Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Okay, enough with the negativity, good clean fun though it was. On to someone we do like, James Stewart, whose 100th birthday was yesterday.
As someone with a serious critical interest in film the Siren knows her obligations. She's supposed to prefer late-period Stewart to early. By any artistic measure, Stewart did his best work for Hitchcock, with one of the great performances of American cinema in Vertigo. And, in Rear Window, Stewart became the only man in the history of film who could be gratuitously cruel to Grace Kelly without the audience wanting to kill him for it. The Siren also knows she's supposed to rank the Westerns Stewart did with Anthony Mann way up there. Again, those movies are also very good and Stewart is excellent in them, bringing the whole postwar ambivalence about the American male and American violence way up front.
But, to quote Woody Allen's most infamous line, the heart wants what it wants. And what the Siren wants is The Shop Around the Corner. After that she wants The Philadelphia Story, Vivacious Lady, Made for Each Other, The Mortal Storm and The Shopworn Angel. In short, she wants Stewart the romantic and ideally she wants Margaret Sullavan in there somewhere too.
Of course, there's no real need to divide them up, and the Siren agrees with David Thomson that our regard for the postwar Stewart depends a great deal on the reserve of goodwill built up in his prewar comedies and romances. Part of the sympathy you feel for Scottie Ferguson is there simply because he's James Stewart--the character himself becomes less and sympathetic, until he's an unhinged, vampiric mess, and still you ache for his self-deception and his inability to love.
The earlier Stewart usually loved too well. The Siren stoutly maintains that Stewart--not Cary Grant--is what makes The Philadelphia Story bearable. Otherwise, as Molly Haskell says, it's "really quite mean," a film about a woman who's told repeatedly, on very little evidence, that if she wants to be lovable she'd better trim back her sense of self-worth. That speech from Tracy's father (John Halliday): "I think a devoted young girl gives a man the illusion that youth is still his." My god. Is there a more thoroughly infuriating s.o.b. in the history of Hollywood romantic comedy? Grant, for his part, berates her for forcing him to deal with his alcoholism his own damn self, rather than being a supportive wife (a route which, as any Al-Anon alum can tell you, probably would've just let him keep drinking).
But Stewart, ah, Stewart. He's funny from the minute he shows up, giving the upper classes the fish eye, but admitting they have their allure--specifically, that Katharine Hepburn does. He starts by giving her a hard time, but never inserts the stiletto the way the other male characters do, instead declaring abruptly, "You're wonderful." Mac sees the magnificence in Tracy, and what a relief their love scene is after all the time we've spent hearing Hepburn blamed for her father's infidelity, her fiance's weakness and her ex-husband's drinking. Those who complain that Stewart won Best Actor for a supporting role have a point--but it's tent-pole support. Without his character, the way he looks at Tracy (like a real-life man would) and the way he kisses her, the movie would just collapse.
The Siren's favorite Stewart performance came earlier in 1940: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner. There's never been a better picture of what it's like to work retail (Les Bonnes Femmes managed to equal, but not surpass it). All those supposed Stewart tics are absent here. It's a simple characterization of a typical store schlub, a clerk trying to get by like any other, with just enough brown-nosing to rise in the company but retain some dignity. People in Lubitsch movies are witty beyond our wildest dreams, but Stewart gives his lines a particular twist. He's a guy trying to stave off boredom by being funny, but making the quips is enough. He doesn't expect the others to get them and he's pretty much resigned to the fact that they don't. And besides, off duty, on his own, he's discovered a way to pour out his heart, corresponding with an anonymous girl who hears his every secret via letter. Stewart doesn't try to make Kralik a standout of some sort. Instead, as W.S. Van Dyke said of the actor, he's "unusually usual."
The Siren didn't realize just how vital that was until she saw the godawful remake, You've Got Mail. Tom Hanks, an actor often described as Stewart's heir, can't be just a clerk any more. Noooooo, he's got to own the whole goddamn company and we have to shoehorn in a defense of big-box capitalism as well. When did we all become such snobs? when did we decide no one but a CEO could possibly woo Princess Meg? Lubitsch loved the upper classes, but he didn't try to paste sequins on the lower ones and insist their only happiness lay in marrying up. And Stewart, yet another actor tagged with the fatuous "he always played himself" idea (no, he bloody well did not) is the one who disappears into the skin of a wage slave. Hanks's big businessman is supposed to charm us merely by being Tom Hanks, who can time a quip, not because his character does anything charming, unless you consider prompt email replies to be the defining element of charm.
The indispensable David Bordwell did a comparison of the two movies a while back that includes a brilliant analysis of Stewart's reactions in the scene where he realizes he is corresponding with his coworker, Margaret Sullavan. You can (and should) read it here.
The Siren's favorite scene, not just in this movie, but one of her favorite scenes, period, is the end. For almost half the movie now, Kralik has realized the girl he loves is the coworker, Klara, who's had nothing but harsh words for him. He knows she loves him, but can't resist making her pay for it, just a little. Kralik tells her that man she's being writing to has come into the shop--and proceeds to describe a portly, balding, layabout. Savor Stewart's timing and delivery here, it's such perfection. A man doing this type of teasing would never telegraph a thing, for fear of giving away the game, and Stewart doesn't. He spins out Klara's discomfort, longer and longer and longer, and we see her very real disappointment grow and grow, until there's a danger the audience will see it as too much. Except that Stewart's eyes, when he looks at Sullavan, give his love away. Still we wait and wait, until we can't stand it any longer, and neither can Kralik:
Kralik: Do you know what I wish would happen? when your bell rings at 8:30 and you open the door, instead of Popkin, I come in.
Klara: Oh please, don't make it more difficult for me.
Kralik: And I'd say Klara darling, oh dearest sweetheart Klara, I can't stand it any longer. Please, take your key and open post office box 237 and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.
Klara: Oh Mr. Kralik, you musn't ...
And then she realizes.
The Siren grudges no one their choice of Stewart moments--overcoming his fear but losing his love at the end of Vertigo; waiting for a murderer to show up in Rear Window; or yelling "Merry Christmas!" to a building and loan. But if you want the Siren to dissolve into tears and swear Stewart was one of the greatest stars we ever had, just show her his face as he tucks a carnation into his lapel, with an expression of love that every woman should see directed at her, at least once.