A Wonderful Life
JULY 2, 1997
Remembering the career of Jimmy Stewart with scenes from his movies and a discussion of his memorable moments and his place in Americana.
JIM LEHRER: Actor Jimmy Stewart died today at age 89. Here's a sampling from two of his best-known films: "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Harvey," in which he befriends an invisible rabbit.
JIMMY STEWART: ("It's a Wonderful Life") Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear, show me the way.
JIMMY STEWART: Merry Christmas! Well, Merry Christmas! Mary! Mary! Hello, Bedford Falls! Merry Christmas!
MAN ON STREET: Merry Christmas, George!
JIMMY STEWART: Merry Christmas Movie House! Merry Christmas Emporium! Merry Christmas you wonderful Bailey & Loan! Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter.
MR. POTTER: Happy New Year to you, in jail!
SCENE FROM "HARVEY":
BARTENDER: ("Harvey") What's your order?
JIMMY STEWART: ("Harvey") Two martinis.
BARTENDER: Two martinis.
JIMMY STEWART: (talking to invisible rabbit) Harvey, it seems that Vita is having a party this afternoon, and I--hmm--oh, you knew. Well, I just thought that she might be offended if we weren't there. After all, she's the only sister I have, and I--how's that--I'm the only one I'm ever likely to have. Yes. Absolutely right. Well, we'd better hurry, huh?
BARTENDER: That'll be four bits.
MAN IN BAR: The one at the end will pay for it.
BARTENDER: Come back here, would you.
JIMMY STEWART: He'd be delighted. He'd be delighted. (talking to invisible rabbit) Well, let's drink up.
JIM LEHRER: Now to Janet Maslin, movie critic for the "New York Times." What made Jimmy Stewart such a successful actor?
JANET MASLIN, New York Times: He made it look easy, and it wasn't. He's a very sophisticated actor, and he just brought a wonderful simplicity to everything he did.
JIM LEHRER: A lot of people said, hey, he always played Jimmy Stewart; he didn't play the characters he was playing. But that's not true, huh?
JANET MASLIN: Well, think about "Harvey" and then think about "Vertigo" or "Rear Window" or "High Noon." He always played himself, but then he was a very protean guy. He changed with every role.
JIM LEHRER: Was there a special skill within the acting trade--they say, hey, Jimmy Stewart does this better than other people?
JANET MASLIN: Well, he had a combination of folksiness and elegance. It was very, very unusual, and he seemed to suggest a real decency in what he did, and kind of struggled to do the right thing, and a success in achieving the right thing, and I think people admired that for really good reasons.
JIM LEHRER: If you had to select--we selected those two scenes we just saw just kind of out of the blue because we knew about him, but what movies would you choose as his best?
JANET MASLIN: The other two I mentioned, the Hitchcock ones--
JIM LEHRER: "Vertigo."
JANET MASLIN: "Anatomy of a Murder." I don't know, there are an awful lot. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington;" "Philadelphia Story" certainly; and think how different they all are.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah. You said it yourself; that he came over on the screen as being this very nice man. Was that--was he, in fact, a very nice man?
JANET MASLIN: Well, the great thing about it is--I don't know--this was from the days that didn't matter whether you're a nice man. It mattered what you did on the screen, and he created a full many-faceted human being just in the acting work that he did. I feel that I know everything I ever knew to know about him just from watching his work. And those days are gone too, so I think we mourn the passing of that, along with the passing of him.
JIM LEHRER: And speaking of the passing days, I made a list awhile ago of all the great male movie stars of the 40's and the 50's: Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Robert Mitchum died yesterday.
JANET MASLIN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Are there any others after--
JANET MASLIN: Oh, I don't like to think. I've been dreading this for a long time, I have to say. He was so special and had such terrific versatility. And he was in just so many of everyone's favorite films.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. But I mean, is that kind of impact, presence, whatever the word you'd want to use, of a movie actor, are those days over now?
JANET MASLIN: Well, they're different. You know, actors like Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford are sometimes compared to Jimmy Stewart, and they do have some of those same qualities, but they don't live in the kind of rarified bubble that was Hollywood then. He really had a kind of special grace and dignity that maybe was a product of the studio system to some extent, but in any case, it's the kind of magic that you don't see. He seemed to be very real until you compare him with the more realistic actors of today.
JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?
JANET MASLIN: Well, we just--he was at a wonderful kind of exalted distance from the audience, even while seeming to be very natural and ordinary. There was a real precision and sophistication to what he did. You never saw him improvise or do anything casually. It was all very, very polished, and that's as much a product of the kind of filmmaking he was involved in as of his own acting style, I think.
JIM LEHRER: He was--yeah, go ahead.
JANET MASLIN: He's just part of another era. I can't imagine what kind of films he would be in if he were working today.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, they're not making films.
JANET MASLIN: They're not making films.
JIM LEHRER: That Jimmy Stewart would be comfortable in.
JANET MASLIN: Yes. He exemplified really all that was golden about the movie industry, not that we don't have wonderful work being done now. It's just a different kind of good work.
JIM LEHRER: The other thing about Jimmy Stewart that was slightly different, I think, than other--these male movie stars, was that he actually served in World War II as a combat pilot in the 8th Air Force in Europe.
JANET MASLIN: Well, it's true, although he was the sort that never called attention to any of his accomplishments either. He didn't have to. Even if you didn't know that about him and you would watch him in some of his films and believe he was the kind of guy who served and, you know, did it bravely.
JIM LEHRER: Because he also played many roles of Air Force commanders and pilots and military things.
JANET MASLIN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. So your dreaded moment came.
JANET MASLIN: Well, you know, we're all very sorry. He was also very--you know, he was wonderfully funny too. He had a kind of versatility. Cagney had a bit of that too, just the strangest extremes in his range of being able to play, you know, very simple, saltier guy, and someone in the grip of passion, the way he was in "Vertigo," these are very diverse sides of the same character.
JIM LEHRER: You bet. Well, Janet Maslin, thank you very much.
JANET MASLIN: You're welcome.