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James Stewart's Acting Style

By Edited May 1, 2014 0 0

Not many actors can boast that they have a leading role in a holiday classic that airs every December. I honestly have not sat down and watched It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) since the 80s. When an actor becomes a household name such as James Stewart has, it is easy to take that actor’s efforts for granted. We, the audience, tend to believe that we have sized his talent up since we know him so well from the annual inspirational force feeding brought to us by our local cable stations. After watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for the first time, I realized that his acting ability consisted of more than just holiday cheer. He could be patriotic, passionate and really funny! I have chosen to do a critical analysis of the development of James Stewart’s acting style throughout his career as well as his contribution to American cinema. Most notably “…Jimmy Stewart actually has three distinct personas/styles, which correspond somewhat to the three most prominent genres he played. There is the All-American, for which he is perhaps most well known; the Hitchcockian, portraying a dark side just under the All-American surface; and the old guy.” (MovieActors.com). I found this statement to be true in the three films that I watched wherein he performed. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) he plays a patriotic American. He displays his dark side in Vertigo (1958) and “the old guy” in The Big Sleep (1978). I’ll begin my critical analysis with the film that is credited with helping his career to really take off, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, followed by Vertigo and ending with The Big Sleep.  

In Mr. Smith, James Stewart plays a naïve, bright-eyed patriotic “Boy Ranger” leader (since the Boy Scouts of America did not grant director Frank Capra permission to use their name), who is recruited by corrupt politicians to fill an empty seat in the senate. His performance as Jefferson Smith is not only memorable but convincing. The audience cannot help but to feel a little sorry for him as he fumbles his way through the film because we have endeared him to hearts. When I say “fumble”, I am not implying that his acting is subpar – quite the contrary! As Frank S. Nugent’s review of the film that was published when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was originally released put it, “He has too many good scenes, but we like to remember the way his voice cracked when he got up to read his bill, and the way he dropped his hat when he met the senior Senator's daughter, and the way he whistled at the Senators when they turned their backs on him in the filibuster, (He just wanted them to turn around so he could be sure they still had faces.)” (NYTimes.com).

The viewer’s initial impression is a skeptical one whether he will ever be able to last in Washington, D.C. when he first arrives with a cage full of messenger pigeons. Stewart takes the audience on a wonderful journey as we watch him maintain his rather child-like innocence as he has his heart broken while getting stabbed in the back by his political mentor. At first it almost seemed that he played the part for comic relief, but then we started to feel for him. When it comes time for the filibuster, the audience is rooting for him. Stewart also took his craft very seriously going so far as to consult with a doctor in order to find a reliable way of making his voice sound as though he had a sore throat from talking 23 hours during the filibuster scene. “The actor said, "He [the doctor] dropped dichloride of mercury into my throat, not near my vocal chords, but just in around there. It wasn't dangerous. And he said: 'how's that?' I said: 'rasp, rasp'. He said: 'You got it.'” (TCM.com). Although Mr. Smith is not broadcast annually around Christmas time, this film too is considered an enduring classic.

The next film I chose to watch in order to get a sense of comparison and contrast for James Stewart’s acting style and to see whether it had developed over time was Vertigo (1958). Right away I was able to recognize his distinctive speaking style. I could still see a little bit of Mr. Smith in him with his active facial features – never bland or stiff. Even in this thriller he maintains a subtle comic timing. It is said that Stewart felt he was miscast in this film and it also marked the last time that he would work with Hitchcock. By this time in his career, Stewart’s onscreen image was that of an average everyday “All-American” man due to his previous film roles consisting of comedies, romance and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. A central theme in many of Hitchock’s films is how an average everyday man can become involved in mystery, criminal activity and even murder. “James Stewart is perfect for the lead in Vertigo, playing the sort of role he does best -- a tremendously-likable, but otherwise ordinary man who finds himself caught up in extraordinary circumstances.” (Reelviews.net)

Stewart shifted seamlessly from comical acting to a serious acting style when he talked to Midge about how he would overcome his vertigo and then promptly fell from the stool as he had an attack. I witnessed this again when he changed a friendly chat with an old acquaintance to detective work regarding tailing his wife.

During all scenes of the film, Stewart exhibits an extremely emotive face. He actually looks obsessed and in love towards the second half of the film. In the beginning of Vertigo, his body language is fidgety almost as much as it had been 19 years ago in Mr. Smith. As the seriousness of the story unfolds, his body language become more upright and stiff. His style of acting is simultaneously quirky and straight and then over-the-top yet restrained the next moment. The overall themes of Vertigo include obsession, deception, longing and the haunting of heartbreak. Stewart is able to convey all of these themes through the movement of his eyebrows and the look in his piercing eyes. There is an actual conveyance of fear in his eyes when he awakens from a nightmare commencing his mental breakdown. He even drops his comical shtick towards the end of the film when he is fully immersed in his obsession with recreating Madeleine. The audience can no longer see him as the silly awkward over-eager “Mr. Smith”. He is now a different character – a different actor even. He cannot be accused of rehashing the same character repeatedly. “Stewart's performance as a prototype stalker is especially troubling as we watch his soft features harden and his wholesome persona become mangled and corrupted; … it is one of cinema's most effective instances of casting against type.” (Guardian.co.uk). The climax of the film allowed Stewart to showcase a plethora of emotions. He was crazed, obsessed and simultaneously frightening as he stalked Judy up the stairs. The eager look of anticipation on his face mixed with anger at her deception as well as a subtle look of triumph as he overcame his acrophobia forced my heart to beat rapidly in excitement.

My final film selection was filmed 20 years later: The Big Sleep (1978). In common vernacular, this movie was awful. If it weren’t for the short appearances of James Stewart at the beginning of the film and then again towards the end, there is no way I would have been able to sit through the senseless plot and gratuitous nudity. James Stewart as “General Sternwood” portrays an elderly dying father in a wheelchair. He displayed appropriate body language by keeping his hands and arms still as well as avoiding all attempts at humor. Even in older age his voice was still recognizable with that strong drawl. One of my few complaints about this particular performance is that although he is portraying an English character, he speaks with an American accent. In his second appearance toward the end of the film his character is bedridden. Even though Stewart’s scenes in this film are short supporting roles, he makes the most of them. In his last bit of dialogue, he manages a wistful look and gradually, yet naturally the misty look in his eyes became tears. The scene itself was not touching; however, his performance somehow was. His face was filled with emotion. Again, this film was not a particularly memorable performance for him, and “James Stewart had difficulty saying his lines on time due to hearing and memory problems. Some of the cast were shocked by his aged appearance. Robert Mitchum recalled, "The picture was all about corpses, but Jimmy looked deader than any of them." (Wikipedia.org).

Consider this: Stewart’s career spanned almost 60 years and he was actually 70-years old at the time he appeared in The Big Sleep. Most actors can only dream of such long term success! In each film that I watched Stewart perform in his voice was always recognizable, his face was always animated – even in old age – and he was always able to garner interest and elicit emotion from his audience. In the earlier two films when he was substantially younger, you could add the following qualities to his performances: his fidgety body language, genuine smile, convincing naiveté, and comic timing. It was exactly these idiosyncrasies that followed Stewart throughout his career. I recently saw an unofficial list of the “25 Worst Actors of All Time” that had been compiled by one person who then posted it online. James Stewart was included on this list. I wholeheartedly disagree with him being placed on that list – even an unofficial one. Talentless actors do not leave behind a cinematic legacy such as he has. Although it was not successful during its original release, Vertigo is now hailed as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The fact that this film along with Mr. Smith, and It’s a Wonderful Life each contain performances from James Stewart only lends credence to his cinematic impact.

Works Cited


Berardinelli, James. "Vertigo." Review: Vertigo. Reelviews.net, 1996. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://www.reelviews.net/movies/v/vertigo.html>.

"Did You Know?" IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077234/trivia>.

Gilbey, Ryan. "Vertigo: No 3 Best Crime Film of All Time." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 Oct. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/oct/17/vertigo-hitchcock-crime>.

Lee, Nate. "Jimmy Stewart Acting Review - MovieActors.com." Movie Actors, Movie Stars. MovieActors.com. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://movieactors.com/acting-reviews/jimmy-stewart-review.htm>.

Miller, John. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939)." Turner Classic Movies. TCM.com. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3771/Mr-Smith-Goes-to-Washington/articles.html>.

Nugent, Frank S. "Movies." Movie Review - Babes in Arms. NYTimes.com, 11 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2012. <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9403EED8143EE23ABC4851DFB6678382629EDE>



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