Jimmy Stewart: Angel of Death

Doug Dibbern

Historians still disagree on what killed Classical Hollywood Cinema. Academics with an analytical bent tend to write about the Paramount Decree of 1948, postwar suburbanization, the increasing popularity of television, and the new economic independence of stars who began to package their own deals to shop around to the studios. But, as with Toltec creation myths or my aunt’s disquisitions on her recipe for California Taco Supreme*, sometimes it is the most poetically irrational explanations that have the most satisfying relationship to the truth. I had one of those illogical revelations myself the other day, entranced by Jimmy Stewart’s rage near the end of Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur. He’s the one who did it, I realized: it was Jimmy Stewart who killed Hollywood.

I used to point to four movies in particular as marking the symbolic death of old Hollywood. I liked Peter Bogdanovich’s description of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) as the “final film” of the classical studio system, the train rolling off in the end serving as the final punctuation of a period as brief but as rich as the High Renaissance. And I agreed with the critics and fans who increasingly see Vertigo (1959) as the apotheosis of American film. Even historians with a penchant for economic determinism made a somewhat poetic argument when they claimed that the profit-sharing contract Lew Wasserman negotiated for Jimmy Stewart on Winchester ’73 (1950) was the beginning of the end—other actors, including Stewart himself, had occasionally signed profit-sharing agreements before. And I saw Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) as one of the other symbolic deaths of Hollywood. Preminger had been pushing the boundaries of the censorship codes throughout the Fifties—from his use of the word “virgin” in The Moon is Blue to Sinatra’s drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm—but Anatomy was the most complete and effective rebuke of the entire moral system that the Hays Code had allegedly been upholding for more than twenty years. Joseph Breen insisted that no crime should go unpunished on screen, but Lee Remick is an enthusiastically flirtatious hussy and her husband Ben Gazzara is a murderer and neither is punished in the end. Even worse, Jimmy Stewart as the defense lawyer never seems conflicted about getting Gazzara off or interested in whether or not justice has been served. The final scene, where Stewart stands over a garbage can overflowing with empty liquor bottles, realizing that he’s been used to help acquit a shamelessly guilty man, is a not so subtle metaphor for the death of idealism that Breen and Hollywood had been exporting to the world for an entire generation.

What should have been obvious, but which didn’t occur to me until I was watching The Naked Spur again was that all four of these films starred Jimmy Stewart. Is it possible, I wondered, that we’d all got it wrong? That it was all so much simpler than we believed? That all the rational explanations didn’t work and that only the irrational explanations remained? That Stewart's repressed mania had escaped the prison built by his conscious mind and had taken control of the aesthetic project of the world’s greatest film industry—and in doing so, had single-handedly given birth to its artistic flowering and its concomitant decline?

Stewart’s violent rage is so obviously the dominant aspect of his most important films that it’s strange that we still conceive of him as a decent, goofily pleasant old man. But he had a split personality. On the surface, his conscious persona prevailed. The obedient Presbyterian son from small-town Pennsylvania, the Princeton man, the sexless husband who took in his wife’s two sons and treated them as his own, the patriot who volunteered for the Air Force even before Pearl Harbor and who eventually became a brigadier-general in the Air Force reserves, the Republican who busted his ass to get Edward G. Robinson work after he’d been greylisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts. But there is another Stewart, the subconscious psychopath who revealed himself only rarely in real life but who, thank God, managed to take over his screen persona in the 1950s. This is the Stewart who picked up prostitutes with his best friend Henry Fonda in the 1930s, who volunteered the names of suspected communists to his hero and friend J. Edgar Hoover throughout the Red Scare, who was described by even his best friends as having a “different attitude” about black people and an “uneasy” feeling about the civil rights movement, and whom Woody Strode simply called a racist. Dotted here and there amid the cornucopia of pleasantries that make up the backbone of each of Stewart’s underwhelming biographies are a startling number of incidents in which he comes close to a catastrophic brawl with one of his closest friends. His wife said it simply: “He has a rage that is as frightening as anything I have ever seen. But he controls it better than anyone I have ever known.”

Stewart’s temper has a childhood source that could inspire a special issue of a Freudian journal—and as with the Toltec myths, such explanations may not seem scientifically sound, but they do have a satisfyingly poetic logic. When he was just a child, Stewart had a dog named Bounce that he loved even more than he loved his sisters. But one day a neighbor’s dog killed Bounce and Stewart swore he’d seek vengeance, fantasizing about killing the dog with his own hands. So his father took him out to an alley and showed him the neighbor’s dog tied up, ready to be killed. He handed his son a rifle and told him that he could shoot the dog right there and then. Stewart, of course, could not do it, and they let the dog go. Stewart himself remembers that the lesson he learned was that “it was all right to say what was on my mind and get it off my chest.” But for a man who shamed others for crying at funerals and was never able to grieve his own son’s death in Vietnam, it’s clear that he did not learn the lesson he thought he had. What he actually learned was to stifle his murderous rage, and perhaps subconsciously to blame his sadistic father for humiliating him. Stewart himself always maintained that acting was not an instinctive art but a craft in which one rigorously practiced and mastered techniques, but he admitted himself that when he needed to act out rage in the Anthony Mann westerns that resuscitated his career he always drew on the memory of that moment when he held the rifle to the head of the neighbor’s dog in the alley behind his father’s hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

It was only as I sat in the theater two Fridays ago, staring into Jimmy Stewart’s manic eyes as he tried to rope Robert Ryan’s lifeless body out of a raging river, that I understood the evolution and eventual demise of Classical Hollywood Cinema. It had the unassailable logic of a fever dream. Sometime in the 1910s, Jimmy Stewart’s father, the upstanding Presbyterian, buried his son’s fury deep within his subconscious. In 1950, Stewart accessed that part of himself for the first time as he slammed a man’s face into a counter while filming Winchester ’73. Once unleashed, his rage exploded, manifesting itself in physical form as a torrent of spores that wafted across the studio lots, infecting everything in its path. Hollywood artisans contaminated by Stewart’s disease manifested its symptoms in different ways. Vincente Minnelli’s constitution had always been weak because he could devote his energies to only one of two endeavors: either fantasizing about bold new color schemes or caging in his panther-like sexuality. Most likely, he became an asymptomatic carrier of Stewart’s psychosis—until it flowered gloriously during the production of Some Came Running. A director like Hitchcock, meanwhile, who was able reign in his sexual hysterias with greater control, may not have actually become infected. But when he saw the New Stewart on screen, his conscious mind, robot-like, imagined the darker narratives into which he could place this character-image while simultaneously calculating the profits he could make from it. But Hollywood had always been a shaky proposition to begin with. Teetering for decades between commerce and entertainment, the ugliness that Stewart’s once repressed delirium had unleashed forced the whole enterprise to collapse under the weight of art.

Anthony Mann more than anyone nurtured Stewart’s pathology. Hitchcock, Preminger, and Ford were merely the lucky beneficiaries of that earlier collaboration. It was Mann and Stewart who perfected the violent aspects of what I call The Swoon: Stewart’s eyes flutter, then go back in his head, and for a millisecond he’s lost control. Stewart himself was a control freak: he hated driving a car because he never knew what the other drivers would do, but he loved to fly a plane because he said it gave him a feeling of ultimate control and it was the closest he ever felt to being a bit like God. So losing control as an actor was a moment of frightening liberation, a brief flirtation with the jouissance of the unknown. We’ve seen The Swoon before—when he collapsed during his climactic speech in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or at the moment he hugged his daughter fiercely at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life—but it had never seemed dangerous before. Under Mann’s tutelage, Stewart’s loss of control took on sexual and violent undertones. He seems almost feminine in that moment. When he’s lassoing Robert Ryan’s body in the river or when he gets shot in the hand in the salt flats in The Man from Laramie, it’s a deliriously orgasmic pain, a pain so delicious the shame of it spurs Stewart to seek vengeance. Hitchcock especially made great use of The Swoon. We see it when Scotty collapses from acrophobia at the window in Midge’s apartment, or when he grabs Judy in the tower at the end and says, “I loved you so….” In that moment—perhaps the passionate climax to all of classical Hollywood filmmaking—critics have debated whether he’s speaking to Judy or to Madeleine or maybe even to Kim Novak, but now I’ve come to believe that I’ve unlocked the secret: he’s speaking to that moment when he was titillated by the opportunity and then thwarted in his goal to avenge the murder of the one living being he loved most in the world. It is Bounce’s death that gave birth to the most mature period in American filmmaking and it was Bounce’s death that fueled cinema’s most passionate peak. But Stewart’s rage could only be allowed to breathe for so long. One decade was about all it could take. After Anatomy of a MurderVertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his conscious mind reclaimed his career and he was never as interesting again. Nor would Hollywood be as interesting again—until, that is, Elliot Gould tried to feed his cat Curry brand cat food—but that’s another story.

*NOTE: California Taco Supreme is an actual dish: Cook up one pound of ground beef and spoon off all that greasy fat. Add one packet of McCormick’s Mild Taco Seasoning Mix. Pour a large bag of Frito chips into a 9x12 glass casserole dish. Sprinkle the ground beef mixture on top. Shred some Cheddar Cheese all over it. Bake for five minutes or so in the oven just until the cheese starts to melt. Remove from oven and let cool. Sprinkle some shredded iceberg lettuce all over the top. Mix it up and serve.

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