Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Savoring Stewart

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.

So there.

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.


Karen said...

Thanks for linking to the Bordwell piece, which was fascinating. I love the idea that Golden Age directors gave their actors the time to show and not just tell. But, seriously: Lubitsch versus Ephron? Hardly a fair fight!

I have a friend who has a hard time getting past Stewart's tics, but I just love him unreservedly. UNRESERVEDLY. And I do love seeing him with Margaret Sullavan, since in great part he owed his film career to her, and you can sense their cameraderie right through the celluloid.

But I just love him in everything, from the hopelessly silly Navy Blue and Gold through Destry Rides Again through Magic Town through the Capras and the Hitchcocks and the Manns. Was it here or was it at newcritics that we talked about how dark a film It's a Wonderful Life is? And how cool it was for Hitch and Mann to have picked up on that darkness inside the All-American Guy and exploited it? I can't recall.

But, yes, he also really does soften The Philadelphia Story, and in turn makes it better. (My friend Chris and I tend to invoke his drunken "C. K. Dexter Haven, you have unsuspected depths" whenever someone has...unsuspected depths.) And I would be hard-pressed indeed to come up with another actor who knew how to look with naked love at a woman and melt the hearts of all who view him.

Thanks for this, Siren.

Gerard Jones said...

What a bracing wind after days of thinking about Sonia Henie and Buddy Ebsen! Stewart is glorious, a whole world unto himself. (I could even have tolerated him getting it on with Audrey Hepburn in his dotage, I'll bet. Too bad we never got to see them together.)

One of the lucky moments in my life: seeing Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd at the Prince of Wales Theater in London in 1975. And somehow scoring a seat just a few rows off the stage (a last-minute no-show, or something). The image of him is still vivid.

I'd also pick Shop around the Corner as one of the great movies ever, and the climax as one of the great scenes. Kralik is a role that would have left many actors constrained, or might have left many looking like they were overacting, but Stewart made him vibrate without losing the truth of his uncertainty.

Who's seen Vivacious Lady here? Not a great movie, not much for him and Ginger to work with, but there were moments they were exquisite together. A delightful cab-ride scenes among a million '30s cab-ride scenes and I don't know why except for the way those two looked at each other. The way he looks at a woman nails me too...and I ain't even female!

Karen said...

Yeah--Vivacious Lady! Nice to combine some Stewart love with our earlier Ginger love.

Yeah, he could look at a woman, all right. And then his voice would go all soft. Fantastic stuff.

Gerard Jones said...

Of course, you know Jimmy and Ginger were both right-wing Republicans, right? Just like Adolph Menjou. So while they were getting all lovey-dovey and soft-voiced in the back of the cab they were probably secretly cursing Roosevelt for raising their taxes and trying to get us into the war.

Karen said...

Yes, gerard, sadly, I know. I know that Ginger got antsy over dialogue in Tender Comrade, and that Jimmy supported some of our more misguided wars. But was Jimmy anti-Roosevelt? I always thought he was a little but like Cagney in his politics: a Roosevelt Democrat in youth who watched the left go in what they felt was the wrong direction as they got older. Cagney, in his autobiography, mentions that his pro-union activity was hurting his career enough that his brother William pushed him into Yankee Doodle Dandy in order to redeem himself.

Campaspe said...

Preston Sturges also hated Roosevelt with a passion. In the words of the great Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, nobody's perfect.

I think Stewart was always a man of the right, but I refuse to discuss it at length after watching Libertas celebrate his birthday by publishing several of his political pronouncements. *eye roll* We at the Self-Styled Siren care much more about things like -- how wonderfully was he staged in Shop, with Lubitsch playing up the way he towered over every other actor on the set? :D

Karen said...

Thanks for getting us back on track, Siren.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Oh dear, I certainly don't want my Adolph Menjou test to drive a wedge between Gerard and Karen. To hell with Menjou, my new test is do you like Jimmy Stewart? There, now we're all friends again because really, who could be friends with someone who didn't like Jimmy?

Even though I know it was based on
Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo, does anyone know why Lubitsch didn't take it out of Budapest? Since there is nothing in the film that uses Budapest atmospherically, that is exploiting the location like Vertigo does with Frisco, why keep it there? Why not just make it New York?

For instance, in the far superior In the Good Old Summertime (I'm joking! I'm joking!) they transplant it to America. They also managed (in my opinion at least) to take a favorite silent film director and actor and make him annoying as hell. Something about Buster's voice just makes me recoil. It makes me want to strike him with a mallet. And not a rubber one.

Anyway, this is also one of my favorite Stewarts and I remember back in the nineties when it became famous again because of the Hanks/Ryan movie I became resentful. Until then, I had convinced myself it was a film only I knew about and I didn't want anyone else jumping on board because of a remake. We cinephiles are an odd bunch.

Gerard Jones said...

Well, I'm definitely staying in this comment thread from now on, because out of the corner of my eye I just noticed that someone dissed Audrey Hepburn (Audrey Hepburn!) in the "I Do Not Like Them" thread. I'll never drive down that street again.

As my final political aside I'll repeat the oft-told tale of how James Stewart and Henry Fonda nearly came to blows when they first met as neophyte actors in the '30s (Hank being a good liberal and Jimmy a misguided Republican even then). But with the ice thus broken they became fast friends, teasing each other affectionately about their political differences ever after. Let us follow their example.

(And thanks, Siren, for your gentle redirection of our energies. If I didn't know you were the mother of preschoolers I'd have guessed it now.)

And thanks, Jonathan, for bringing up the Budapest question, because it is an odd location. But then the European setting was standard for Lubitsch, part of the audience expectation around him: Ninotchka and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife in France; I forget where Angel was set, but somewhere far away; Design for Living in Paris and London; Trouble in Paradise in Paris; etc. In fact, had Lubitsch yet set a single movie in the US? I don't think he did until World War II. Europe was his shtick, basically.

So I figure a European setting was a given, and from there it was a question of whether to move it to Paris for glamor's sake or just let it be Hungary. And the latter allowed Lubitsch and Raphaelson to play with names like Kralik and Matuschek, which they probably enjoyed.

I find it a felicitous choice, in any case. Somehow the bourgeois, dorky quaintness of all the little shop-clerk dramas seems more charming for being set in a city we think of as being sort of a backwater. I fear if they'd set it in Paris or New York I'm afraid they'd have felt pressured to make everyone too chic or sassy. I think the American setting is part of what weakends "In the Gold Old Summertime." Despite Van Johnson's obvious superiority to James Stewart. Not to mention the famous "Robert Z. Leonard Touch."

(Yeah, I had to look that up. Who the hell is going to remember Robert Z. Leonard off the top of his head?)

Gerard Jones said...

Forgive all my typos. I'll have to go back to using the Preview button. (And how do you do html in a post like this, anyway? I can type "i" between angle brackets, but I don't know how to close it off.)

wwolfe said...

One of my favorite Jimmy Stewart memories is of the first time I saw "After the Thin Man." (I guess I should put a Spoiler Alert here, although I can't imagine anyone reading this who hasn't seen the movie.)

It was at the wonderful Theater 80 in Manhattan - a former speakeasy, where you could still just about hear the bathtub gin being poured. At the climax of "After the Thin Man," when it's revealed that Jimmy Stewart - !!! - is the murderer, the entire audience, as one, let out a completely sincere, "Aaahhh!!" Nothing has ever so perfectly illustrated for me the love moviegoers have for Stewart as did this heartfelt, utterly unselfconscious moment.

One Stewart favorite not yet mentioned is "Call Northside 777." This is post-war Stewart, darker than "Shop," but not yet as dark as the Hitchcocks and Manns to come. It's a nifty procedural to boot, with (for my money) a better use of the blown-up photo gimmick than in the much more famous "Blow Up."

Karen said...

I've always thought that the Hungarian locations were a nod to Ferenc Molnar. The Austro-Hungarian empire in general always seemed appropriate for light, witty romps (Jewel Robbery, anyone?).

Gerard, you close your HTML tage with a "/" after the opening pointy bracket.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Gerard - You put the "i" between the angle brackets and then at the end of what you want to italicize you put a "/". For bold use a "b".

Isn't HTML fun?.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Karen beat me to it. That's what I get for being too long-winded.

The character's names used are probably one of the best reasons I've heard for keeping it in Budapest. I'm sure Lubitsch did like playing with that a lot.

Ginger Mayerson said...

Great, now I'm watching "Little shop around the corner" on YouTube.

How about you toss this blog essay into J Bloglandia 1:2? Issue 1 is up and selling, on Amazon even, so I know it's not going to blow up in all our faces.

Think it over, let me know, my contact info is on this page Would love to have other cinestes' (is that the word?) blog essays as well. Thanks.

Ben said...

Thanks for another wonderful post. I, too, love Stewart, early and late...and also love Margaret Sullavan (but you already know my Borzage obsession).

Although I've always had a touch of Caprophobia, someone ought to mention Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I have a lot of problems with that film, but Stewart is brilliant, managing to actually humanize Capra's cartoon-character hero (no offense meant to cartoons!).

Gerard Jones said...

Jewel Robbery! I just saw that a few months ago and was utterly smitten! Kay! Powell! The too-often-forgotten Dieterle! The Warners gang! So fast! So cynical! So sexy! What a great blog this is! It's like I've come home at last.

(And if the HTML above actually looks right, I'm even learning useful computer skills!)

Gerard Jones said...

Well, hot dang! My italics worked! Thank you, K and J. I feel so accomplished now.

I also love Call Northside 777. Far and away my favorite movie of the post-war quasi-documentary style. Maybe the only one I really like, in fact. Am I right in thinking that that's where we first encounter the late-phase Stewart? Not only the tough-guy Stewart, but also the understated, naturalistic Stewart. All the shticks and tics put on the back burner, leaving a feeling a easy, manly competence.

I think all the earlier performances I've seen, right up through George Bailey, are still variations of the nervous young Stewart, almost overacting but still believable. I wonder if this role struck people as a surprise at the time--and if it opened the way to Winchester 73 and onward.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thank you, K and J. I feel so accomplished now.

No problem. Share and share alike. That's the American way! (Sorry Ginger)

Claire said...

I just got all mushy over here, re-watching that scene. Great post.

Larry Aydlette said...

Next Time We Love and After The Thin Man are two of my favorite early Stewart roles.

Tom W. said...

I love him - even the Hollywood toss-offs, your The Cheyenne Social Club or Mr. Hobbs, even the bit parts like Airport '77 and even the jingoistic tales like The FBI Story and Strategic Air Command. Geez, even in that horrible Lindberg flick.

And I truly loved him in Anatomy of a Murder.

Karen said...

This talk about early and late Stewart led me to go to the IMDb and see what I've seen in what decades. This brief investigation (18 in the '30s, 11 in the '40s, 15 in the '50s, 8 in the '60s, and 3 in the '70s) led me to believe I've loved Stewart through many decades, and it also reminded me of one of his odder performances: in Of Human Hearts, in which he plays a bad 19th-century son, who has to be reminded of what he owes his mother by Abraham Lincoln himself. He played dark often--even when you don't expect him to, as the brooding face in the Siren's Philadelphia Story image demonstrates--but he didn't often play a flat-out jerk.

Gerard Jones said...

Well, dear Siren, I have now watched most of Shop again for the first time in a while (fast-forwarding through some non-Stewart scenes) and reading the Bordwell piece, and I see that I really did underestimate the naturalism of his performance in that movie. My desire to break Stewart's career in half, through the war and after the war, doesn't stand. The whole range was there for quite a while.

The last time I watched the movie (and it's been awhile) was in the midst of a Lubitsch binge, so my antenna was up for everything Lubitschean (and Raphaelsonian). Although I loved Kralik and Stewart's embodiment of him, I really wasn't looking that closely at the subtle mastery of his performance. One catch with Stewart, I think, is that he was so good at the unsubtle ("Zuzu's petals!") it's easy not to notice when he's working the small things. But now I've been encouraged to watch this one closely, he was extraordinary. (Thanks, SSS.)

And on the subject of Stewart the romantic, let's not forget the love scene--the long, agonizing, plot-changing love scene--in Wonderful Life where Mary is talking to Sam Wainwright on the phone and George moves in closer to listen, and closer and closer until he is lost. I might pick that as the sexiest movie scene ever. (And would I ever have expected that in a Capra movie with a Christmas theme? Nope. But such was Jimmy Stewart.)

I will quibble a teeny bit with you on Philadelphia Story, for although Stewart is wonderful, and it is his character who keeps the story humane, that dynamic was clearly built into the story. That is, the same playwright and screenwriter who created the meanness of the plot and arrogance of the rich characters also gave it its humanity. I suspect that had Stewart been asked to play the overbearing jerk and Grant to play the human being who knocks him down out of his arrogance, they both would have done wonderfully well.

Noel Vera said...

We talk about Stewart the light comedian and Stewart the angsty fellow, how about Stewart the sexually lustful? My favorite scene in Vertigo (yes that old chestnut) was the long scene where Stewart waits for Novak in the hotel room, argues with her for a while, then waits for her again as she fixes her hair in the bathroom. Thrill of violins, and Stewart swallowing the driest throat I believe in all of cinema (when the heck is she ever coming out?!). Then she steps out.

Love Shop, never saw the remake--don't hate myself so much that I'd want to punish my self that way.

And having worked ten years in a bank, I can say Lubitsch captures it all perfectly, the backbiting, the butt covering, the brownnosing, the angling for position, position, position, not to mention dunking your fellow workers' heads underwater just to remind them they're a rung lower than you (and still somehow having the hots for one of the prettier ones, even if she won't give you the time of day). That's not a light romantic comedy, that's my working life.

As for his politics--what politics? Lambast him for being a Republican, but it's his art we celebrate.

goatdog said...

One of the most adorable things I've seen recently is Jimmy Stewart sort of singing and sort of dancing in Born to Dance, which he most certainly wasn't. Of course Eleanor Powell made him look like a buffoon during the dances, but at least he actually sang (again, sort of) whereas they dubbed her. You might want to avoid it, Siren: there's a strong Buddy Ebsen presence.

Gerard Jones said...

Noel, I appreciated the comments on the portrayal of workplace politics in Shop. (I love my new gift of italics!) Brings us back to what our Mistress Siren noted about the grotesquely unreal lives and occupations of the characters in the remake. Do movies ever reflect us as we are anymore, except for "small movies" that have that as their main intent? Funny that for all the modern self-congratulation for "realism" in contrast to the artifice of the old days, Hollywood has actually turned its back on ordinary people. "Ordinary" seems equated with "who would care?"

One thing, though! We've got to give credit not to Lubitsch but to Sam Raphaelson, Ernst's primary scriptwriter for his American talkies and the writer of Suspicion and some other well-crafted movies for other directors. He had a great eye for people's little human moments.

Frank Conniff said...

Everyone talks about the Anthony Mann and Alfred Hichcock movies of Stewart's latter years, but what about the Henry Koster trilogy? I'm talking about "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation," "Take Her She's Mine," and "Dear Bridget," three family comedies Stewart made in the early sixties. Well, I guess nobody talks about them because they're not that great, but I think Stewart is genuinely hilarious in "Take Her She's Mine." He really makes it worth watching. And by the way, that movie was based on a Broadway play written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, the parents of Nora Ephron (see how everything ties in together?)

I also have to admit a weakness for "The FBI Story." The film has a unique format: it's an epic history of the FBI told though the life and career of Stewart's character with several capers and cases that each have their own individual beginning, middle and end. The combination of Stewart's first rate performance, and director Mervyn LeRoy's slick professionalism make for an entertaining movie, despite the routine nature of the material.

(There have been reports that J. Edgar Hoover was going to play himself in the film, but he and dress designer Edith Head couldn't agree on his wardrobe.)

Gerard Jones said...

In my note above I meant to type "not ONLY to Lubitsch but to Sam Raphaelson." Of course Lubitsch must get his "props" for the human moments of his movies. I just want to make sure the poor lowly writer isn't neglected (as usual).

And speaking of writers, a question for fans of Philadelphia Story: do you think the father's hideous speech about a daughter's function being to worship him and make him feel young again was intended to be admirable? I'd like to think that Philip Barry and/or D. O. Stewart meant that to reveal the pomposity of the world from which Tracy should escape, but I have a bad feeling that it wasn't. That that narcissistic crap was actually being presented as a reasonable paternal expectation. Or was at least meant as insightful writing. We've made some small progress since then, I guess.

Charles Noland said...

Out of that crop of actors that sprouted in the thirties and lasted through what I guess is considered the Golden Age of Hollywood – Fonda, Wayne, Grant, Gable, Bogie, etc – Stewart was always my favorite, and I’d say the best actor of the bunch too. For those who think he was always the same, I have an image in my head of him slamming Dan Duryea’s face down on the bar in Winchester 73, not the Stewart we think we know, but very convincing.

I think he may have made more great or near great movies than just about any other actor. An oddball favorite of mine is No Highway in the Sky. Then there is Flight of the Phoenix, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and… well, bunches of other great movies.

Exiled in NJ said...

I like to think he was elected as Jefferson Smith and re-elected as Ransom Stoddard.

I'm not sure I would put him above Fonda, but both had that wonderful ability to use their hands while their mouths were moving. I think of Fonda whittling as he rocks on the porch in Clementine, and Stewart, fiddling with fishing flies in Anatomy, a favorite of mine since his secretary is Eve Arden.

And saddest of all, Stewart was the one to give John Wayne the death sentence in The Shootist, and when that moment came, he did not pussyfoot around but came straight to the point.

Andrea Janes said...

I remember loving the Philadelphia Story and not noticing all the horrible treatment of Hepbrun's character -- I was in high school, if that's any excuse -- so now I'm dying to watch it again and see what I missed. I do remember loving Jimmy's character, though, and also wanting to call things "yar" afterward.

I skimmed your discussion of Shop Around the Corner, as I haven't seen it yet (dutifully going to Netflix queue now), but wanted to add my suggestion for another great Jimmy Stewart performance: Anatomy of a Murder. He's the perfect disillusioned small-town lawyer.

Finally, for what it's worth, I'm born on May 20th too and I've always loved sharing a birthday with the dear boy.

Campaspe said...

Gerard, I have to disagree with you on Philadelphia Story -- what's written into the story is a near-constant knocking-Tracy-off-her-pedestal. Just because Stewart is written to fall in love with her doesn't mean Barry doesn't want us to take all the "cold" talk quite seriously -- he does. Some of Stewart's dialogue in the love scene is actually pretty cringe-making but he plays it with such supreme warmth and sincerity that he overcomes it. Just watching Sinatra essay the same thing in "High Society" shows you how much was Stewart. Although, I have to admit, Stewart would probably not have hit "Well, Did You Evah" out of the park like Frank did.

Goatdog, I just saw Born to Dance myself and was thinking of that movie in part when I listed Ebsen (and I should have listed Powell too, technique schmechnique.) But yes, Stewart is charming and his rendition of "Easy to Love" isn't nearly as bad as he liked to joke.

Noel, great description of the Vertigo scene. That whole movie plays up his sexual side in a way you don't see that often with him.

And another that does the same (back me up here, Mr. Conniff) is Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, where he manages to convey both comfortable old-style attraction to Ms O'Hara and a believable fantasy attraction to whoever the blonde bikini babe was. I really like Mr. Hobbs and I think it's got a weird reputation for being saccharine, despite a really wry, understated script that gives Stewart a lot of rather caustic lines. (Probably it suffers from people remembering that nauseating "cream puff, jelly roll" number with Fabian.) In Stewart's hands, the role never gets grating.

by the way, welcome Frank. Anybody who can get in a good J. Edgar joke will always have a place saved at the Siren's hearthside.

Campaspe said...

btw, welcome Andrea, and happy birthday. That's a great one to share. Me, I have fellow redhead Moira Shearer and fabulous French babe Francoise Hardy, but nobody in filmdom quite as towering as Stewart.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I was thinking of creating a new list of films that still are not available on DVD. One of them is Fools' Parade, the best of the three films Stewart made with Andrew McLaglen. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, best known for Night of the Hunter. Made in 1971, Fools' Parade was also Stewart's last starring film, before going mostly to television and supporting roles.

wwolfe said...

Does anyone know how much, if any, in-put Hepburn had with Barry in the writing of "Philadelphia Story"? I don't mean actually writing the dialogue, but in the conception of Tracy Lord, and the manner in which all her loved ones devoted themselves to knocking her off her alleged pedestal. I've always understood that Tracy, and her come-uppance, were meant to some extent as an act of penance by Hepburn for all the characteristics that led to her being famously labeled as box office poison. (Precisely the traits that make her loved and immortal now, it's gratifying to note.) So did she and Barry, who I believe were friends, consciously create Tracy to serve this meta-purpose?

While I agree with the criticism of the C.K. Dexter Haven character, I also think that makes Grant's performance even more remarkable: I often find the character objectionable, but I never find myself disliking Grant. In large measure because, despite what's on the page, he still manages to express love for Hepburn's character through his eyes.

Gerard Jones said...

Siren, Campaspe, Pancaste: maybe you should change your name to Sibyl or Cassandra for your willingness to say things that people may not want to hear. I've tried to convince myself that Philadelphia Story isn't really as run through with sadism and misogyny as it is, but you make me admit the truth.

It's been a long time since I've seen it, and the last time was not conducive to critical acuity: on the big screen, with an enraptured audience, in the then-new-restored elegant magnificence of the 1934 Paramount in Oakland, California. (Oh, and I was young and with the woman I loved and the warm spring air was sweet with the blossoms of the mock oranges. I was mad and intoxicated and ready to let Hollywood to have its way with me.)

I've wanted to believe that the nastiness in it was restricted to Dex's early set-up and that horrible father, but now I suspect that if I watched it again I'd see just what you're saying. That the whole play really is cruel to Tracy, and that what feels humane in it comes from what Stewart and Hepburn brought as actors.

(Has anyone here seen or read the original play? I want to know whether to resent Philip Barry or Donald Ogden Stewart.)

Here's something I've heard but don't know if it's true: that Norma Shearer was originally slated to play Tracy. How different that would have felt! In that case I think I'd have been rooting for everyone to beat the crap out of her.

Gerard Jones said...

W Wolfe: I haven't been able to answer your whole question, but I've done a little more research since I myself asked about Norma Shearer in the role.

The character was based on someone Philip Barry knew, and of course it has elements of Taming of the Shrew in it, so it probably wasn't conceived with Hepburn's agenda in mind. On the other hand, it appears that Hepburn was slated for the role on Broadway from the start, and she did know Barry, so that may well have determined some of the choices made.

By then she had suffered a series of Hollywood failures, so her intent in taking on a Broadway comedy lead was partly to prove that she was still a bankable star--either to get herself back into the movie pool or to create a new starring career in New York. It does seem likely that choosing or helping develop a role in which she could start off as the patrician Hepburn who was criticized in Hollywood and then softening up was a conscious strategy to "rebrand" herself, as we say now.

She also shared in the rights to the play (not standard but not unheard of for Broadway stars then), so she was able to insist that she play the role. Further evidence that her strategy was to use Tracy to restart her movie career. Although some of the Metro brass did apparently want Norma for it, Hepburn wouldn't bend and so that was no more than talk.

It worked out nicely for everyone, of course, one of those many gratifying cases in which studio execs and producers benefit from being overruled.

DeeLuzon said...

whew... 24 hours of power outage means a busy night catching up on siren's threads!

"shop" has been one of my favorite movies since i was a kid (god, i giggled at the name schildkraut) and my mother took me to see it in a revival theatre so that she could convince me that margaret sullavan should be my fave star before my father could sell me on dietrich (specifically, in "destry") which was scheduled for the following week. i loved both women (for very different reasons), but i lost my heart to stewart.

i'd like to think that the misogyny of "philadelphia story" was satirically directed at the selfish father, since in the far better "holiday" the father is the ultimate villain who has successfully dominated one daughter into being the "ice maiden" and the other into a neurotic mess. not to mention the heart-breaking, emasculated son or cary grant playing a combo of ck dexter haven & macauley connor.

in many ways, the later movie (don't know the plays) was just a glibber, slicker version of the same "poor little rich girl" comedy-with-serious-overtones. but i've always loved it, not least because it had jimmy stewart in it.

DeeLuzon said...

what i'm trying to say, i think, is that "philadelphia story" is in pretty much all ways the depoliticized version of "holiday". so, as it drops the ball on the early depression anti-greed message, so does it forget to make sure that we get the message that mr. lord (the name alone pretty well marks him for satire) is a manipulative asshole who does manage to get pretty much what he wants, unlike the father in "holiday".

Gerard Jones said...

I'd like to be able to read it that way, DL. Thanks. Afraid I don't know much about Barry. But what you say fits with my memories of Holiday. Would Campaspe care to weigh in on this?

I enjoy your family memories. My dad used to take me to old movies on the big screen when he could, although I don't there were many options in the SF Bay Area in the '60s. We did see King Kong on the big screen when I was 10 or so. I believe my love of seeing black and white movies in theaters was born that very night.

Fortunately now we have the Castro and the Stanford around here. The latter is currently doing a festival of all of Bette Davis's first 36 movies (up through Jezebel). Some fascinating stuff.

Still chomping at the big for those Jean-Arthur-on-ganja stories!

Gerard Jones said...

At the BIT, that is. "Chomping at the big" sounds downright obscene.

FDChief said...

I have nothing but instinct to go on, but for all that we think if Kate as "sassy" and independant, let's recall that she was very much the...doormat is too strong a word, but the..."non-dominant parter" to Spencer Tracy for a lot of years. Everything I've read suggests that she worked her ass off to help make Tracy the boss of that relationship. So I don't know if she had any hand in the "Tracey's the problem, let's knock Tracey" theme in "Story", she certainly may have felt like she somehow deserved it, that the woman's role is to be the ego-stroker and handholder for the manly man. Dunno. But I do remember thinking every time I see it that her father is a right pompous bastard: makes me wish they'd written in the scene where Mary Nash hoofs John Halliday right in the goolies for putting his totem pole in somebody else's doughnut hole AND letting everyone on the Main Line know about it...

I also need to add that sad as it is that Stewart, the classic movie "everyman", was a country-club Republican in real life, I'm willing to cut the man LOT of slack for his service in WW2.

One of my favorite stories is Stewart, a master of playing the "little man" but a bomber pilot with the DFC in Europe, was warmly received by a ward full of wounded GIs who had previously jeered macho man John the Wayne (deferment: bad back) out of the building. Only a handful of Hollywood's stars actually went to war in the 40's; Stewart did, and served well, and that's worth something, Republican or no.

I wonder if his service had something to do with his "darker" roles after WW2. ISTM that having seen the kind of death he flew with - and only submariners got killed more often than bomber crew - it might have been hard for him do return to silly comedies and light romantic films. Of course, the public's taste had changed, too, so there...

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks for this, FD. I know this is a Stewart thread...but you've helped express much of the reason I usually feel quite ill at ease watching K. Hepburn. Despite the surface of the noble, patrician woman, I always pick up an undercurrent of deep insecurity and even self-loathing from her. That worked well in Holiday--though it wasn't pleasant to watch. And in Alice Adams, where it was the point o the character, and Stevens knew how to draw it out softly. And I like her in Bringing up Baby, because she was just being silly.

But when she's the romantic lead, especially with Tracy, there is a disturbing quality to her presence that I pull away from. And there's so often a scene when she is wounded or emotionally pounded on and has to come down a peg. I imagine this speaks very strongly to women who are ambivalent about their own potential power...but I often feel both an empathetic pain and a frustration with her characters that makes me not want to stay in her presence.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely tribute to James Stewart, especially your description of the "Shop" scene. If Stewart is accused of only playing himself, then I would suggest that he is one of the few actors of the day who was adept at channeling his own feelings, rather than pretending. One might easily believe the tenderness and desire he plays in love scenes is his own. As for the obseration by one of the commenters that his post-war films might have been so grim is because of his own war experiences, he did channel that experience as well. As occurred with other flight crews, he suffered what might be termed a nervous breakdown at the end of his service before he came home. In the period of the Hitchcock films, Stewart acknowledged that he had known real fear in his life.

surlyh said...

Great piece. And just as the earlier, lovable Stewart informs the later, darker Stewart, the obverse is also true: We can see glimpses of the coming self-doubt and neuroses in the early performances.

The juncture, or "turning point" between the two might even be contained in a single shot in It's A Wonderful Life. When Stewart turns in close-up, his face darkened by dawning recognition of the nightmarish alternate future of Bedford Falls, he could be looking into the darkness of his own future roles.

David Stafford said...

First, let me say that I love your attitude....erudition prompted by love...secondly I loved your discussion of James Stewart. As it happens I like those Mann westerns a lot. There's something so unexpectedly raw about his bitterness. However, having seen The Philadelphia Story recently I was struck ...again by the drunk scene's freshness. When Katharine says, "Hey you!" as she happens across Stewart, the years between then and now just melt away and you feel the summer night, the champagne and how it felt to be high and at the beginning of a delicious crush. Just one of the greatest romantic moments in film...thanks again....

Tonio Kruger said...

Well, if nothing else, this post got me to watch The Shop Around the Corner and it holds up just fine.

You Got Mail, on the other hand, ugh!!!

Nora Ephron may be great when it comes to selecting songs for soundtrack albums but her idea of updating a classic stinks.

And In the Good Old Summertime would seem on paper to have all the ingredients for an instant classic, but there was just no comparison between it and the James Stewart version. And that's taking account the fact that James Stewart doesn't exactly strike me as the most likely person to convincingly play a Hungarian store clerk.

And, yes, I worked retail, too, and the environment in The Shop Around the Corner was all too familiar, but that's not the only reason I like the film. At least my store didn't have to worry about a surplus of music boxes...

Tonio Kruger said...

Er, I meant to say that your post inspired me to watch The Shop Around the Corner again. (I had seen it back in the late 1990s shortly after the original release of You Got Mail). Because sometimes once is just not enough.

Tonio Kruger said...

You've Got Mail, not You Got Mail. Again, sorry.