May 20, 2007

Happy Birthday, James

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

James Maitland Stewart (1908-1997)

I certainly don't remember the day Jimmy Stewart was born, but I do know where I was the moment I heard he had passed away - I was newly twelve and had just tasted what I found to be the most incredibly romantic film in the world, Capra's essential It's A Wonderful Life. Every facet of the movie appealed to my preteen ideals: the tender and hesitant romance, the resounding moral to be gleaned from George Bailey's struggle and his ultimate revelation from God (via Clarence, of course), and the inherent loyalty and desperate need for independence weighing down the young protaganist. It was the kind of movie that makes one ache with gratefulness and that inspires a renewed sense of purpose, and I was just beginning to understand how powerful cinema can be. I owe much of that discovery to Jimmy Stewart.
Whether he is wooing Hedy Lamarr with memorized poetry as night falls in a quiet country house (1941's Come Live With Me is an utterly sweet confection of a movie), drinking champagne and skinny-dipping with Kath Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, or avenging his son's death in films like the Civil War-themed Shenendoah, Jimmy is an unforgettable presence on the silver screen. He worked opposite the best and brightest of Hollywood; he shone under the direction of masters like Capra, Hitchcock, and John Ford; he was close lifelong friends with fellow star Henry Fonda; his film career spans an incredible five decades. Yes, James Stewart is one of the greats.
He inarguably appeals to every person in one character or another; he is somehow Everyman and yet each distinct character he portrays, simultaneously. Vertigo, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Winchester 73, Shop Around the Corner, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance...there will never be another Jimmy Stewart.
So thank you, Jimmy, for your luminous career, for your enduring star persona, for all you've given us movie lovers to moon and dream over for decades and decades. Your inherent sweetness will no doubt never cease to charm us, and your stoic, dramatic side will allow your darker films to remain classics even as time renders their contemporaries inconsequential.

You know, Clarence was right all along. When a man isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

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