Monday, August 1, 2011

Jimmy Stewart : The Truth Behind The Legend - Michael Munn

 For me there is only person who surpassed Marlon Brandon as an actor, and that is James Stewart. Except for naming many of his films I really knew very little about Stewart, and this biography by Michael Munn went along way to setting that to right.

 Like his fine Steve McQueen biography that I reviewed 8 days ago, this is written in very much the same style. Munn writes a short background piece, and then uses prodigious use of interviews that are relevant to that piece. I'm not usually a fan of this style, but Munn makes it work superbly. He neither bogs down in Stewart's career or his private life, but finds the perfect balance between the two. Hence he has produced a very thorough, readable, and most importantly, approachable biography.

 There was just so much I never knew about Jimmy Stewart, and whilst not shocking in any sordid details, I was surprised by the little things. For instance I never knew he and Henry Fonda were best friends, and had been since about the age of 18. This friendship saw them live together quite often throughout life, starting in New York, where they lived in a seedy tenement full of prostitutes run by the mob!! Both Fonda and Stewart have some funny stories to tell of that particular time!

 It may come as no surprise but it did to me to know that Stewart, ( along with Fonda ), was such a ladies man! Once in Hollywood notorious womanisers David Niven and Errol Flynn apparently had nothing on Stewart and Fonda. And yet there is nothing seedy about Stewart's sex life. He respected women even though he had a lot of them! He shagged the likes of Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, and even Marlene Dietrich, among others. He was just such a nice man that the women couldn't resist him, and yet once he married his wife of over 40 years, Gloria, he never strayed. It is funny though because even with their reputations as ladies men both Stewart and Fonda spent a life time being accused in the media of actual being homosexual!! Suffice to say the rumour is not true!

 His time in the air force during the last war is no secret and nor his is record or achievements. In this biography he does speak of his service with some candour, which is very interesting when you look at the farce Clark Gable went through in his war time service. But it is his post war service with the FBI that was really new to me. I never knew he was employed by the FBI in the communist witch hunts of the 1940's-50's. He was mis-guided in his beliefs as he really wanted to rid Hollywood of the mob, who he absolutely despised. Unfortunately Hoover had no intention of chasing the mob as he was after supposed communists.  Stewart never woke up to Hoover, and it was this that he and Fonda fell out over for 6 years between 1948-1954.

 Stewart's time with the FBI isn't really a blight on his character as he displayed a relative naivete with dealing with Hoover. He genuinely wanted to rid Hollywood of the mob, and he gathered enough information on the mob with which Hoover could have done so had he the inclination. One other thing cropped up that I had no idea of, and that  was Stewart's supposed racism. He wasn't a racist as such being more uncomfortable with coloureds. His upbringing, and church beliefs, saw an almost subliminal belief of the superiority of whites. He was never openly rude, or dismissive of the coloureds he met, but it was obvious he was uncomfortable. If he was openly racist more than discomfit would have come through, and anyway Stewart was certainly not alone in having those charges thrown at him. If he was a genuine racist he kept it hidden very well!

 The last thing was the fact that even though Stewart was known as a really nice guy he had a temper. It took him along time to unleash it but when it did it was ferocious. He spent a lifetime containing it, and many believe his outward persona was just a self-taught cover to keep it in check. I don't buy that myself. He was a genuinely nice man, and you don't get that kind of universal appraisal by being a fake. Who would ever have thought that about good old Jimmy Stewart, a man with a temper who was considered 'folksy'?!

 What made him such a great actor? He learnt his 'craft' as he called it, falling into acting more as something to do during a holiday from Princeton where he was learning to be an architect. Suffice to say he never went back as his career took off through opportunity. He had no formal training, and when he became famous he disliked being called a 'natural' actor. He said acting wasn't an art but a craft, and he worked extremely hard at his craft. He reminds me very much of Paul Newman who also took his acting very seriously, and worked notoriously hard at it. We can all see the results of all that hard work can't we?!.The problem for Stewart is that he became so good the conclusion of him looking 'natural' was one he wasn't ever going to shake. He just looked natural because of the work he put in. He may have hated the tag but it was a vicious circle for him because he did make it look all so easy.

 Overall Michael Mun has produced another fine biography. It ticks all the right boxes, and by the end I felt as if I had come to grips with Stewart, and his mentality/character. My only gripe is at that one stage, when describing Vertigo, Munn calls Alfred Hitchcock 'over-rated' as a director. I'm not anti his opinion even though I totally disagree. It's just that he kept all his personal opinions out of the biography, and yet slipped that one it. It felt out of place, and put an unfortunate piece of doubt into my mind. Why? Because Hitch and Stewart became very good friends, and reminded so. At no time does Munn refer to this friendship, and chooses to criticise Hitch instead. It doesn't feel like an oversight on his part more an intentional slur against Hitch. It may be a small thing but it made me wonder what else Munn may have intentionally chosen to overlook with regards to Stewart.

 A fine biography none the less and I do recommend it. Even with a touch of doubt in my mind I still think it is a worth while biography. It is easy to read and accessible to all. The back cover calls it 'definitive, but I dis-agree because, by missing Hitch's and Stewart's friendship, which is common knowledge, it can't be called definitive. But overall Michael Munn succeeds in what any good biography should do, and that is present the subject in the truest, most honest light possible. I think Munn has done a very good job in doing so, and this biography on a true legend will satisfy all, from Stewart aficionados, to those with a passing interest.


16 comments:

  1. Sounds good, I always liked Stewart and like you said never knew about the FBI and Hoover.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks...yeah it is a worth while read. I was surprised by the Hoover angle, and yet when you read this you realise Stewart's motivations even though Hoover abused them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm going to have to write this one down. I love me some Jimmy Stewart and this one sounds like a great read (minus the anti-Hitch slip).

    ReplyDelete
  4. I found it a very good biography and yet have read a few negative reviews. For me it done what I wanted and presented Stewart in his true light.
    The Hitch slip was annoying as Stewart and he were true friends, and yet Munn fails to acknowledge this. I'm not worried about his personal opinion as I consider him wrong as Hitch I don't think can ever be regarded as over rated. He was far too influential for that. But that aside it is a fine, very readable biography of a genuinely nice human being. I'm sure you'll like it!
    My absolutely favorite actor, and in my opinion the best ever!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Stewart was a racist McCarthyite who played the same character in every movie.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jimmy Stewart was an American icon for a reason, and although I don't think that Henry Fonda has ever been held in the same lofty esteem, the friendship between the two actors has always been one of those wonderful incongruities of the pop culture world. Stewart was not a racist, but he was without doubt an uber conservative, and Fonda was as liberal as they come. And yet the two were lifelong friends! And just for the record, if I could do the time travel thing, I would totally date either one of them during their ladies man phase! Great post...thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Why are you using the word "coloreds" to refer to black people? Moron.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You r the moron-
      In jimmy Stewarts era blacks were referenced coloreds!!!

      Delete
  8. LOL
    "Coloureds" was what we were referred to prior to the 1970s. This is 2015, "blacks" will do.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I too found the term, "coloureds" to be offensive. So what if it was the term used back in the day....no reason to continue the ignorance today. SMH

    ReplyDelete
  10. The author dismissively tick that Stewart was uncomfortable with"coloureds, is way beyond pale and offensiveness---to explaining his behavior which led to this view, it seems that the new frontier for some whites will be facing a history replete with so-called good men like Stewart, who were bitter and unrepentant racists. There is nothing wanting to say Stewart was an exceptional actor, but at the same time he was a man who was consumed with skin color prejudice, and today's whites must face up to it and how they, will face up to it in their own lives.

    ReplyDelete
  11. To me, like John Wayne, Steward played himself & when you daw him, Wayne act, just another day @ the office with a different story! I think they both were decent men, but in a different era! Racist? Heard about it, but, NO defined instances, plus, Wayne had a black actor as co'star in many movies! Scatman Crowthers in Wayne's last movie the Shootist & in the "Cowboys" too, Roscoe Browne, who bartered with Wayne about wages, being the BOSS as the Chuck Wagon's Chef & respect Wayne's character! Who also led the boys to avenge Wayne's killing by Bruce Dern, for awhile, the most hated man in the USA! Dern said it took him 10 years to get his career back on track! Good, you killed John Wayne! Even if it was a movie! Haaa.

    ReplyDelete
  12. To me, like John Wayne, Steward played himself & when you daw him, Wayne act, just another day @ the office with a different story! I think they both were decent men, but in a different era! Racist? Heard about it, but, NO defined instances, plus, Wayne had a black actor as co'star in many movies! Scatman Crowthers in Wayne's last movie the Shootist & in the "Cowboys" too, Roscoe Browne, who bartered with Wayne about wages, being the BOSS as the Chuck Wagon's Chef & respect Wayne's character! Who also led the boys to avenge Wayne's killing by Bruce Dern, for awhile, the most hated man in the USA! Dern said it took him 10 years to get his career back on track! Good, you killed John Wayne! Even if it was a movie! Haaa.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Get off the Food Stamps and get a job.July 4, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    Wonderful the Political Correctness is detrimental to the Country. Colored who cares.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is KOOL! It's quite coloerd. I love Jimmy Stewart!

    ReplyDelete