Having just watched my favourite film again this Christmas (It's A Wonderful Life! - as if you didn't already know), I thought I would share one of my recent essays which explores the complexities within the seemingly straightforward star image of James Stewart.
Demons in the Everyman: what political and social ideologies are encoded in the star image of James Stewart?
James Stewart (1908-1997), known as ‘Jimmy’, is considered to be one of the most popular film stars of all time. He is listed as the third greatest male screen legend by the American Film Institute (AFI, 1999). His long Hollywood career lasted from the mid-1930s until the early 1970s but his star image has endured far beyond those decades. His obituary in Variety describes him as ‘one of Hollywood’s most likeable and popular stars’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52) and The Guardian calls him ‘one of the most endearing actors in the movies, a role model for us all and automatic casting as the decent American everyman’ (Thomson, 1997). This well-established star image of Stewart is noticeable for its clarity and the seeming transparency of its construction, closely resembling perceptions of himself as a person. However, a number of hidden meanings can be deduced. Dyer (2015) writes that star images all have political implications, not always in an overt sense but in relation to societal and cultural norms. This essay will investigate the way his particular appeal related to dominant social ideologies in terms of class divisions, sexual relations, politics, World War II and its resulting psychological traumas. It will examine whether Stewart’s everyman persona can be sustained under various political and social ideologies.
In many ways the ‘ordinary’ nature of James Stewart makes him an unlikely movie star. It might be argued that he could only have emerged during the particular conditions of the tumultuous 1930s. Perhaps events such as the Great Depression, The Dustbowl and the unstable political situations meant something new needed to contrast with the Hollywood glamour on display. It was a chance for social issues to appear in films such as Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) (Dyer, 2015) and for new stars to emerge. Dyer (2015) explains that in the first decades of cinema, stars were untouchable Gods on the screen. However, with the coming of sound in the late 20s, the added verisimilitude more closely approximated reality and audiences wanted stars they could identify with. It was in these conditions that James Stewart would emerge to become a central figure in audience representation.
Stewart seemed to be well-placed to represent various sectors of American society. As a son of a hardware store manager from rural Pennsylvania, he could become a figure of identification for small-town America and became ‘the quintessential boy next door’ (Geier, 1997: p10). It must be remembered however that Stewart also attended Princeton and could be considered to be lower-middle class, to be championed by small business owners and the upwardly mobile. Thomson (1997) claims this shows ‘that the country-boy manner, and especially the stumbling way of speaking were pretty calculated’. Stewart himself claimed not to have been aware of his distinctive voice (Rochter, 1990). Others claim that Stewart was a very authentic and transparent star whose private life ‘appeared to resemble the personable man he so often played onscreen’ (Glenn, 2014: p28). If Jimmy Stewart the star and Stewart the man can be seen to represent America, then his star image can reveal much about social and political issues. In many cases this manifests as a wholesome, and conservative, image which works to preserve the dominant ideas of the time.
His hard-working man of the people image seems to be coherent with a dedicated approach to his job. However, his relationship with Hollywood later produced a number of varied meanings. Dyer (2015) and McDonald (2015) write that stars images contain several contradictory tensions between professionalism and lucky breaks, between being ordinary and being a special talent. Stewart seems to embody all four elements. He claimed to have enjoyed the studio system of the 1930s because it offered work from 8am until 6:30 every day and gave him a chance to learn in a variety of roles (Rochter, 1990). His service in the war altered this attitude and he became disillusioned with the industry in the face of such worldwide turmoil, until a co-star convinced him of its worth (Metz, 1996). However, Stewart later played a pivotal role in changing Hollywood labour relations for star actors. In the early 1950s he was one of the first actors to benefit from taking a profit percentage rather than a standard fee (Thomson, 1997). He also exercised more control over the roles he would take (Glenn, 2014). Stewart’s image therefore encompasses working hard at his job and being dedicated to his craft but nuanced by fluctuations in his feeling of worth to the industry.
Dyer (2015) writes that star types, even rebels, often function as a safety valve which relieves pressure on the system but have a tendency to preserve the status quo. This is true of Stewart whose image as a ‘straight arrow child of the hardworking heartland’ (Geier, 1997: p10) could give the working-classes representation, without changing the system. One such example of preserving the status quo is in The Philadelphia Story (1940). The film has a theme of viewing the upper-class not as Goddesses or bronze statues but as human beings, accepting their accompanying faults. Stewart’s initially cynical working-class writer falls for upper-class Tracy Lord once he sees her humanity and energy. His comic turn in the film can therefore be read as functioning to promote unity between the classes and is a diversion from divisions which may have been occurring in wider society.
The pairing of Stewart and Hepburn in the Philadelphia Story perhaps serves an additional function of easing gender relations as well as class relations. Lawrence (2014) writes that ‘once his persona crystalized in the late 1930s, the particular kind of sexiness enacted by Stewart could be put into play for specific ideological functions’ (p.45). His type of gentle masculinity and sexuality became a less belligerent foil for assertive leading ladies (Lawrence, 2014). This romantic appeal was unusual. Adair (1997) writes of the ‘awkwardness with women’, played for laughs in his comedy films. His characters were also capable of a wistful romance and poetic imagery. He tells girls they are ‘lit from within’ (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) and promises to lasso the moon for them (It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946) in ‘luminous flights of fancy’ and ‘mutual playfulness’ (More, 2015). In real life Stewart was believed to have dated a number of women in the 1930s but he took care of them well enough for stories not to become rife in the gossip columns (Thomson, 1997) so his image was very much removed from the rampant virility of some other Hollywood stars. Instead his occasionally shy on-screen manner created the appeal of someone who was ‘very nice looking without having a trace of sexual menace.’ (Thomson, 1997). The irony of Mary jokingly declaring George is ‘making violent love’ to her in It’s A Wonderful Life is extended back across Stewart’s films in the previous decade. A prime example of this is the gentlemanly conduct he demonstrates in not taking advantage when Tracy gets drunk in The Philadelphia Story. This behaviour makes an interesting contrast to some on-screen relationships in the work of other male stars. For example, Cary Grant in the same film puts his hand over his wife’s face and pushes her to the ground and the script indicates he has also beaten her previously. Another contrast is from just the previous year with heartthrob Clark Gable’s Rhett forcing himself on Vivien Leigh’s Scarlet in Gone with the Wind (1939). These latter two examples are highly troubling by today’s moral standards yet late 1930s society seemed to be more tolerant of them. Stewart’s sexuality then, whilst not breaking any societal norms, can be seen as one model in a mix of representations, an appeal which has endured far longer.
It is this which makes Vertigo (1958) such a frightening change of direction as the gentility becomes violent and obsessive. It is ‘the contrast between the psychological intensity of which he proved capable and the casual behavioural charm which came so naturally to him seemed all the more disturbing’ (Adair, 1997). The film sees his private detective character Scottie become obsessed with the insane woman he has been hired to tail (Kim Novak). When she dies he harasses another woman (also Kim Novak) into a recreation of the dead girl’s image (in fact not knowing he has been duped all along). Scottie’s stalking links Stewart to his character in another prominent Hitchcock thriller Rear Window (1954) where his character L.B Jeffries, or ‘Jeff’, ignores his girlfriend to spy on the neighbours (including an attractive girl practising her dance moves). Voyeurism plays a prominent part in these two films but More (2014) suggests that in retrospect it has always been present in Stewart’s image and cites examples in The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and in It’s A Wonderful Life when he hides the robe from a naked Mary and jokes about selling tickets.
Vertigo has been read a number of different ways and Handzo (2014) believes Stewart’s Scottie character is gay. He points to the platonic relationship with other females in the film, the way he can’t fall for Judy’s natural womanly charms and proposes that his obsession comes from recreating a lost work of art rather than from sexual impulse. Some authors such as Lawrence (2014) have attempted to identify varying sexualities in other films, particularly after the war. Lawrence (2014) points out that the original play version of Rope (1948) strongly implied that the two murderers and their tutor, the character Stewart would later play, were homosexual. The body hidden in the chest is deemed to be a metaphor for being in the closet (Lawrence 2014). The gay subtext in the film version is much reduced and although some modern reviewers have picked up on it, including Hutchinson (2012), the film does not seem to have been understood in this manner by reviewers or audiences at the time. Lawrence (2014) also claims that a masochistic sexual impulse can be read in Stewart’s expression in the scene in The Man From Laramie (1955) where he is pinned and tortured by a group of men who shoot him through the hand. However, this attempt to mine extra depths from the sexuality of Stewart’s image is not something that is likely to be recognised by Director Anthony Mann, the audience, or Stewart himself. Instead it is the more prevalent easy charm and gentle personality which is the most enduring image of Stewart’s sexuality.
The way Stewart’s star image relates to the institution of marriage is very ambiguous. It embodies conservative societal norms yet can also express great reluctance in doing so. In real life Stewart became happily married and never divorced, unlike many Hollywood contemporaries. Despite bucking a Hollywood trend, this private component of his star image reinforces dominant values about the family unit. However, newspapers commented on the fact that it took him a while and he married relatively late in his life, aged 41 (Lawrence, 2014). Discrepancies can begin to be seen between his home image and his on-screen image; bachelor roles are very prominent across his films, even after he was married. In some films the lack of a stable partner leads to dangerous obsessions such as In Vertigo where Scottie is a single man in his early fifties and ignores the attentions of Midge before becoming obsessed with Madeleine. In Rear Window too his character Jeff is unwilling to settle down to Grace Kelly’s charms. This film also associates marriage with ending the chance of further adventures. Jeff is a photographer with a thrill for danger, as evidenced by the action photos on display, and is unconvinced that his high-society girlfriend could keep up with him. In It’s A Wonderful Life George Bailey is an adventurer who never gets to go on an adventure. When he gets together with future wife Mary (Donna Reed) it is ‘staged like a breakdown’ (Lawrence, 2014: p45) and is throbbing with emotional violence. Glenn (2014) claims it represents ‘an anguished and suffering man whose masculinity is compromised through excessive cooperation and submission’ (p.32). He knows that settling down will end his hopes of travel and adventure. In that moment George knows he is in love with Mary and will spend the rest of his life with her- but he hates himself for it. Acknowledging it ‘will cost him, as well as gain him, everything’ (More, 2015). However, these two films end happily with the value of the relationships clearly felt. Stewart’s star image therefore is one which actively supports traditional marriage and family values in his private life and in his films, although in the roles he played there is allowance for shades of grey and recognisable nagging doubts.
In relation to politics, James Stewart’ star image is powerful, yet nuanced. In real life he was known for supporting many Republican Presidents but such party partisanship isn’t the main purpose, even in the overtly political films The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and his most prominent film in the pre-war period, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In this the part seems tailor-made for Stewart. He plays a wholesome, naïve and idealistic young Boys Brigade leader who is duly elected Senator, not knowing he had only been chosen as a stooge for corrupt politicians. When his proposed bill conflicts with the greedy machinations of other members, he is attacked by the powerful media and political system. His individual willpower is almost, but not quite crushed, and the ordinary folk help to prove his innocence. Stewart and his Director Frank Capra may have produced scathing attacks on the political and social institutions of the day but they vehemently supported the ideals which were supposed to be underpinning them; their politics were not revolutionary. In It’s A Wonderful Life the attack is aimed at greed and unfair business practises, not on the idea of business itself. Likewise Mr Smith Goes to Washington should be remembered not as an attack on the system but on those corrupt individuals damaging it from within. The film emphasised that the political system can only work if there is human kindness behind it. In a decade where many political regimes across Europe saw democracy as a short-lived experiment which could be discarded, Stewart’s film was a timely reminder that the system must be refreshed and political leaders examined with renewed vigour if democracy was to survive.
The coming of World War II marked a watershed in Stewart’s star image, both in terms of public perceptions and in critical appraisal. It leads to distinctions between his pre-war and post-war images. It also created a middle, missing, period in his career where acting was put on hold and he volunteered for military service. His star image was used in propaganda, adding further political dimensions. Stewart was reportedly unhappy about merely being used in promotional tours. Eventually he saw active service as a bomber pilot flying in dangerous missions over Germany and became Brigadier General later in his career. This impressive war record became part of his public image as his career as a pilot was heavily publicised (Glen, 2014). This also linked him to millions of other Americans who had served in the conflict and it increased the perception of his persona as an ordinary man of the people.
In addition to helping with recruitment at the beginning of the war, Stewart’s image was also used to allay fears about the difficulty of reintegrating returning soldiers. Extensive news coverage about his intention to return to acting was used to encourage veterans back to their own professions (Glenn, 2014). It’s A Wonderful Life was his first post-war film and it served to remind the public of the value of their ordinary lives at home (Thomson, 1997) with the image of him hugging his family at the end representing the return of all veterans (Glenn, 2014). Political and social forces willed a return to pre-war normality but this proved difficult for millions of veterans, and for Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart’s attempts at returning to acting after the war almost induced a nervous breakdown (Thomson, 1997). He refused to make films about the war or current day conflicts, or to exploit his war record for publicity. This was attributed to humility but there was also an element of hiding past experiences as veterans were left to deal with psychological trauma alone (Lawrence, 2014) and there was a stigma against mental health problems (Glen, 2014). Stewart’s star persona conformed to the dominant position of the day which was that traumatic experiences of the war should not be spoken of. This meant that whilst injuries and trauma were explored in some other films of the time, such as Brando’s The Men (1950), Stewart’s films did not deal directly with these issues. However, many authors now claim that the widely recognised darker psychological roles of Stewart’s post-war career are in fact a result of traumatic experiences in the conflict.
Such roles can be found in Stewart’s work in Anthony Mann’s Westerns, including The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie, and in the thrillers he made with Hitchcock. Glenn (2014) illustrates that the Western characters were Civil War veterans and that, as much as Stewart avoided roles set in World War II, the backstories of many of the Hitchcock characters indicated they had played some part in the conflict. The roles display a number of physical injuries, prominent in the Westerns but also in Jeff’s confinement to a wheelchair in Rear Window. These physical wounds can also represent psychological states (Lawrence, 2014). Vertigo overtly deals with psychological trauma as Scottie is haunted by a cycle of deaths from the past and is driven to madness. Glenn (2014) argues that across a range of films from the period (in the Westerns, the thrillers and even in It’s A Wonderful Life) Stewart displays the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, restlessness, irritability and an inability to adjust to society. This is reflected in the physicality and emotionality of his performances. Although the films Stewart starred in did not make a direct link between the trauma on display and the recent conflict of World War II, as a representative of returning veterans and America at large, his roles did allow some recognition of the psychological tensions within.
This also raises questions as to what extent Stewart consciously used this trauma in his performances. Actor’s techniques are often kept private and Stewart was also unwilling to speak about his war experiences so an examination of this aspect of performance remains inconclusive. However, many have claimed that Stewart’s experiences in the war, including suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, changed him to such a high degree that it could not have failed to have influenced his performance (Metz, 2016). Discussion of the actor’s techniques is often speculative and Stewart claimed to feel okay with the notion of actors essentially playing themselves (Maslin, 1983). There are a range of interpretations from ‘never a great actor in the classic sense’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52) to ‘an unassuming genius’ (Hoskin, 2008: p480). Glenn (2014) points out recurring gestures that Stewart uses to indicate a psychological state, such as wiping his face with the back of his hand. Glenn (2014) also points to the act of fainting which occurs in several of his post-war films, and links it to him once fainting when returning from a flying mission. However, Stewart also faints in his pre-conflict performance in Mr Smith Goes to Washington so perhaps this could be considered to be another physical gesture continued from earlier in his career. He was willing to go to great lengths to achieve the right physical conditions for his roles and later admitted his hoarse, raspy voice in the filibuster scene of Mr Smith Goes to Washington was assisted by a doctor pouring mercury solution down his throat (Rochter, 1990). Another interpretation is the possibility that much of the emotion is constructed by the editing process, since Hitchcock talks about Stewart in an example of how the Kuleshov experiment works in his films (Truffaut, 1983). Regardless of the techniques being used, Stewart always appeared to be natural and retained his personal star appeal, being ‘capable of wrapping his persona around any given role and commanding audience empathy’ (Gray and Natalie, 1997: p52). Stewart had an awareness of his star image and fans recognised when he departed from it (Maslin, 1983). He said he looked for ‘stories that are part of you’ and ‘you become conscious of what you believe in’ (Maslin, 1983). Stewart was therefore identifying with the roles and accepting the psychological complexities that would be added to his image.
It’s A Wonderful Life demonstrates the most iconic images of Stewart, and the film contains a lot of depth in these presentations, yet the widest range of meanings relating to Stewart’s image are arguably encompassed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film was made towards the end of Stewart’s Hollywood career but crystalises many aspects of it. Stewart plays a lawyer who gains fame and is elected as a senator based on his reputation for reluctantly shooting the eponymous outlaw who has been terrorising the town for years- until he discovers that the shot was actually fired by his un-revered friend and rival (played by a more masculine John Wayne). The film shows Stewart’s masculinity at its most malleable; being feminised by washing dishes wearing a pinafore yet romantically charming his hostess. Stewart can also be tough in standing up for what’s right, despite earlier traumas and being weaker than his opponent, and maintains a principled belief in the law and politics if powered by a kindness and humanity behind it. It finally recognises that the democracy and freedom brought to the town could not have been achieved without the quiet man who really did kill the terror facing them; it values the contributions, and assuages the guilt, of returning veterans who had done the same. Stewart’s star image in this film is therefore one which can unify society not just through his unique masculinity and easy charm but also through the recognition of psychological wounds.
James Stewart’s star image is encoded with a range of social and political meanings. It is both transparent, with close similarities between his on-screen roles and private life, and complex. The nuances are influenced by a range of factors including perceptions of masculinity, sexual relations, Hollywood star economics and his involvement in World War II. Yet ‘even as a millionaire broadening his range with dark roles…he never outgrew his approachability or homespun idealism’ (Geier, 1997: p.10). His enduring image is of representing the ideal version of the ordinary American people; yet he also represents their flaws. His image encompasses their weaknesses, hidden frustrations, lost dreams and psychological traumas. It is only in reflecting this whole human reality that Jimmy Stewart remains Hollywood’s most iconic everyman.
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