Raw Deal for James Stewart, Dismal Biographer’s Victim

Posterity, and many high-end critics, seem to have simultaneously arrived at the general proposition that the greatest male star of the golden age was Cary Grant. He was, after all, both sexy and a superb comedian—the rarest combination in movies. And he contrived to almost always play variations on Cary Grant, which is the main point for a certain kind of stardom.

But aren’t we forgetting James Stewart? He certainly had a far greater emotional range than any of the competition. To name only the films that seem to me to contain his most innovative work, Stewart convincingly played a sly voyeur in Rear Window (1954), a seething necrophiliac in Vertigo (1958), a worldly circus clown in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), tenacious, driven cowboys in Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955). He also successfully played a Mitteleuropean clerk in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a middle-class banker driven to the edge of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a swozzled fantasist in Harvey (1950), a grizzled old pilot in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a crafty small-town lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a cynical reporter in Call Northside 777 (1948) and an idealistic Congressman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Even Grant partisans will have to admit that these are the credits of an actor without fear, willing to try nearly anything. Stewart’s credits make the man who was born Archie Leach look pathologically cautious by comparison. And what’s more, Stewart was laboring manfully beneath a burden unusual for a movie star: After he outgrew his boyishly attractive pre–World War II gawkiness, he wasn’t sexy at all.

No, Jimmy Stewart deserves better than he’s gotten. And after Marc Eliot’s dismal biography, he still does.

The problem with writing about Stewart is that he was a kind, pleasant man—he wasn’t just liked around Hollywood, he was loved. He married once, raised a family, served his country nobly in World War II, grew increasingly conservative and actually lived his values. By modern biographical standards, he’s a dull subject. Not that there aren’t intimations of terrible stress under the surface; he flew several bombing missions during World War II and finally had something of a nervous breakdown, an experience that may have informed his increasingly ragged and vulnerable George Bailey in Frank Capra’s last great film.

Marc Eliot has produced a bewilderingly bad book, beginning with the false intimacy of its title. His comically clause-happy writing teeters on the edge of incoherence: “Almost from the day they took over the place, there were parties practically every night, where the most beautiful starlets in Hollywood, which meant in the country, which meant in the world, came to play and in most instances, to stay, at least until the next day.”

His judgments are often ridiculous, as in this, about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “The art of this film, then, lay in its literal vision of God, while its mise-en-scène is a description of deception, Hollywood style, the truth defined as not what actually happens, but as how the camera sees it from where the director has placed it.”

When Mr. Eliot isn’t slaughtering the English language or flaunting his vulgarity (Gary Cooper, he writes, “talked softly and carried a big dick”), he’s mangling film history: Mack Sennett’s name was not “Max”; producer Joe Pasternak worked at Universal, not Paramount, when he made Destry Rides Again (1939); Joseph Schenck came over with Darryl Zanuck from Twentieth Century Pictures to run Fox, and was not the presiding eminence at Fox before the merger; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was neither “rarely seen” nor “a box-office dud”—it went into profits within a couple of years of its release, as did practically every John Wayne movie (ditto for James Stewart).

Finally, anyone who could sum up Lubitsch’s exquisite The Shop Around the Corner, one of the few nearly perfect movies in Hollywood history—a romantic comedy that dares to put its characters on the edge of emotional obliteration—as “unexceptional” deserves to have his keyboard impounded. If that doesn’t stop him, he should, like Paul Newman’s “Fast Eddie” Felson, have his fingers broken.

You might expect a style this barbarous in a book about sports—as Hunter Thompson observed, sportswriters as a breed generally don’t have enough sense to empty warm piss out of their boots. But no sportswriter who manifested such transcendent ignorance of his subject would get a book contract.

There is no—repeat, no—excuse for a book this badly written, this reportorially suspect. Does no one edit anymore? Does no one care?

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Raw Deal for James Stewart,  Dismal Biographer’s Victim