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DVD Review

“THERE’S A MAGNIFICENCE IN YOU!”: James Stewart’s about to send a charge through Katherine Hepburn in George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story.” “Keep talking,” she tells him.

James Stewart at 100: Moments You Never Forget

Stuart Mitchner

In films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments,” Princeton graduate James M. Stewart ‘32, born 100 years ago yesterday, told an audience at the British Film Theatre in 1972. “Not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments.” He recalled shooting a western (The Far Country) on location in British Columbia when a grizzled stranger “came out of the mist…and looked at me and said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah. I recognize ya. Well, I heard you was here, and I thought I’d come up and say hello. I’ve seen a lot of your picture shows, but I think the one I liked best — you were in this room. And your girlfriend was in the next room and there were fireflies outside, and you recited a piece of poetry to her.’”

The girlfriend was Hedy Lamarr and the picture was Come Live With Me, released in 1941, some 15 years earlier. As Stewart told Peter Bogdanovich on another occasion, “That little … tiny thing — didn’t last even a minute — he’d remembered all those years … And that’s the thing — that’s the great thing about the movies.”

50th Reunion

One fine Princeton Saturday afternoon in June 1982 we were part of the crowd on Prospect Avenue watching the P-Rade when someone yelled “Jimmy!” and there he was, towering over the rest of the marchers in the Class of 1932 contingent, waving and smiling. That moment when movie life and real life coalesced put a glow on the rest of the day and had us thinking of the onetime campus presence who played the accordion and partied on Prospect and acted at Theatre Intime and went on to become George Bailey, Jefferson Smith, Elwood P. Dowd, and the poet wooing Hedy Lamarr. That was Jimmy Stewart walking by, arguably the most potent, passionate, and consummately intense movie actor in a generation that included Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Paul Muni, Frederic March, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart.

Of all the male stars, none has been so consistently and short-sightedly oversimplified — Mr. Nice Guy, the quintessential “ordinary man,” a gawky, drawling, awshucks upstanding, noble American male, who, to quote Michiko Kakutani, “radiated a quality of unadorned decency…that made him the ideal hero.”

The essence of Stewart’s art, however, has nothing decent or ordinary about it. Although he says that his secret is to “try not to make the acting show,” he’s a deeply emotional actor. No other player goes so far or puts so much sheer force into the making of those special moments, regardless of the content; he can touch you with a whisper or a look and he can generate enough intimate lightning to make your hair stand on end. No one, not tough guys like Gable and Cagney and Bogart, not even Cooper or Grant or Fonda at their most electric, can match his intensity.

In love scenes such as the ones with Katherine Hepburn in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story and Donna Reed in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, he lifts the emotional current to a higher, richer level. In the sequence with Hepburn, after the two of them have been trading gibes, he grabs her by the shoulders and assaults her with a rhapsody (“There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy! You’re lit from within!”) so wild and wonder-struck (he’s beaming at her like a mad scientist who has just discoverted the elixir of life) that it has them both trembling; the revelation he’s undergoing simply overwhelms her, dissolves her (“Keep talking,” she begs, she’s swooning, “my insteps are melting…put me in your pocket!”). Few, if any, of his peers could have done that scene with the power required to convince us that a mere speech could have such a devastating impact on the rich girl who had baited him with a taunt that apparently inspired the outburst (“So much thought, so little feeling”).

It’s often been noted, even by Stewart himself, that the 1940 Best Actor Oscar he won for The Philadelphia Story was a consolation prize from the Academy to make up for overlooking him the previous year for his bravura performance in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The filibuster scene in that film stands as one of the supreme examples of virtuoso acting in American film history, and it’s stoked by the same emotional fire, from its hushed, hoarse, against-all-odds relentlessness to the prayerful invocation to decency that finally destroys the senator (Claude Rains) who was trying to destroy the naive whistle-blower. What Stewart accomplishes in that scene is just a more layered and extended version of what he’s doing when he dazzles and disarms Hepburn, winning himself an Academy Award in the process.

The Telephone Scene

“Moment” is an imperfect term for the phenomenon Stewart was describing. Probably the most obvious, universal counterpart to what he means is the experience of falling in love, which is what was going on with Hepburn and the fireflies and poetry that the man in British Columbia was still talking about 15 years later. My guess is that people are actually less likely to remember love scenes because Hollywood’s heart is rarely in those “sudden explosions when,” as the song says, “two tingles intermingle.” People remember Gene Kelly cavorting in the rain and Janet Leigh getting butchered in the shower. But the Kiss, the Loving Embrace, the Whispered Endearments more often than not come off as perfunctory variations on a sterotype audiences infuse with their own emotions.

In Jimmy Stewart’s case (with apologies to Frank Perdue), it takes a tough man to make a tender love scene. You saw what he did to poor Katherine Hepburn. Melted her insteps! Donna Reed gets shaken silly and snarled at in It’s a Wonderful Life. The master of romance himself, Frank Borzage, rarely directed anything to equal what goes on between Jimmy Stewart’s George and Donna Reed’s Mary when Mary’s old boyfriend Sam calls her long distance one evening. Mary has set the stage: she’s got a record playing the song she and George were singing together the night he offered to lasso the moon for her. She’s even drawn a cute cartoon of him doing just that, and she’s done everything but lasso him into her parlor, where he divines the situation and wastes no time in repeating what he’s already made passionately clear to her (meanwhile deluding himself about his deeper feelings): his determination to get out of “this crummy little town” and see the world. They begin to bicker, he storms out, she smashes the record, the phone rings, and as she answers, he storms back in (“Forgot my hat!”). Sam says he wants to talk to both of them, which means they have to get very close, face to face, and the closeness makes them drunk. In the minute and a half they’re passing the phone back and forth, barely able to make coherent responses to the brassy go-getter on the other end, you can all but see the emotional tide moving between them. They look so seasick with love, it verges on comedy, as does the contrast between the enchantment possessing them and the eager little voice coming from the receiver. Sam’s talking up an investment. When he insists, “It’s the chance of a lifetime!” Donna Reed gazes into Jimmy Stewart’s eyes and tremulouly repeats the message: “He says it’s the chance of a lifetime.” That’s when the phone hits the floor between them, and he pulls her to him, and crazed with love and anger, lets her have it: “Now you listen to me — I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married ever to anyone, do you understand that? I wanta to do what I wanta do — and you — you — ” It’s his last furious gasp, he’s lost, all he can say after that is her name; they’re holding each other so hard, in such an ecstasy of passion, that a portion of that furious embrace reportedly had to be deleted for the Board of Review.

As Mary, Donna Reed is touchingly vulnerable, her tearful upraised face transcending the Hollywood stereotype that might have marred the telephone scene had her role been played by a star like Jean Arthur or Ginger Rogers, both of whom were considered commercially preferable but ultimately too glamorous. Witnessing that moment of love in action, it’s hard to believe the actors themselves weren’t falling in love with one another. Not at all, according to Michael Munn, one of Jimmy Stewart’s biographers, who says the main reason Stewart refused to work with Donna Reed a few years later in another picture was because, as he told Munn, “We didn’t have any chemistry … on screen or off. We just didn’t hit it off.”

Seen with the real-life subplot in mind, the beauty being so uninhibitedly created by the two actors sharing it seems all the more extraordinary. You can see it on YouTube, that virtual bulletin board where people put those moments Jimmy Stewart was talking about. The Princeton Public Library also has a solid collection of them, including multiple copies of the movies mentioned here.

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