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The Good Boy

PIECES OF TIME: The Life of Jimmy Stewart. By Gary Fishgall . Scribner: 416 pp., $27.50

September 28, 1997|DAVID THOMSON | David Thomson is the author of "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts," forthcoming from Knopf

In the spring of 1941, with 28 movies to his credit and an Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story," a 6-foot, 3-inch but underweight James Stewart coaxed his draft board to accept him. He would be in the military, ready to do his bit. The Oscar could sit on a shelf at his dad's hardware store in Indiana, Pa. Stewart was 33, as deft at comedy as at romance and a balance of Ivy League manners (he had been to Princeton) and country innocence. America was learning to see him as a fresh version of Gary Cooper, a poet of hesitant speech and bashful sincerity, the sort of Mr. Smith whom Washington needed. So this star folded up his career and drew the line on a series of romances that had included Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland, Eleanor Powell and even Marlene Dietrich. He did the right thing.

Suppose that man had died on any of the 20 bombing missions he flew (and often led) over Germany. Losing that kind of lieutenant colonel, with a Distinguished Flying Cross as well as an Oscar, would have been more drastic a loss than even Glenn Miller. We might look at his movies then--at "The Philadelphia Story," "It's a Wonderful World" (a neglected comedy), "Destry Rides Again," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "The Shop Around the Corner" (with Margaret Sullavan, perhaps the woman he loved best back then, but she was always married to someone else)--and marvel that this muddled country of ours, so obsessed with and dishonest about image, could achieve so unsullied an icon. Stewart had an unforced purity in his frank, amused eyes and his tender, drawling voice.

Of course, he came back from the war. He was not too well at first: His nerves were shot; he lived on a diet of sweet, pulpy foods; and he had to move in for a while with his old buddy Henry Fonda. Like many survivors, he was altered and scarred. Then he lived another 50 years, with all the chances they offered to mar his spotless reputation. Stewart died just a few months ago, leaving us to congratulate ourselves for having at least one American we could love without reservation. He was a decent, honorable guy, so subtle and humane an actor that his nobility never announced itself or seemed to beg. We could gauge Stewart's character from the way he listened, responded, talked and even watched, as in "Rear Window." Never part of the Method, Stewart still gave every sign of being locked in thought and self-examination. His voice became the sport of mimics and comedians, but it was the imprint of his wondering eyes that we remembered. His charm as a talker (on women and men) should not be underestimated: During the war, Stewart often led the briefings on big raids, and a young soldier, Walter Matthau, liked to sit in just to enjoy the ease and fun of his talk.

Nevertheless, war did change Stewart, and it is a failing in Gary Fishgall's decent, methodical and very fond book that this shift is inadequately described. In the decade and a half that followed the war, Stewart delivered a series of ambiguous, flawed heroes who are hardly matched in American film and stand as question marks after the ineffably likable guys he created in the 1930s: George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," the small-town model who, at the thought of failure, tries to kill himself; the bleak loners he played in the Anthony Mann westerns, from "Winchester '73" to "The Man From Laramie"; the two portraits of inquiry on the edge of obsession done for Hitchcock in "Rear Window" and "Vertigo"; and even the politico who faces his own fraud in John Ford's uneven "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (a role for which he was plainly too old).

It's not that the actor slipped from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. His darker characters are older brothers to the sweet guys who preceded them. They have the same respect for hope and an unwavering, gentle alertness to others, but doubts have seeped in, along with gray in the hair. The cheerfulness is more wistful; the attentiveness is not as open or trusting. There are signs of blame, vengeance and selfishness; he is lonelier in ways nothing can mend. This is the kind of development in an actor's career (and face) that we no longer see or journey with. But it makes Stewart all the more compelling that the imperiled (and self-pitying) idealism in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" could lead to the emotional tyrant in "Vertigo." He was essential to some of the most problematic and momentous films ever made in America. Run "Mr. Smith" and "Vertigo" side by side, and you have not just a display of an actor's growth or talent a demonstration of how the best movies once learned to see through their own concept of "the good guy." To enjoy the movies made today, without shadow or shame, you must forget such experiments and the profound elusiveness in Stewart.

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