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"In a career of extraordinary range and depth, Jimmy Stewart has come to embody on screen the very image of the typical American.... His idealism, his determination, his vulnerability, and above all, his basic decency shine through every role he plays..."--
The American Film Institute.
The Nature of Film and Acting
When film was young, acting was overdone. Low quality cameras could only record large movements; posing and enunciation were overstated as a result of theater acting; the development of the character was limited to a script. Starting in the 1930's film acting became more natural. Actors could interpret scripts to find emotion and motivation in their characters.
Good acting relies on a kinesthetic, an intrapersonal, and an interpersonal intelligence, all of which work together to form a creative expression. There exist limitless styles of acting; there is always something to learn.
The physicality of the actor is the most important part of the creation of the character. Since all experiences are interpreted through a physical means (i.e. our senses), the kinesthetic actor can evoke a response from his audience by connecting his actions to their lives, memories, or emotions. By having distinct facial features or a certain body build, the actor's mere physical presence can convey some detail of his character. However, the most important part of the kinesthetic intelligence in acting is the knowledge of one's body, where it is, what it's doing, and what message it's conveying. This is more than just muscle movement. It includes physique, timing, rhythm, voice and mannerisms.
When we watch movies, we notice emotion and characterization mainly in the eyes and mouth. However, a man can not just act from the neck up. What his body tells us is just as important as what his face tells.
Try It! Make your body tense. Tighten every muscle you can. Now, smile. How do you feel? How would you appear to feel?
For the actor, the hands are a good place to release energy, but conveying meaningful messages through the hands is hard to do. Also, overuse of gestures can be dizzying to a viewer. Voice is another excellent means of communicating the unstated. From sincerity to sarcasm, we can tell as much from the way something is said as from the words themselves.
Underneath the physical lies the actor's presence. The intrapersonal unconsciously comes through in the form of a persona that the audience can further relate to.
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The hardest goal for the personality actor is maintaining believability. If he understands the purpose of the film, the inner actions of his mind will be manifested in his physical being, and believability will be created.
James Stewart is classified as a personality actor. His off screen life shaped his on-screen characterizations, which were enhanced by his "physical potency.î Jim's best weapon is his voice. Its unique quality yields an instantly identifiable character, a sweet, naive, hesitant, curious, boyish image, which is his persona.
From Indiana to Princeton
James M. Stewart was born in 1908 in a small farming and mining community called Indiana, Pennsylvania. The town had been the Stewart family headquarters for generations. The family ties to the community and between members were very strong. Father Alexander owned the local hardware store. Mother Elizabeth was involved with Ladies Aid. The five-member family (Jimmy had two younger sisters) was concerned with community affairs and very devoted to the Presbyterian Church.
A special relationship based on respect and admiration developed between Jim and his father. The young boy shared several interests with his father, especially community affairs. Alex was a volunteer fire fighter and Jim decided that's what he wanted to do when he grew up. The family patriotism lent itself to some special moments with dad. The two rendezvoused in the wee hours of the morning once, despite Elizabeth's objections, to see President Harding's train pass through town. They worked together to erect a veteran's memorial statue. Later, Jimmy took up boy scouting, about which he later reflected, "I wouldn't trade my experiences in Scouting for anything."
He was an adventurous and imaginative child. One of his chemistry experiments ended in a basement explosion. His attempt to build and fly an airplane from the roof almost resulted in a near fatality and a life long interest in aviation.
Music was important in the Stewart household. Elizabeth played the piano, Alex was a choir member, and Jimmy learned the accordion. Perhaps these musical influences opened the boy's eyes to the entertainment business. His first performances came from his patriotic side. While Dad was fighting in World War I, Jim wrote and performed two basement-production plays entitled "To Hell With the Kaiserî and "The Slacker.î A few high school plays followed and then Jim left home to study architecture at Princeton. He did do some theater there, but only as an extracurricular hobby. In 1932 he graduated with honors, but there wasn't much of a job market for architects during the Depression. He planned to go to graduate school, but the summer before that started he was invited to work with the University Players as a "resident accordionist.î Jimmy conceded and the experiences that summer led to a fifty-year film career.
The Beginnings of a Brilliant Acting Career
The University Players were a group of young thespians from several Ivy League schools who performed various plays throughout the summer months. Several members went on to have success in the film industry, including Margaret Sullavan, Myron McCormick and Henry Fonda. Jimmy had small but show stopping parts in a couple plays. When those shows moved to Broadway, so did he, and architecture went out the window. The acting bug was slowly biting. It was director Guthrie McClintic who finally convinced Jim that acting was a craft and that it could move audiences.
After the summer of '32, Jim moved out to Hollywood to try film acting. His first film was The Murder Man of 1935. For the next few years, he played obscure parts in obscure movies. However, he was always working hard. There were times when he was working on three films simultaneously. At MGM he worked six days each week, filming, or working on lines, or practicing voice lessons. Director Anthony Mann said of him, he "dedicated his whole life to acting... he's always there, he's always anxious, he wants to be great.î Jim later said the best way to make movies it to be totally involved in the process.
One of these obscure performances caught the attention of director Frank Capra. He commissioned Jimmy to star in three films. The collaborations with Capra would skyrocket Stewart to Hollywood stardom. The first of the three films was a comedy called You Can't Take It With You.
Watch It! The restaurant scene. Here, Jimmy is threatening the girl with public embarrassment. The timing in this scene is comedic brilliance. And his facial expressions and hand gestures are more than just tricks of the trade; they are "innately Jimmy Stewart."
Jimmy's physical build also shaped what type of character he played. Tall and skinny, he couldn't pull off the roll of an overly macho male. His weak appearance lent itself to a more passive, feminine hero, one who always manages to get trampled on.
Watch It! The bar fight in Destry Rides Again (1939). This is a classic example of how merely the body, despite it's movements, can create a character. Just from this scene we can tell Stewart's character is not the masculine sheriff we expect, but he is still strong enough to resist violence. Where else would you find the story's hero being beat up by a girl?
Despite a lack of physical strength, strength of character was very basic in Jimmy's interpretation of roles. Although he had no formal training as an actor, his sense of community and country-boy naivete always seemed to come through in his work. In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) Jimmy plays a freshman senator fighting the corrupt senior politicians. It wouldn't be hard for a patriotic actor to play the innocent, but the kinesthetic action defines the role.
Watch It! The filibuster scene. The hoarse voice, the staggering walk and the yet unwavering hopeful gaze paint a vivid picture of the Senator's dedication. This scene also proves that less can mean more. As his monologue progresses, the movements are less energetic, the voice is softer, but the message to the audience is stronger.
Another scene from the same film gives an insight into how much control Jimmy had over his actions.
Try It! Pick up something. Drop it. Did you release it? Did your fingers flare outward? Did you push the object away from you? Try it again. Make it look like you're not trying to drop it. Harder, isn't it?
Watch It! The hat scene from Mr. Smith. See how gracefully he fumbles with it? When it falls, it slides right out of his hands; just as if he didn't know that was going to happen. Although by this action you can tell how nervous the character is, it is not important to the characters development, but rather it is important to note the understanding Stewart has of his movements.
Along the same lines...
Try It! Fake a hiccup.
Watch It! The drunken scene in 1940's The Philadelphia Story. Notice how Jimmy will start a word, hiccup in the middle, the restart it without any hesitation, just as you would if you really had the hiccups. The amazing part of this scene was that it was unrehearsed. All the hiccuping is adlibbed; all of it sounds natural. Again this is just an example of how the way a speech is given can have more significance than the words in the speech itself.
Jim won a Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia Story. The statuette went home to Indiana where it was proudly displayed in the family's hardware store window.
Time Out For A War
Jim's booming film career was put on hold while he served our country in World War II. The dutiful and always patriotic Stewart family had a vast history of military service; both grandfathers in the Civil War, father in the Spanish-American War and WWI, and now the youngest in WWII. He already knew how to fly, so he enlisted in the Air Force as a private.
Before he left, his father wrote him a touching note that undoubtedly shows the close relationship these two men had. It goes as follows:
"My dear Jim boy. Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger... Jim, I'm banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience... I can say no more. I only continue to pray. Goodbye, my dear. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad."
During the war, Jim shined as a leader, one of the fellows, relaxed yet strong, the same sort of qualities his film characters had. He flew twenty combat missions as a command pilot, became an operations officer and eventually chief of staff, 2nd combat wing, 2nd division, 8th Air Force. He left the service four years later, but many years matured.
Back To The Big Screen
The first film Stewart made after returning from the war was It's A Wonderful Life. Since he was rusty from being away from the studio, some critics find this performance disgustingly overacted. However, he does have his moments when the personality actor in him completely takes over, creating a character from inner motion as well as exterior motion, and leaving nothing to criticize.
Watch It! The prayer scene. The physicality of the quivering hands and the wavering of his voice show the character's insecurities. But it's really Jimmy's state of mind here that captures our attention. As Carol Burnett stated, "He is so in tune with that character, that he and George Bailey become one."
A few years after It's A Wonderful Life Jim met Gloria Hatrick McLean. They dated for a while, then got married in the summer of 1949. Gloria had two sons from a previous marriage, but Jimmy fathered them as if they were his natural born. The couple did have twin girls in 1951. Continuing the tradition of military excellence in the family, their eldest son, Ronald, served and died in Vietnam.
Jimmy's next important role was that of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. This role would become classic Stewart. His costar in this film is an invisible imaginary rabbit named Harvey.
Try It! Talk aloud to someone who isn't there.
Watch It! Introducing Harvey to the family. Again, here it is the voice that carries this scene. Talking to empty space, even if under direction, can be embarrassing. However, Jimmy's voice in this scene is comfortable, relaxed. This is partially the innocence of the character and partially the intelligence of the actor.
Since the war, Jim and his acting talents had matured. Westerns gave him a better chance to prove he could play tougher, more direct characters. The first of fifteen westerns he made in the 1950's, Winchester '73, persuaded the public that he had outgrown his nice guy image. Clint Eastwood, today's master of the Western film, pointed out that Jimmy could handle violence and anger much more intensely than most actors could.
The confrontation at the bar. When Jimmy's characters crack, they sure do crack hard! You can see the tension throughout his face and hand, which helps you feel the anger in his head. Do you feel your muscles tighten when you notice how frustrated he is? That's the connection the actor is trying to make with his audience. He is pulling you into his character's world.
The Hitchcock collaborations of the 1950's elaborated upon this psychodrama, by combining the frightening with the paranoid. Stewart's image worked in these films because he portrayed the every-man thrust into bizarre situations. For example, in Vertigo Jimmy plays an obsessed and neurotic acrophobiac who gets pushed too far.
Watch It! The final tower scene in Vertigo. Here, it is the violent, jerky, uncontrolled motion that catches our attention. This reflects the type of uncontrolled, violent thoughts that are going through the character's mind. It is a perfect physical manifestation of his psychological state.
The Creativity of a Personality Actor
The difficulty in acting is creating a character the audience can relate to. James Stewart made it seem simple. He never sacrificed his own personality for the sake of a role, yet he still was able to mold himself into a variety of complex characters. He turned words in scripts into friends on the screen. And he did it using a mixture of the kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. In the words of Richard Dreyfuss, "[Stewart] knew how to deal with dialog, how to stand and look, how to take a moment, how to steal a moment... He was good at that."
Coe, Jonathan. Jimmy Stewart. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994.
Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life. Hosted by Johnny Carson, 1983, Aired November 1997, PBS.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum Web Site.
O'Brien, Mary Ellen. Film Acting. New York: Acro Publishing, 1983.