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The Darkness of Jimmy Stewart

His persona still obscures his performances.

Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life

In 1989, after publishing, at 81, his first collection of poems, Jimmy Stewart was spoofed as a guest on Sprockets, the Saturday Night Live satire of German artiness. Stewart, played by Dana Carvey, explained to the host, Dieter (Mike Myers), how he came to write such poems as “Old Rocking Chair” (“You sit in the corner/ Old rocking chair/ It makes me feel good/ To know you are there”): “I was holed up in a Mexico City slum … what few pesos I had, I’d spent on alcohol. Some cheap crap called chocho … You see,” he said, through Carvey’s only mildly exaggerated stammering, “you’ve gotta go through the PAIN.” He then described the harrowing experience with a 15-year-old Paraguayan prostitute that resulted in the poem “Funny Little Pooch.”

“Old Rocking Chair” and “Funny Little Pooch” are not actual Stewart poems, but they’re close: Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, which began as a recurring segment on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, was the “apotheosis,” in biographer Donald Dewey’s words, “of the Jimmy Stewart persona in later age”—the Reagan-era icon of homespun American goodness. James Stewart (as he was billed for every one of his movies) had become simply “Jimmy,” and the idea of Jimmy as, in Dieter’s words, an “obsessed outcast, whose dark visions drag us to the edge,” seemed comically absurd.

What the joke obscures is that prior to Marlon Brando and James Dean, no major Hollywood star played the “obsessed outcast” with “dark visions” as well as Stewart did. Halfway through The Naked Spur—included in James Stewart: The Signature Collection, a five-DVD set released last month—night falls quietly on a ragged group of Old West characters, only to be shattered by Stewart’s terrifying screams. His character, bounty hunter Howie Kemp, is having nightmares about the woman who left him while he was at war. Stewart’s unhinged performance might shock those who know him only by his persona, but it’s of a piece with his other great roles, which encompass the wide spectrum of sanity. Stewart had an unmatched ability to project “vision,” as the scholar Dennis Bingham has written, and his characters frequently see things others can’t. This ability can convey madness as well as idealism—and in his best movies, we see just how entwined those two conditions can be.

The standard narrative of Stewart’s career is that he began with characters “we liked,” in Roger Ebert’s words, then exhibited a “dark side” after World War II. (Stewart enlisted in the Air Force and flew bombing missions over Germany.) Though he indeed took more disturbing roles in the 1950s—when he had real control over his career—his on-screen “visions” and their attendant dangers were present nearly from the beginning. They first appear in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the movie that made him a star.

Stewart plays a small-town Boy Scout leader appointed as a patsy senator by Montana’s political machine. When Jefferson Smith arrives in Washington, he is transfixed by the Capitol dome and wanders off as if in a trance. He is several times compared to Don Quixote and more than once called a “dreamer.” At the height of his famous filibuster scene, he shouts, “I’m either dead right or I’m crazy!” Though Capra has constructed a world in which Smith’s rightness is not, for the viewer, in doubt, the drama depends in part on the seeming validity of both options.

Mr. Smith was first intended as a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper. In that film, Cooper’s sanity is questioned—but only by those around him, never by the audience. Cooper had a stoic certainty about him, just as Cary Grant—who, along with Cooper, either replaced or was replaced by Stewart in more than 30 projects—projected a suave knowingness that never really went away, even when he was feigning madness. With the Cooper film in mind, many viewers saw Stewart as just another Deeds. A year later, in The Philadelphia Story, he played a serious writer of fiction who waxes poetic about the “hearth fires and holocausts” he sees in Katherine Hepburn—and the great film critic Otis Ferguson commented in his review on the “near-perfection” of Stewart’s “ordinary guy.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when Stewart played George Bailey in Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life, the film was (and still is) misunderstood as a hymn to “the common man.” Bailey is “not a common, ordinary yokel,” the movie’s villain declares. “He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man” who spends most of the film trying to escape his Podunk hometown. He wants to see the world, “Italy and Baghdad and Samarkand,” and to “build things. Big things.” His defining characteristic, in fact, is a revulsion at the ordinary, a (repeatedly suppressed) striving toward greatness. The failure to realize these ambitions drives him nearly to suicide.

Then he, like so many Stewart characters, has a vision, this time of a genial angel named Clarence. Clarence makes Bailey an outcast—as, in a sense, he’d always wanted to be—by showing him a world in which he’d never been born. This vision drives Bailey further into madness. “You’re crazy,” he tells Clarence. “And you’re driving me crazy, too. I’m seeing things here.” After he sees his mother, and she cruelly turns him away, not recognizing him, he runs up to Capra’s camera with a look that not one of his contemporary male stars could have achieved. It’s a more sinister version of Jefferson Smith’s look when he first sees the Capitol dome, one of utter possession and derangement.

Clarence, it turns out, is real, as were, for Capra and Smith, the American ideals represented by the Capitol dome. What Alfred Hitchcock did in his great Stewart films was to undermine the reality of those visions—tentatively, at first, in Rear Window (1954), and then emphatically in the amazing Vertigo (1958). (An earlier film, Harvey, from 1950, gestures in this direction—Stewart plays a hallucinating drunk—but it skirts all possible complications and sings instead a paean to pleasantness.)

Like Howie Kemp, Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo wakes loudly from a nightmare about the woman who deserted him—Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), who is actually the poor, redheaded Judy Barton disguised as a wealthy blonde. When Ferguson meets Judy herself, after Madeleine’s supposed death, he forces her to become Madeleine. His cruelty, as he dresses her and makes her up, saying repeatedly, “It can’t matter to you,” has been construed by many critics as a kind of confession from Hitchcock, who often bullied his female leads. But its resonance is universal: Ferguson idealizes Madeleine, as we often idealize those with whom we fall in love. In so doing, he turns away from—and eventually destroys—the flesh-and-blood Judy. Idealism implies a certain distance from reality, and, in Vertigo, that distance finally becomes uncrossable.

Despite these tortured performances, the idea of “Jimmy Stewart, Everyman” not only persisted but grew—even after, in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), he slyly played a “country lawyer” whose false projection of sincerity acquits a guilty man. His workmanlike biopics, three of which are included in The Signature Collection, may have helped burnish this reputation. But, most likely, that image survived because Stewart was not, for the public, an actor: He was a star. And our image of stars stems not only—perhaps hardly at all—from what we see on-screen, but from what we know or invent of their personal lives. In this respect, Stewart was the anti-Mel Gibson: His upstanding reputation (Princeton graduate from a small town, genuine war hero, and husband of 45 years) made, and continues to make, his on-screen darkness a little hard to see.