Saturday, June 14, 2008

Western Star of the Week #1: Jimmy Stewart

Star: Jimmy Stewart
Type: Hero (?)
Height: Really, Really Tall
Era: Classical Hollywood
Politics: Conservative (get used to it...)

Go-to Director: Anthony Mann
AFI Male Star Ranking: #3

Historical Importance: High

Jimmy Stewart is best remembered by the public for his frequent collaborations with Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. Early in his career, he was the perfect Capracorn player: earnest and All-American. Later, he was perfectly suited for Hitchcock: a serious, reserved actor who could harbor surprising psychological depth. In between, he did his very best work: Westerns.

In 1939, John Ford reinvented the Western with Stagecoach, singlehandedly taking it from a super-popular B movie genre to a serious, nuanced genre worthy of big budgets and critical acclaim. Ten years later, Ford and his star, John Wayne, were going strong, making great movies that made great money, but their movies hadn't changed much since Stagecoach, and innovation was going to have to come from somewhere else.

That somewhere else was from Anthony Mann and his newly-minted Western star, Stewart. Anthony Mann more or less invented the so-called "psychological" Western, and Stewart was the perfect man to play the leads. The Stewart-Mann hero was an untrustworthy hero, a hero whose morals might be questionable, a hero who rode tall in the saddle and saved damsels in distress, but who nevertheless might just get pushed to the breaking point and do something he might regret. And even if he kept his heroism about him, you always knew that he would face terrible psychological hardship or even outright torture.

Together, Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart rewrote the Western genre in the 50s. They were indirectly responsible for a film like The Searchers, in which Ford and Wayne borrowed their questionable hero of deep psychological complexity. To today's audience, Stewart's heroes can look a little less questionable; the Eastwood anti-hero has made his heroes look like boy scouts. But even if their behavior never shocks you, watch these films and be shocked by the depths that Stewart plumbs.


1. Winchester '73 (1950)
Dir. Anthony Mann

My clear favorite of the Mann-Stewart collaborations, and maybe my favorite Western of all-time. Winchester '73 was revolutionary in its time, introducing the new Stewart persona, but it stands up against the best Westerns. Stewart plays Lin McAdam, sharpshooter who wins a coveted rifle in a shooting contest with an enemy from his past, only to have the rifle stolen. The film follows his singleminded quest to retrieve the rifle, slowly unfolding his past conflicts and inner demons along the way.

2.The Man from Laramie (1955)
Dir. Anthony Mann

It's hard to choose between the other Stewart-Man collaborations, but I value this one for its Shakespearean scope and story of hidden motives and epic conflict. Again, Stewart is a man with a past whose motives are unknown. This time, his character is more tortured by the past but seems less likely to break psychologically. But the torture he endures from the past is mirrored in the physical torture he endures in the film; Stewart may do the best acting of his entire career as he's tortured by a spoiled ranch heir.

3. The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Dir. John Ford
With John Wayne, Lee Marvin

Stewart's final leading role in a major Western pairs him with John Wayne in John Ford's final masterpiece. Like most of Ford's films, Valence is a communitarian examination of America, and in this case Wayne and Stewart representing opposite American paths; Wayne represents heroic self-sufficiency while Stewart stands for the rule of law and a united community. Once again, there's more to Stewart's character than meets the eye, and once again he's brutally tortured on the way to single-mindedly achieving his goals. Another film frequently picked as the finest Western ever made.

More to Watch:
With Mann:
Bend of the River
The Naked Spur
The Far Country

Destry Rides Again
Night Passage
The Shootist

No comments: