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It's Been a Successful Life : JAMES STEWART. By Donald Dewey (Turner Publishing: $24.95, 512 pp.)

October 06, 1996|Art Simon | Art Simon is an assistant professor of film studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey and the author of "Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film" (Temple University Press)

As for the popular, folksy image of Stewart as patriot and family man, Dewey suggests it obscured his identity as an extremely active bachelor in Hollywood during the 1930s. The author details thoroughly but not salaciously Stewart's romances with a veritable montage of well-known actresses--Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer and Olivia De Havilland--and those are only the marquee names. His greatest love may have been for Margaret Sullavan, who would marry both Stewart's best friend, Henry Fonda, and later his talented and trusted agent, Leland Hayward.

World War II presented the actor with a chance to pursue another passion--flying. Following again in the path of his father, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, Stewart enlisted in the armed forces and took command of a squadron of B-24 bombers based in England in 1943. He would return from Europe more reflective and serious, his career and personal life seeming to move in opposite directions. Professionally, he left the security of MGM, venturing into productions at five studios. But emotionally he sought a stable relationship, ultimately finding it with Gloria Harrick, whom he would marry in 1949.

Dewey's portrait of Harrick makes her about as appealing as a cold shower. It probably tells us a good deal about Stewart that he went from pre-war romances with Dietrich and Dinah Shore to a 45-year marriage to someone Dewey describes as an emotionally distant, chain-smoking woman whom one friend said has "considerably more feeling for animals than for human beings." Indeed, she seems to have nourished Stewart's small-town reserve into what one observer called a "friendly aloofness." Little of this attitude seems to have carried over onto the set, however, where the actor is consistently described as supportive and professional.

What emerges toward the end of Dewey's book--despite a rather incoherent epilogue that struggles to summarize Stewart's craft--is a figure committed to traditional myths, increasingly out of step with the evolving culture. Stewart's loyalty to the studio system's production hierarchy was his most benign form of conservatism. Although the actor did not name names during the House UnAmerican Activity Committee's trip to Hollywood in the late '40s, his connection, both ideological and personal, to those who supported the committee's anti-communist crusade is clear, leaving Dewey only to speculate about Stewart's possible role as a closed door witness.

By the '60s and '70s, the aging star brought his politics into the open, as it appeared to him that his old friends were passing away, along with the values he cherished most. Even after the death of his stepson in Vietnam, Stewart continued to support the war, actively campaigning for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As a trustee to his alma mater, he opposed admitting women to Princeton until it became clear the university's admission policy was going to change.

By the time Dewey discloses traces of race prejudice during his discussion of "The Jimmy Stewart Show," a short-lived TV sitcom from 1971, one senses that even the biographer is pained by the Hollywood legend. "Blacks are bossing white people all over the country," he quotes Stewart as telling the show's producer-director. "A black is going to be lecturing me with millions of people watching? No way."

As with his account of the young Stewart's rise to adulthood, Dewey's portrait of the man in old age battling depression is evocative. Without stumbling into sentiment, he captures Stewart's despondency over his wife's death and his increasing reclusiveness since. Like the guest of honor at the opening day parade in Pennsylvania, Dewey chooses not to revisit the Jimmy Stewart Museum at the end of his story. After a journey through his biography, it is probably best not to dwell too much on Stewart's life off the set, either. Better we should think of him stammering, riding and revealing his handsome, reluctant smile via the cinematic image.

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