James Stewart: neither a sinner nor a saint

August 25, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"James Stewart: A Biography," by Donald Dewey. Turner Publishing. 521 pages, $24.95.

On screen James Stewart played anybody's son. He was the vulnerable, unthreatening hero, kind-hearted and plain-talking, a voice of reason and common sense. His performances were characterized by a monologue he spoke in a slow drawl, every sound scrupulously enunciated, evoking the small town of Indiana, Pa, where he was born. Stewart created a stereotype of the quintessential American, nowhere better than in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), although it was for "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), that he won his Academy Award, a consolation prize for his superb characterization of Jefferson Smith in the earlier film.

Donald Dewey, in his new biography, spends considerable time introducing us to Indiana, Pa. - a stop on the underground railroad as well as a host to a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, a town where the local paper actually once printed directions to a Klan rally. One of the most vivid characters is Alex Stewart, the actor's father, a cracker-barrel philosopher who operated the town hardware store and who figured as the major influence in James Stewart's life.

Alex went to Princeton, and so did his son, Jimmy. Alex went to war, and so did his son. Alex was a Presbyterian and so his son had to be too. Like his father, Stewart was a staunch Republican and became a supporter of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. This is no hagiography; Dewey reveals that Stewart remained all his life a man uncomfortable with black people and as a trustee of Princeton, he opposed opening the University to ** women students.

Dewey offers some fine social history. He tells us that Stewart did not oppose the studio system, although he finally made advantageous financial arrangements with the studios. Dewey reveals that when "Germany demanded the removal of Jewish employees from distribution offices within its territory, the Hollywood studios complied with barely a mutter."

An especially fascinating chapter depicts Louis B. Mayer, the tyrant of MGM, attempting to prevent Stewart from enlisting in the war against Hitler. But Stewart was determined, even as he failed the Army physical because he was underweight. One story has it that he didn't go to the bathroom for 36 hours before his second physical. This time he passed.

The gossip is of high quality. Stewart made Marlene Dietrich, his co-star in "Destry Rides Again," pregnant, then insisted that she have an abortion before he turned his attention to Olivia de Havilland. All the while he nurtured his unrequited love for Margaret Sullivan, which lasted until her suicide in 1960. No less fascinating is the tale of Stewart's lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda. Stewart seems to be a connoisseur of friendship, arriving before he is summoned and one whose generosity far transcends political differences.

Although Stewart did not agree to be interviewed by Dewey, this book is rich in anecdotes of a star who insisted upon being a character actor, the actor who was always the consummate professional. The biographer sets before us a man we admire, although he did not oppose the government's harassment of people in Hollywood for their political beliefs during McCarthyism. Yet throughout his life, Stewart seems to have behaved consistently as a fair-minded, honest man whose naivete betrayed his small town origins even as it proved to be one of his signature screen strengths. This is a good man, Dewey reveals.

For readers intrigued by Hollywood and how movies are made, "James Stewart: a biography," a genuine page-turner, offers many hours of enjoyable reading.

Joan Mellen's credentials are on

page 4f.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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