James Stewart is one of Hollywood's all-time greats. Now 87, he has retired from public life. But, in this rare interview, he agreed to talk about his 60 years in the film business

Gregory Solman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:52

THIS CLOSE to the millennium, it seems safe to pronounce James Stewart one of the greatest film actors of the century. In fairness, it's been safe for quite some time now. Some would argue a pre-war trilogy as the start of the lanky stride that would gracefully ford five decades of film-making: Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Others catch up with him later, after the bluebirds return to Dover, looking as comfortable as is conceivable while straddling the distant mountains of Ford's classicism and Hitchcock's modernism. He was always, it seems, a step ahead.

The subject of directors - among other diverse pleasures - is the focus of this talk with Jimmy Stewart, one of the last any film critic might enjoy. Since the passing of Gloria, his wife of 45 years, in 1994, Mr Stewart - who turns 88 on 20 May - has withdrawn from all public and most private activity to mourn. But we visit him here on one of his good days.

GREGORY SOLMAN: If there are actor's directors, I'd argue you're what might be called a director's actor. Do you buy that?

JAMES STEWART: I don't know how to answer that exactly, because I have such respect for the motion-picture director. And I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the best around. It's hard to say, but it seems that directors are the basic thing of the film, and everything goes out from them.

GS: When you were under contract, were you forced to work with directors with whom you really didn't want to work?

JS: If I didn't want to work with them, that had nothing to do with it. Nowadays an actor will sit home and read scripts until he finds one he likes, he gets on to his agent, and goes. In those days, you went to work at eight o'clock in the morning and got finished at six at night. You worked six days a week. And worked all day. You did little parts in big pictures, and big parts in little pictures. Or [you were] doing tests with people they were considering to sign under contract. Or you were in the gym taking exercises - you were required to do a certain amount of that every day. Or down in Texas plugging a picture that you weren't even in.

GS: At the behest of the publicity department?

JS: Yes, the publicity department would write a speech for you, usually at the opening of the picture. You came out first and made the speech, every Saturday matinee, and once or twice in the week. You may have never seen the picture. But you worked all the time. As I say, as far as picking parts, a fellow would come up to you, hand you a script, and say, "You play the part of George. Go down to Wardrobe and get fitted out." And, "We start Tuesday." And that's all. You'd never seen the script before.

GS: I sense that you like the work ethic that Hollywood used to have.

JS: I have a better vision of it now, looking back at it. But I realised how important it was - and how much better it was for everyone than it is now. Because you learnt your craft by working at it. And you worked all the time. And now you don't have that; you don't have that advantage.

GS: I hope you'll take this as a compliment when I say that I think that you're the last great silent-movie star who never made a silent movie. There are sequences in "Vertigo", for instance, that could stand as silent films.

JS: Well, that's something that I learnt during this time, growing up. And this didn't come right away.

GS: When you say growing up, do you mean during the 1930s?

JS: Well, I got out here [Hollywood] in 1935, and had a seven-year contract with MGM. I was here until 1941, then four years in the war. My contract with MGM ran out while I was in the war. MGM offered to sign me again, but Lew Wasserman, my agent, advised me not to sign. And he told me years later that there was a feeling, long before it happened, that the studio system was not going to survive.

GS: Not going to survive the war ...

JS: Yes.

GS: So there's a clean break because of your participation in the war. Were you more of a free agent? Were there directors you wanted to work with, but couldn't because of contractual obligations?

JS: It was the other way around. One of the good fortunes I had was the chance to work with the Capras, Fords and Premingers.

GS: And you worked with King Vidor and Walter Lang. And I note with some interest you worked for Cecil B De Mille. What was that like? This was 1952, but he goes back to another era.

JS: Just great. I was making a picture in London ...

GS: "No Highway in the Sky"?

JS: Yes. And I read in the paper that they were going to make a picture about the Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Brothers' Circus, and C B De Mille was going to do it, and Chuck Heston had the main part in it. And I'd never met Mr De Mille. And I sat down and wrote him a letter. I said that all my life I'd wanted to play a clown, the part of a clown, and I had such admiration for the circus ... And a week later I had a telegram from De Mille saying, "You're in the picture." And I didn't know that then, but he rewrote the whole thing. I was not only a clown, but the reason I never took my clown make-up off was that I was wanted by the police, which never came out until the last scene in the picture.

GS: At this point, you are in your mid-forties, and De Mille is getting pretty old. Did his method seem different to you? By then you'd worked with very modern directors.

JS: What I noticed, and what I've come to see as one of the great things about motion pictures, is that De Mille was a visual person. The important thing to him was getting the essence and the meaning of the scene up on to the screen visually. I think John Ford said it better than anybody. I remember him saying, when he was mad about something, "If you can't get [the] story that you're making up there on the screen visually, without relying on the spoken word, you're not using the motion picture correctly." Hitchcock was the same way, and Frank Capra.

This is one of the things that has changed in motion pictures: they depend more on the spoken word. You see television do it, of course. You see a person here, and another here, and they're talking and it's cut, cut, cut, cut. And you use the spoken word. And you are misusing the medium, because it's not supposed to be for that. The stage is for the spoken word. When you think about how long the motion picture existed without the spoken word, and what an audience it got, and then suddenly ... whether it was an accident or whether is was actually meant to be like that. Al Jolson's picture was a musical, so the spoken word was really singing, so it was eased in to the audience.

GS: Your point here is that it wasn't necessarily a conveyor of narrative at the beginning.

JS: I think that so many people at that time thought it was a great advance in the art of film-making, to add the spoken word, and it's not necessarily true.

GS: How would Hitchcock work on long silent sequences? For instance, in "Rope", there were scenes as long as 15 minutes with no cuts. How would Hitchcock rehearse something like that?

JS: Number one, Hitchcock would not rehearse at all. No rehearsals for dialogue. He was most interested in what he was getting from the scene, visually. Bob Burks, his cameraman for all the time he was out here, knew exactly what he was getting. And Hitchcock had this place, which was quite near the camera, and he'd say, "Bob come here," and Bob would stand right by him. He'd say, "Bob, I want this [gesturing with his hands] like that." And it was just amazing how he would get it. I never saw Hitchcock look through the camera. (I don't think he could get up high enough to look through the camera.) Bob would say, "Ready." Then Hitchcock would say, "All right. Actors." This would be a 15-minute scene or a 10-minute scene, with four, five, six actors, and he would say, "All right, now all you actors get in and move around, and don't run into the furniture, and let's see how you can make this thing run."

GS: Who would block [plan out] scenes? Who would have worked in a different mentality?

JS: Well, the directors I worked with had this same method of not only letting the actors know what they wanted up there on the screen, but letting the actors pretty much figure things out for themselves and sit back. Going back to Hitchcock and dialogue: I forget what picture it was ... Anyway, there were five of us in the scene, and it was quite a long scene, with several moves with the camera. And Bob Burks finally came over to Hitch and said, "The camera's ready." He said, "All right, actors, get on set," and he said, "Are you ready?" then, "Roll 'em". So we went through the whole thing, and Hitchcock said, "That's fine. Bob, come over here." And the poor script girl came over and said, "Mr Hitchcock, please, I have to show you this. In this page, Stewart says only half the lines but the half that he says, he says backwards." And Hitchcock said, "Well, it all looked fine, print it." That's sort of the way he was.

GS: In another words, he was saying, "I don't have to worry about your interpretation". Did that change as you became more famous, or did you have that kind of respect at the beginning of your career?

JS: No, I never - until way, way, almost at the finish of my career - I never had the feeling that the directors gave me this thing and said, "Let him alone. He can figure it out." Never. Capra, no. None of them. Preminger, certainly not. With Preminger, you did it the way he wanted it.

GS: When you started out, did you think you'd be typecast as a heavy or a leading man?

JS: I hadn't the faintest idea. As I say, they would just come to you and say here's the thing, you play the part of so and so, and you start Tuesday. The first week I got there, they showed me where the dressing room was, and took me to Wardrobe and Make-Up, and showed me where you had lunch, and somebody handed me a script called The Murder Man, [with] Spencer Tracy.

GS: That was in 1935.

JS: Yep. And he was just great to me. God, he was such a wonderful help. Not in the way of: "Now this is going to be very difficult for you." But he would say things like, "Do you say much in this thing?" I'd read over my lines, and he'd say, "Well, say it like that, that sounds fine." That's the way he'd give advice - as encouragement, not in giving me ideas as to how to behave myself.

GS: Was he considered an elder statesman at that point?

JS: No. At that point, no one was considered ... well, maybe Garbo. Garbo wouldn't come to the commissary; she had her meals in her room. Joan Crawford, too; she had her meals in her room. But the rest of them all ate at the commissary. They had a big dining room - it's maybe still there - and everyone, including all the big shots, was there, and they'd visit the sets every so often, and there was a friendship, a sort of a mutual interest between so many people. When they did the big scenes, on a big stage, they'd tell everybody - everybody that would be working on the lot - "Go over and look at it, but be back in 10 minutes". And we'd all go over and watch it. That was the kind of thing that was done for young people, just to show what kind of business you were in.

GS: Did you enjoy one period of your career more than another?

JS: I think probably I did enjoy this period. This was a more exciting time because I was getting started in the business and, as I say, the studios were competitive, but they also depended on one another. The first part I did where I got some notices from the New York critics, they'd loaned me to Universal for a picture with Margaret Sullavan called Next Time We Love. This went on to do very well, and they brought me back [to MGM]. And I stayed there for a while, but they loaned me a lot of times, and everyone did this. It was a community of individual companies that depended on one another, as if it was a big family. We worked six days a week, then on Saturday night, it would seem like everybody in town would meet at the Trocadero. It's not there any more, but it was up on Sunset Boulevard.

GS: You humbly accepted any role they gave you. What do you suppose would have happened if you'd felt differently about the roles?

JS: That's just not the way things took place in those days. You didn't say, "I'll take this," take it home, and then say, "This is the worst thing I've ever read," and mope around. Never. You'd say, "This is what they want me to do, they gave it to me, and I'm going to do the best I can with it."

GS: When you were working with Hitchcock, later, the system had changed. Was there any difference in choice of roles?

JS: No. The studios and casting people may have picked out roles that they thought I could do better than others, but I guess I was too busy acting, and learning my craft by working at it. When I became independent after the war, then it was pretty much a matter of choosing my own roles - but by this time Leland Hayward [who worked for Lew Wasserman] had got to be very good at picking parts and talking to people at the different studios about parts for me.

GS: It's odd to hear you say that, because you were at the top, but still being deferential to other people's opinions of scripts. You didn't even have your choice of genres; you know, "I don't want to be in a western, or a suspencer". But the pictures you did after the war were so interesting. "Rear Window", for instance, is amazingly advanced, very modern.

JS: That was the thing with Hitchcock. I think Rope had a lot to do with my getting that part.

GS: That was the first film you'd done with him?

JS: Then Vertigo, I think, then The Man Who Knew Too Much.

GS: Tell me about what happened on the set of "Rear Window"?

JS: Well, everything went smoothly. We were all so crazy about Grace Kelly. Everybody just sat around and waited for her to come in the morning, so we could just look at her ... The thing is, no one had ever done a picture exactly like this. The idea of me not moving out of a chair for the whole picture, because I had a cast; never moving until Raymond Burr comes in and throws me out the window, and I break the other leg ...

GS: That was every man's fantasy, having Grace Kelly nurse you back to health.

JS: I remember one particular scene. I was here, in this cast, and across the way was Raymond, and the girl that Raymond was after was down here. And in one of the important scenes, Hitchcock wanted me here, so I could get all this, because I had to witness the events through the camera and the long lens. That's the way I found out that something screwy was going on. Now, Hitchcock got behind me, and said, "Now, Bob [cameraman Bob Burks], I want to get Raymond Burr and the girl in their apartment, as the action's going on, but I want Stewart and the camera to be in focus, and to be part of the picture." And to do this, camera-wise, is tough, because you have to cut the lens down to some small thing, f/22 or something, to get the distance [the depth of focus], and this takes more light ...

GS: And you're supposed to be hiding in the shadows, too.

JS: Yeah. But we just needed more light. So they brought all the lights at Paramount that weren't being used. So Burks is here with his light meter. He says, "We're not near. We haven't got enough light." And Hitchcock says, "Well, if Paramount doesn't have any, try MGM." So they went over to MGM and had to take some time to make connections, but they got some - I don't know how many, but they were these big lights - and some from Columbia. The lights were so [gestures large]. He turned them on and Bob said, "Well, that does it. We're home." And he almost hadn't finished saying that when the fire sprinklers went off. And it started raining. I'm not saying trickling down. You could hardly see through the rain! And Hitchcock turned to Bob, "Well, see if somebody can turn off the water. And, in the meantime, could somebody bring me an umbrella?" And he went over, sat down in his chair and somebody handed him an umbrella. And he sat there until they got the thing fixed.

GS: Was John Ford a droll man in that way?

JS: Oh, yes. I have great admiration for John Ford.

GS: Were there pictures of his that you like in particular?

JS: I like Two Rode Together. And I just liked the idea of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ... Ford just amazed me, the way he got things done, the way he was absolutely dead-set on getting it up there, visually. And at one point - I guess this was Liberty Valance - well, we were in a big room, and I forget what was going on, but there was a coloured actor, I forget his name [Woody Strode]. Everybody had a different costume and everything. And Ford came up to me and pointed out that the black fellow had a new costume on. And Ford said, "How do you think he looks? Do you think he looks all right?" And why I said this, I don't know, but I said, "He looks a little Uncle Remus-y." And Ford just looked at me. And he turned to one of his assistants and said, "Blow a whistle." And he blew a whistle, and Ford said, "Everybody get around." And they got everybody, including the electricians - everyone. And Ford said, "I just wanted to get everyone around so that I could let you know the rather unfortunate condition that exists: in this company we have a racist ..." And he pointed to me. And he said, "Treat him the way you should treat a racist." And everybody pointed. Ten minutes later, Duke Wayne came up to me, and said, "Well, I thought you were going to get away without him getting to you at all, but he finally got you right in the ass, didn't he?" I just remembered that.

GS: Did you play jokes on Ford?

JS: [Aghast] Oh, no, no ... I had a hat that I wore in all my westerns, and he went to see me with my big western costume on. And I came in with the hat on, and he said, "Well, everything's fine, but where'd you get that hat?" And I said, "This is the hat I've worn in all of my westerns." He said, "Well, it's terrible. I'll get you a hat." And I finally got to keep it through Duke Wayne. He helped me. He got to him, and Ford let me wear my hat.

GS: You had to go through Duke Wayne? What about your power as an actor?

JS: Nothing.

GS: When you worked with Lubitsch, from a European tradition, did you get a distinction in your mind between how European directors worked versus Americans?

JS: I didn't attempt to analyse it at all. He had a little accent, but not enough to bother. He, more than Ford, more than Hitchcock, would explain, but not exactly, what he wanted. He would say, "Now, in this story, I think it would be wonderful if you could bring out so and so at this point ... Maybe if you could try and fool around with it, if you could bring this out." And Maggie Sullavan, who I'd known and met when she was back in New York and I was getting started - she understood. I enjoyed doing that movie [The Shop Around the Corner] so much, and Lubitsch made it so clear to us not only what he wanted, but what was there in the script for us to get up there on the screen.

GS: I heard there was a scene you had to do over and over again.

JS: It was a scene with Margaret Sullavan. I did it 50 times. And it was a very short scene, it lasted two minutes; I had just come in, she was waiting at the table for me, and people were walking outside the restaurant. I had this thing to tell her - she would start the scene, and I would start telling her about this and I would get it all screwed up! And Lubitsch would say, "All right, do it again." And I'd do it a couple more times, and then I'd get it all right, and I'd look at him and he'd say, "That was terrible." So we went on like that ...

GS: I imagine Lubitsch wanted something very precise. Did you ask him what he was looking for?

JS: No. By this time, all I wanted to do was go home. But he was very good about it, and Maggie, so was she, bless her heart. But 50 times ... 47, I think.

GS: When did you feel best as an actor? When did a director make you feel most comfortable?

JS: I felt that way about Capra. I felt that when he said it was OK, that it was all right, and he wasn't sort of giving up and saying, "Well, let it go." Frank Capra, one time, in the filibuster scene in Mr Smith Goes to Washington ... I'd been doing it four days, I had maybe another day left. And at the end, about five o'clock, Capra said, "All right, that's enough for the day," and as I came down, Frank said, "I know you are supposed to be losing your voice, but your whisper doesn't sound like a real whisper to me. It just sounds like [in a husky voice] you're doing this and anybody can do that; that's nothing." And he said, "I'll see you tomorrow morning." But it worried me. I stopped at an eye, ear, nose and throat man, a doctor that I knew, and by good chance he was still in his office. I came in and said, "Is there any way that you could give me a sore throat?" He said, "Wow. That's remarkable. For 45 years I've been studying, and working, and making every effort that I could to keep people from getting a sore throat, and you come in here ... They've told me you actors are crazy, but you come in here and want me to give you a sore throat? I'll give you the sorest throat that anyone ever had!" And he took a bottle with a squirter in it and said, "Put back your head." And he put three drops in and said, "Now swallow," and I did, and he said, "Now say something." I did, and he said, "Well, you wanted me to give you a sore throat: there's a sore throat. How long does this have to last?" I said, "Well, I've got one more day, that will mean maybe four or five hours that I have to talk this way." He said, "Well, this won't last more than an hour. Where are you making the picture?" I told him: "Columbia." He said, "When do you start?" I said, "Eight o'clock." And he said, "I'll be there." Well, I don't know what happened to his practice ...

GS: You can imagine, a doctor being invited to watch Jimmy Stewart make a film ...

JS: He was there until four o'clock that afternoon. And I know Frank knew. He stayed in a little box dressing room I had on the set. I know Frank saw him, but he never said anything to me.

GS: Did he say that your voice was better, at least?

JS: No. He just didn't say anything. He said, "That's fine."

GS: I've noticed in the "Sight and Sound" poll of critics and directors, how well regarded "Vertigo" still is. Are there any of your films that you feel are underappreciated?

JS: No. I pretty much agree. Some of them went around for a couple of months and have never been heard from since. And I pretty much agree with it.

GS: They were simply programmers?

JS: It was just part of my work. I didn't start out to make a lousy picture.

GS: Films like "Vertigo" and "It's a Wonderful Life" have gone up in critical reputation. Are there films that you are surprised did as well as they did?

JS: I suppose that The Stratton Story did better than I thought it would.

GS: Did you always feel you were going in the right direction?

JS: I didn't think about it that way. I just did it, day to day ...

GS: My time is up. It's been a delight.

JS: Well, I've enjoyed it. You got me talking about things I haven't thought about for a long time.

! A longer version of this interview appears in `Projections 5', edited by John Boorman and Walter Donohue, published by Faber & Faber (pounds 9.99, paperback, out tomorrow).

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