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Jimmy Stewart by Marc Eliot

Peter L. Winkler

One need only turn the page to be greeted with a fresh example of Eliot's ignorance of film history and technology.

Jimmy Stewart: A Biography

Publisher: Harmony Books
ISBN: 1400052211
Author: Marc Eliot
Price: $25.95
Length: 463
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-10
UK publication date: 2006-10
Author website

Curious to see what Marc Eliot wrote about the films Stewart made with directors Anthony Mann and Otto Preminger, I read those sections of his book first and was appalled by its awfulness. Reading Eliot's book reminded me of Pauline Kael's review of the film Fahrenheit 451, in which she told how she horrified a Berkeley professor by burning a "crummy ghost-written" biography of a movie star in her fireplace.

Jimmy Stewart: A Biography is an ineptly researched and written assemblage of material from previously published sources. One need only turn the page to be greeted with a fresh example of Eliot's ignorance of film history and technology. On the technical side, he mistakenly claims that How the West Was Won was released in Cinemascope instead of Cinerama, and describes another film as being made in VistaVision and 70mm, two physically incompatible formats. Otherwise, his book is overrun with superfluous plot summaries (Vertigo's takes up eight pages), and wrong-headed analyses of Stewart's films. Further still, Eliot can't even keep his facts straight. He makes this parenthetical observation about George Stevens' film, Giant: "James Dean in his final screen performance before his sudden, early and tragic death in a car accident just prior to the film's release." James Dean died on 30 September 1955, about a week after filming his last scenes in Giant, but the film wasn't released until November of the following year. Further, Eliot states that Cary Grant retired from acting after Monkey Business (1952), only to return seven years later in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. In a footnote on the same page, Eliot gives Thief's release date as 1955. That's three years, not seven.

It goes on. Eliot's interprets the first and best of Stewart's films with Anthony Mann, Winchester '73, as an Oedipal saga. After all, says Eliot, the prized rifle of the film's title is a phallic symbol. But Winchester '73 centers on Stewart's character avenging his father's murder and the theft of his rifle, both the doing of his brother. It's not about a son's struggle to displace his father and sexually possess his mother. Eliot mysteriously concludes that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is John Ford's statement about Hollywood, though he doesn't explain how. Then he claims that Ford's film was a rebuke to Cecil B. DeMille's fervid anti-Communism, which Eliot says was embodied in DeMille's Biblical epics of the '50s. Rebukes were rather beside the point in 1962, since DeMille died in January 1959.

Ford had already famously rebuked DeMille at a heated meeting of the Directors Guild in 1950 when DeMille advocated requiring guild members to sign loyalty oaths. Ford stood up and said, "I make Westerns. I don't think there is anyone in the room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. De Mille. In that respect I admire him." Then, looking at De Mille, Ford said, "But I don't like you, C.B. I don't like what you stand for and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight."

After making the inexplicable observation that the art of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance "lay in its literal vision of God," Eliot claims that the film remains little seen since its original release. Eliot also claims that Stewart's 1967 film Firecreek "has had very little subsequent TV play and remains largely unseen," but writes on page 388 that Stewart's films "played in Los Angeles and New York in the '70s on local over-the-air independent stations on the average of two or three times per week." That's how this writer first saw both films. It was largely through innumerable TV screenings that Liberty Valance became so widely seen that it has achieved classic status and was issued on VHS in 1997 and later on DVD. Even Firecreek, the lesser of the two films, was issued on VHS and DVD.

It may seem that I have it in for Eliot, but finding glaring flaws in his book is almost an exercise in belaboring the obvious. I stumbled over this sentence while copying Eliot's comment about James Dean: "It had become clear to the studio that Mann's Westerns were of the highest quality, comparable to anything coming out of Hollywood, they were not able to sustain an audience." Here's Eliot's jaw-dropping summary of the film "No Highway in the Sky": "The film is an airplane drama about a plane in danger of exploding in flight due to structural defects, paranoia a popular theme in '50s films when commercial flying increased dramatically." An airplane drama about a plane? I kid you not.

Jimmy Stewart was an honorable, modest man. He was also apparently an unreflective man who left no record of his interior life. In a misguided attempt to suggest one, Eliot describes events he can't possibly know of, as when he writes about Stewart, stationed in England during WWII, breaking down in tears after reading his father's letter declaring his love for his son. Eliot claims that Stewart was serviced by an unnamed actress at a going away party thrown by his friends before Stewart entered the Army Air Corps, and had, or wanted to have, an affair with his co-star Kim Novak. Perhaps Eliot has taken The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance's signature line too much to heart: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Eliot betrays a lack of affection for his subject, especially in his treatment of Stewart's life after his film career waned in the '60s. Eliot draws a sour picture of an increasingly joyless Stewart waiting for it all to end, especially after his son is killed in Vietnam and his contemporaries begin to depart from the scene. Eliot has Stewart sitting alone, watching his films on television, grumbling about their defects instead of enjoying them or attending a seemingly endless procession of what Eliot calls "rubber chicken" dinners and accepting various awards. Unlike many actors whose flamboyant, off-screen antics or personal psychodramas are the real reason we remain interested in them, Stewart's films are his legacy. If you don't get that right, you're left with very little.

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