Before we get into the creative lessons I learned from the life of Jimmy Stewart, a reminder:
When we look at the machine of cinema now, we forget the scrappy, chaotic explosion of innovation from which it came. Consider this: in the first decade of film, not a single actor, director, nor producer was credited for his or her work. Then came the explosion of what we now know as stardom – Florence Lawrence, Greta Garbo, Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – all early markers of the celebrity we know well today. Sound itself nearly unraveled the film industry, as it employed 42,000 people when the “talkies” came along. What now seems like an inevitable part of our daily life started as a rocky, unsure business.
All of that is said to remind you of luck’s role in the career of Jimmy Stewart. Had come a few years earlier, would he have been too entrenched in the role of a silent actor? Had he emerged a few years later, would he be too late to ride the wave of moviegoers flocking to hear their stars really speak?
Who can say?
What we can say is that Stewart (whose first name is actually James), exploded into American consciousness right as the film industry itself. He is well known for his characters – George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and L.B. Jeffries from Rear Window, but he might be even better known for her persona: a self-deprecating, gentle, kind, man. When he died in the late 90s, it was to an almost universal sadness.
Let’s get into it:
1. Perspective (on life)
Today, when our nation goes to war, it means a select group of individuals who enlisted go off to fight. In the 1940s, when our nation went to war, the nation went to war. It’s difficult to imagine a time where war existed as a part of every citizen’s life. Yet in the 1940s, Stewart marched off to fight in World War II just like 16 million other Americans.
By the time Stewart enlisted in the service, he had nearly 30 films under his belt. Remember, this was in a time when you would not see 19 new movie releases hit the screens in a single weekend. Anybody who was anybody went to the films, which meant that everyone knew the legendary Jimmy Stewart.
I think it would have been fairly easy for Stewart to ride on his fame.
Although less easy, it also would have been possible for Stewart to use his money and options to skirt the war altogether.
But as Stewart said in a 1970s television interview:
“By the time we got to war, we were all in the same boat. You didn’t worry about a film actor or anything. You had a job to do and you did it.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=970nWlbT1Bc
Stewart knew his job was just a job, no matter how glamorous it looked. At times, there were more important issues to address.
2. Perspective (on work)
To those closest to Stewart, he was a boy scout, a son, a husband, a father, a good friend, a pilot, a Princeton alumnus, a philanthropist, a poet, and a gardener. His family and friends will remember him.
To most of culture, he’s a film star whose name is slowly eroding from the conscious memory of our time. We will forget him.
I think he knew who was most important.
Before WWII, Jimmy Stewart played a syrupy lover in Born to Dance.
(“Hey babe, Hi babe, why not give me a try babe? Cuz I’m nuts about you!”)
After WWII, Stewart came back and made It’s a Wonderful Life.
(“I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all”)
Okay, it’s unfair for me to compare lines out of context. How about a quote from Stewart himself after returning from war and screening his 1930s movies?
“Born to Dance made me want to vomit. I knew I had to toughen up.”
“Toughening up” was not as easy as it sounded. By the time Steward considered returning to the film business in 1945, Hollywood’s process went something like this:
- Stars are known for the types of characters they play
- Stars don’t deviate from the scripts written for them
- In this way, movies can be successful
Today, Meryl Streep can shift seamlessly from tortured mother (Kramer v. Kramer) to a Danish aristocrat (Out of Africa) to a flouncy, musical blonde (Mamma Mia) to a stone-cold executive (The Devil Wears Prada). But remember, Stewart’s era of of Hollywood was pre-Marlin Brando. For the most part, actors and actresses just didn’t do the whole reinvention thing.
Admittedly, Stewart was a popular, white male actor. He had already won an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story (1940). If anyone were to reinvent himself as a character, it would be him.
But Clark Gable never stretched outside of his predetermined tropes.
Charlie Chaplin tried and failed to be known for anything other than the guy with the clown pants and the bowler hat.
Stewart is one of the few actors who was able to make a hard left turn and continue to enjoy a successful career. You can see the difference – In Philadelphia Story, he’s cheeky but still playful, kind. In Vertigo and Rear Window, he’s colder, skeptical. He’s seen some things.
The Philadephia Story
As Boston Globe Movie Critic Ty Burr puts it:
“In modern terminology, it was a reimagining of the Stewart brand, and it paid off… in no small part because [we understood] that the world had changed around him.”Gods Like Us – Ty Burr, 2012
We had all been to war. We had all been changed. Of course Jimmy was allowed to come back changed, both on screen and off. This leads to…
4. Culture determines Art
It’s true that culture determines art, at least to a point.
Jimmy Stewart does not pull of his change without our post-war hardness.
Marilyn Monroe does not exist without sexuality emerging as a real conversation topic.
Sylvester Stallone can’t blow up as Rocky and Rambo without the explosive Reagan-fueled get-these-hippies-out-of-here mindset.
Tom Cruise doesn’t get tagged as “the crazy guy on Oprah’s couch” if the Internet weren’t there to spread his apparent madness.
The Office flops if it comes only a few years later, where our tolerance for sexism, racism, and homophobia (even as jokes) has sharply declined.
It would be nice to think creative work exists in a bubble, and we do whatever moves us.
But it isn’t true.
5. It Pays to Know People
Here’s how it happened:
Jimmy got invited from Princeton University to join a small ensemble called the “University Players.” This organization put on summer stage shows. It only lasted from 1928 to 1932. Born a year earlier or later, Stewart is probably never a part of this organization.
In addition to the theater experience he gained while there, Stewart also befriended a woman named Margaret Sullavan. At the end of the Players’ time, Sullavan moved West to chase the glittering lights. Jimmy did what he thought was the more sensible thing and moved to New York, where the Broadway scene still flourished. He happened to get an apartment with another former University Player – Henry Fonda.
Then the Great Depression happened.
Stewart and Fonda both struggled to find work, getting small roles here and there. In almost every play he participated in, the theater itself or the producers behind it would close down. In 1934 Fonda finally got picked up by a Hollywood scout and moved west. Stewart was scooped up by MGM a year later.
You think – “Ah, I see. That was his big break.”
Even after he got to Hollywood, Stewart struggled to break through in the industry. Although he is first credited in The Murder Man (1935), he was not a major role. After all, who would go to see a skinny, shy, sweet kid? He had hesitant speaking, awkward mannerisms, and a general lack-of-alpha-male-ness which turned producers off. (Can you taste the irony yet?)
Cue Margaret Sullavan.
As Sullavan read over the script for a movie her contract forced her to do (Next Time We Love, 1936), she told the producers there was only one option for the leading male.
You can guess who it was, can’t you?
The sheer arbitrary nature of success is staggering at times. What if Stewart had chosen not to join the University Players? What if he had become close friends with someone other than Henry Fonda? What if he’d gone straight to Hollywood instead of developing his craft on Broadway first? What if Sullavan herself had never been married to Fonda for 2 months, giving Stewart just the spider web-thin connection he needed to land a big role? For that matter, what if Stewart went to Harvard instead of Princeton?
Probably 1,000 other men could have been Jimmy Stewart.
Random chance chose him.
6. Right Place, Right Time, Right Person
I follow the big long story with this:
Jimmy Stewart grew up with a pianist mother. He adored and studied music right from the start.
He attended choir and glee club in school.
He worked hard as a magicians assistant for two childhood summers.
Despite being offered a graduate scholarship to study architecture at Princeton, he instead chose its drama club.
And then, yes, he joined the university players, put his feet on every theater possible in New York, and spent every night getting coached by Margaret Sullavan.
Then he starred somewhere in the neighborhood of 98 more movies.
Yes, luck is an enormous factor in success.
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the right person to use it well.