Vertigo.' Here we see an actor stepping away from his safety zone and inhabiting a persona in conflict with himself. At the time director Alfred Hitchcock, who defended the film against the critics who disliked it, said one of its few faults was casting fifty year old Stewart with a twenty five year old Kim Novac. The great director was wrong. How times change.

It was and remains a great film with a terrific performance by Jimmy Stewart.

Like many heroes, those whom I have watched, listened to and enjoyed, I suspect James Stewart would prove no less flawed, no less unlike me and possibly even of the right wing of politics. Even so, when all is said and done and in spite of all that, he was a fine actor.
I rate him highly.



Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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