We're getting to the time of year when one of the classic
holiday movies, It's a Wonderful Life, begins to make the
rounds. The uplifting themes of family, love and redemption
overshadow what has come to be thought of by some critics as a dark
film. Fitting, because the star of that movie, Jimmy Stewart, had
recently returned from a dark place in "real life."
It's a Wonderful Life is considered to be the dividing line
between Stewart's pre- and post-World War II work. While not in the
same cinematic mold as matinee idols like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable
or Cary Grant, the pre-war Stewart, as profiled in Marc Eliot's new
biography, was the kind of guy you'd want your sister to marry. As
a young actor in the 1930s, Stewart had an affable way about him.
His steadfastness, morality, loyalty and boyish charm were all
admirable qualities and shone in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington, The Philadelphia Story (for which he won his
only Oscar) and Destry Rides Again.
But after his tour of duty as a flyer in the Army Air Corps, he
could no longer "do" innocent or idealistic; he had been through
too much. The post-war Stewart, as evidenced in a series of
westerns by director Anthony Mann (Winchester '73, Bend
of the River, The Naked Spur and The Man from
Laramie, among others) had to be kept at arms distance; you
never knew when he was going to snap.
Upon his return to the States following his distinguished military
career (Eliot's depiction of the actor's wartime experiences are
the most in-depth of any biography), Stewart questioned whether he
should even resume his film career, and Eliot suggests the feeling
might have been mutual. For such a successful actor --- if the
number of films in one's resume is an indication of success ---
directors and producers seemed to tolerate Stewart rather than
actively seek him out.
Eliot, who previously has written biographies on Cary Grant and
Walt Disney, dutifully discusses every film and gleefully dispels
myths about each one. Some assertions are surprising, as when he
suggests that Stewart's attention and heart weren't in several
productions or that he was frequently worried about aging and
losing his popularity.
At times, Eliot seems conflicted: on the one hand, JIMMY STEWART is
light and gossipy prose, especially when it chronicles the first
part of his career. As has become standard practice these days, the
author feels compelled to go into more detail about the love life
of his subject (Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich and Olivia de
Havilland, among others) than would have been acceptable 20 or so
years ago. (In fact, Eliot asserts, these liaisons were practically
mandated by the studios to "prove" the manliness of their stars.)
On the other hand, Eliot wants his biography to serve as a
"serious" analysis of the artist's body of work, as well as an
overview of the Hollywood machine. On balance, he pulls it off well
enough, although his habit of familiarity --- referring to his
subject as "Jimmy" --- is somewhat bothersome.
Eliot loses steam in the concluding pages, as an aging Stewart
himself winds down. The sadness of losing so many family members
and close friends is almost palpable. After his wife, Gloria, dies,
Stewart basically waits for death to reunite them. The intervening
three-plus years between their deaths go by without comment by the
author, bringing the book to its ultimately disappointing
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 22, 2011