Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Marc Eliot's biography Jimmy Stewart traces the life of seminal American actor James Stewart from his childhood to his death by looking at the progress of his career and the peaks and troughs he experienced throughout.
James Maitland Stewart, born May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania went on to become one of America's greatest and most iconic film stars. He still lives on today through roles like George Bailey in the now-classic It's A Wonderful Life and Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, almost a prerequisite in high school civics classrooms.
Between this and Cary Grant, Marc Eliot is one of my favorite biographers. He has a way of writing that turns the subject's life into a page-turner akin to a great novel. Jimmy Stewart is no exception.
I learned a considerable amount in this biography, and I would recommend it on those grounds alone even without considering how entertaining this is to read. What really struck me is just how few commercial successes Stewart actually had in his film career. It seems like so many of the films that Eliot focuses on end up falling flat, even if they are ones we may revere a little more now. It is fascinating to consider that even without having an abundance of "hits" in his lifetime, Stewart still became an icon even in his own time. While Stewart films like It's A Wonderful Life and Vertigo are now highly regarded as some of the best ever made, they did not strike audiences as such at the time. It was only toward the end of Stewart's life that these films really began to receive the acclaim they were due, but he did live to see the beginnings of that. Eliot does a very good job of describing how and why now-classics such as these failed at the time but became integral pieces of American film culture later. All around, this is a really good read that connects Stewart's personal life to his career in a very compelling way that makes for a true page-turner for classic film fans.
Jimmy Stewart has always been one of my favorite actors, largely because he was one of the first classic Hollywood actors I ever knew. On a deeper level, though, several of Stewart's roles have come to have a deep significance to me at different points in my life. Jimmy's turn as Jeff Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains perhaps my favorite film performance and it inspired and informed me so much in my beliefs about what it meant to be an American, even to the point of having a large impact on what I decided to pursue in adulthood. I first watched It's A Wonderful Life at a time of great transition in my life when I was feeling quite aimless and without direction. That scene of Jimmy running through Bedford Falls yelling "Merry Christmas!" brought me to tears, but the kind of tears where you are grinning through them knowing that everything will be alright, even if you do not know how at that exact moment. Only Jimmy could have given me that moment.
His Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story never fails to amuse me, and his L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window never fails to impress me. Perhaps that is what is most timeless about Stewart. He has a range that is so vast- Alfred Kralik in The Shop Around the Corner to Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo. Yet, all of his characters feel connected. There is that undercurrent of Stewart's unique, indelible everyman quality in every role he plays. Sometimes, being that everyman makes him lovably charming. Sometimes, it makes him unsettled and obsessive. Regardless of the film, every role he plays feels authentic and human. He never loses sight of his own reality, and that makes all of his characters grounded in a sense of real-life that keeps them true to life today. It is in that reality that Stewart achieves timelessness.
Eliot himself says it best at the end of his biography.
The multiple facets, the complexities, the charm and the torment that combined into the film persona of "James Stewart" live forever in the endless revisitations of his movies, made by new, young viewers, pilgrims to the cultural museum of our collective American lives. Future movie-goers, in whatever form the art takes, will learn more about what America was like for most of the twentieth century from the films Jimmy Stewart and others made than from any textbook of the times.
Marc Eliot, Jimmy Stewart, p. 411
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher's Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see reviews!