He is silver now, but no less golden. At 78, James Maitland Stewart looks back fondly on a career of some 80 feature movies. He’s played cowboys and congressmen, baseball players and bandleaders, ranchers and runamucks. And through it all, this Princeton graduate who stumbled into Hollywood by way of summer stock has had a special air of innocence and elegance that has made him, without a doubt, America’s favorite actor.
His craft, most often seen on the late show in recent years, is now being preserved for the ages on home video. MCA, which released the long-awaited Hitchcock series a while back, just came out with five more Stewart classics: The Glenn Miller Story, The Rare Breed, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73 and Thunder Bay.
As Stewart relaxed in a comfortable armchair in his Beverly Hills home, surrounded by almost as many awards as memories, editor Maury Z. Levy talked with him about his life and loves, his tapes and times.
LEVY: You, quite obviously, have a VCR in your home. Do you use it a lot for taping?
STEWART: Well, um, actually, no. You see, so many of the old movies I’m interested in are on so damn late at night, and I just can’t keep awake anymore. But taping them from television—I just don’t find that a good thing to do. Especially, you know, if it’s a picture that I’m in. I just find the quality so gull-darn awful. The movie’s scratchy, the sound is bad. That’s why I think this new idea of prerecorded home video is so great. They go and do the taping and the cassette work at the studio, and they do it directly from the film master. I’ve seen some of the stuff and it’s absolutely crystal clear, and the sound is great.
LEVY: And that’s why you’ve let them release so many of your films on home video.
STEWART: Yes, well, that’s right. They just make the whole thing so, well, so attractive. Also, you don’t have to wait until two in the morning to see it. You can just invite people in whenever you want. Throw a little party, you know, and still get to bed at a respectable hour.
LEVY: But will this mean the end of movie theaters?
STEWART: I’ll tell you something there. For some of them, it might not be such a bad idea. Now I’m talking about those little 300-seat houses with the bad projection and the bad sound. I think it’s very disturbing what they let these things get down to. But I do hear that some folks are building bigger and better picture houses. I know there are several being built right here in Los Angeles. And, in other places around this great country, they’re reopening some grand old houses that have been closed for a long time. The owners were smart enough not to have them torn down, because they just had a feeling that the movie audience that used to be would come back.
LEVY: And will they?
STEWART: I think so. I think we might see a nice mix. People will watch the videocassettes one or maybe two nights a week and then go out to a nice movie theater another night. So everybody will be happy.
LEVY: Is there that much of a difference? As you watch your movies on home video, do you feel they’ve lost any of the scope of the big screen?
STEWART: I think that in the westerns it’s lost to a certain extent. But I like the westerns and I think that with some of these—and so many of them that Duke Wayne made—they’re more than just a bunch of cowboys running around. There’s a story, sometimes a very good story, connected with it. And when they’re that way, they’re very good on television. The story and the sort of physical action near the camera sort of, well, it sort of makes up for the fact that you’re not on the big screen and you don’t see all the stuff that’s in the picture with a wide-angle shot.
LEVY: One of the pluses of home video would seem to be that a whole new generation will discover your early movies. That must please you.
STEWART: Yes, it does. You know, when the Hitchcock movies were first released on video, I went around and did
some talking about them, and it’s amazing the letters I got from young people. They’d never seen them before. And there were the older fans who’d seen them maybe once 20 years ago, and they sort of picked them up as brand new pictures now.
LEVY: What do you think about the diet of movies kids have to choose from today? Some people say they’re mindless
and heavy-handed—that the honest innocence of the Jimmy Stewart days is gone.
STEWART: Well it is, but I don’t think it’s something that can’t be changed. The movies today, they’re just too repetitious. There’s no variety, nothing to make one special from the next. This has got to change in some way. But it’s not going to change if people just spend another five dollars to see, another picture that’s supposed to be brand new and it’s the same old story as the last one.
LEVY: Let’s talk about sex.
STEWART: Well, well all right.
LEVY: Sex in the movies seems so blatant now. It seems we’ve lost the sensuous romance of a Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
STEWART: Yes. Well, back in my time we had this—everybody calls it censorship—it was close to that, but we just had rules. Rules about, um, how far we could, um, go. Everybody makes a joke of it now, but in those days, when you were in bed—it didn’t matter whether you were in bed with your mother or your wife or your sister or a prostitute—you had to keep one foot on the floor. With those restrictions, we left a lot to the imagination of the audience. And I think that was the right thing to do.
LEVY: Some would say that’s unnatural for an actor.
STEWART: Yes, but movie acting itself is unnatural. You’re not in front of an audience. You’re surrounded by technical things, all sorts of mechanical things. You’re on a sort of dark stage and you have a microphone hanging over you and maybe another one in your pocket. It’s not exactly ideal for a love scene, if you know what I mean.
LEVY: So how do you overcome that?
STEWART: You just have to put this out of your mind and try to get your story over, your part over, without having the acting show. And if you get that, then some believability sneaks in, and if you’ve got people in the audience believing what they’re seeing up there, then you’re in pretty good shape.
LEVY: Some actors might go wrong, then, by taking it all too seriously.
STEWART: Well, yes. Now I saw that happen once with Kim Novak, whom I like very much. But she was so darned serious. This was in Vertigo and it was sort of early in the shooting, the second or third day. And Kim just came up to Hitchcock and said, “Mr. Hitchcock, I, just this next scene, it’s just not quite clear to me and I’d like to go over it with you because I’m not sure of the reason for the motivation that I have in dealing with the problem that I have with Mr. Stewart.” And Hitchcock just looked at her and said, “Kim, it’s only a movie!”
LEVY: You’ve done some television directing yourself. Why not major movies?
STEWART: I guess I was just sort of stung by this acting bug and it’s sort of a lifelong thing with me.
LEVY: But with a director’s eye, how do you look at some of the new technologies—colorization for one?
STEWART: I think it’s terrible. It’s a shame that they’re doing it. Frank Capra and I talked them out of colorizing It’s a Wonderful Life last year, but the picture’s in public domain now, and nobody can really stop this colorization thing for long. I think it’s an insult to the original people who did the movies in black-and-white. Black-and white photography is a helluva lot harder to do than color photography. In black-and-white, you had to mold not only the people’s faces but also the background and everything, to give it depth and to make it interesting to look at.
LEVY: And with colorization?
STEWART: I’ve seen some of this colorization stuff. When they put that color on a girl’s face, a face that had these beautiful lights at a correct angle, then all those shadows are taken off and she just has sort of a light-orange face. And the background—one thing’s red, the other thing’s green. There’s no composition to the thing. It’s just sort of like they put the whole reel of film in a big barrel with all sorts of colors and pulled it out and said, “That’s it.” I think it’s completely wrong. When you think of all the time and the effort and the feeling that went into sort of painting a picture with light and shadows—to have all this wiped out by color, well, it’s really insulting.
LEVY: On to less insulting things. Did you ever feel uncomfortable with your image as a handsome superstar?
STEWART: I don’t think that tag was ever put on me.
LEVY: Oh, come on, you know people have said it. Do you have any trouble with it?
LEVY: Okay. You know, probably one of the things that helped promote that image was your war record. You were a real fighting hero in World War II. And you really didn’t have to do that. So many other actors just joined USO troupes. What made you want to go to the front?
STEWART: I thought it was my duty and I, uh, wanted to do it. And the second reason was if I hadn’t done it, my father would have come out and shot me.
LEVY: Let’s talk about women.
STEWART: Fine with me.
LEVY: You played opposite so many great leading ladies. Are there any actresses you see today whom you might want to play with—in the professional sense, of course?
STEWART: Of course. Well, I think there are an awful lot of them who are very good. I have a sort of favorite: Stephanie Zimbalist. She’s my absolute favorite, really. I think she does a beautiful job.
LEVY: And out of the Margaret Sullavans, the Janet Gaynors, the Jean Arthurs, the Carole Lombards . . .
STEWART: Oh, I swear I got stuck on all of them at one time or another.
LEVY: But was there one favorite, one special woman who stood out from the rest?
STEWART: Greta Garbo. When I was first at MGM, Garbo was the big star and I would have done anything to meet her. I was a big fan. And one time I was working on the stage right next to her and I found out that when she left she would go right from the stage door to her limousine, and nobody would see her. But I got to know the sound man on her set. And he told me he knew just how much time it took her to get from her dressing room on the set to the stage door. “So I’ll give you a call one of these days when we finish,” he told me, “and maybe you’ll be able to run out your door and get to see her before she gets into the limousine.” And, sure enough, a couple days later he called me. He said, “Now hurry and hang up and go out your door because she’s just leaving.” And so I did. I had to go on the dead run to get to the end of the stage. And as I went around the corner to the door, I ran smack into somebody. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I just kept running, right out to the door, and as I was about to open it, I stopped and looked back. And there was Greta Garbo all right—flat on her ass. I knocked the poor woman down. I don’t think she’ll ever forget me for that.
Copyright: Maury Z. Levy, 2010. All rights reserved.