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James Stewart, a tribute

Bye, bye, Mister American Pie.

James Stewart, who became a great star by playing the American everyman, and then refined his craft with a series of darker and more troubling roles, died Wednesday of cardiac arrest, at home in Beverly Hills.

He was 89, and had been in failing health, especially since the death in 1994 of his wife Gloria. The death, coming just a day after the passing of Robert Mitchum, marked the ending of a Hollywood era. Now only a few legendary stars survive from Hollywood Golden Age, including Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas.

Stewart was one of the central icons of the Hollywood style, a man who became popular playing characters who were ordinary, bashful, stammering or self-effacing. One of the roles which defined his persona was in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), where he played a naive idealist who is elected to the Senate and defends his principles in an inspired filibuster.

A few years later, in 1941, he won an Academy Award for his work in "The Philadelphia Story," as a newspaper reporter who competes with an ex-husband (Cary Grant) for a socialite (Katharine Hepburn). It was part of the Stewart legend that he sent his Oscar to his father's hardware store in his home town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where it sat in the window for 20 years.

After wartime service in the Army Air Corps, his first picture was the one that has become his most popular, Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). He played George Bailey, the savings and loan man from the small town of Bedford Falls, who feels he has failed his neighbors, and contemplates suicide when he is talked out of it by an angel named Clarence.

"It's a Wonderful Life" was Stewart's own personal favorite, but it was a disappointment at the box office and had almost been forgotten when a lucky thing happened: It fell out of copyright, and public TV stations started playing it (for free) on Christmas Eve. Soon it was said that "Wonderful Life" had played more times on television than any other film, and its popularity mushroomed. Viewing it is now an annual ritual for countless families around the world.

When the black-and-white classic was "colorized," Stewart appeared before Congress in testimony labeled "Mr. Stewart Goes to Washington" and said, "I tried to look at the colorized version, but I had to switch it off--it made me feel sick." He helped turned the tide against the colorizers.

Postwar America was a less innocent place than the nation where Stewart had first become a star. He continued to do traditional Stewart roles, like "Harvey" (1950), where he talked with an imaginary rabbit. But he also began to develop a tougher and more complex image in Westerns and twisted Hitchcock thrillers. Whether he played everyman, or everyman's hidden psyche, Stewart was an innately likable man whose face, loping gait and distinctive drawl became famous all over the world.

I remember his visit to the Cannes Film Festival in the 1980s, to be decorated by the French government at the premiere of a restored version of "The Glenn Miller Story." Stars are commonplace at Cannes, and the crowds grow blase. But Stewart drew the largest crowd anyone could remember, stretching far out along the beachfront, and they chanted "Jeemy! Jeemy!" as he turned, a tall, grey figure, to wave to them.

A few years later, at the Telluride Film Festival, accompanied as always by his beloved Gloria, he appeared, not at a tribute to himself, but for a tribute to Anthony Mann, the half-forgotten director of some of his finest westerns, including "Winchester 73" (1950), "Bend of the River" (1952) and "The Naked Spur" (1953). It is Mann, more than anyone else, who pointed the direction for Stewart's later career; film critic David Thomson wrote "these Westerns redefined Stewart's character: he was now revealed as a tougher, more pained and selfish man, who was often made to suffer and put to a broad test of courage and wounding."

Alfred Hitchcock, also expert in manipulating the images of great stars, had already surprised Stewart's fans by using him in "Rope" (1948), based on the Leopold-Loeb case. Now he used the new, more complex Stewart persona in one of their greatest hits, "Rear Window" (1954), where Stewart played an invalid in a wheelchair who used binoculars to spy on his neighbors--and stumbled across a murder.

Four years later, in 1958, Stewart and Hitchcock filmed "Vertigo," which is generally considered to be the best work either one ever did. Stewart, who had often played biographical roles (Glenn Miller, Wyatt Earp, Charles Lindbergh in "The Spirit of St. Louis") now played Hitchcock's most autobiographical character, a man obsessed with molding women to his ideal image. Kim Novak co-starred in a tricky dual role, and "Vertigo" was selected in a 1992 worldwide poll as one of the 10 greatest films of all time.

Decade after decade, Stewart seemed able to reinvent himself; his voice and manner, so distinctive, lent themselves to a surprising variety of roles. He was the persistent, probing lawyer in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" (1960). Two years later, in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," he played an Eastern lawyer who is disenchanted by the rough Western world of John Wayne and Lee Marvin. And he played Wyatt Earp in Ford's last picture, the elegiac "Cheyenne Autumn."

Born in 1908 in Indiana, Penn., he "grew up over the hardware store," Stewart recalled, and studied architecture at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. But he liked acting better, and joined a theater troupe including a man who would become his lifelong friend and frequent co-star, Henry Fonda.

He made his first film ("Art Trouble") in 1934, had the only villainous role of his career in "After the Thin Man" (1936), and got his first big break opposite Eleanor Powell in "Born to Dance" (1936). He worked steadily for the next 60 years. His last onscreen appearance was in "The Magic of Lassie" (1978), but he did voice-overs as sheriff "Wylie Burp" in "An American Tail: Feivel Goes West" (1991), and his unmistakable offscreen voice could until recently be heard in ads for Campbell's soups.

The "American Tail" movie was produced by Steven Spielberg, who once said he took a print of "It's a Wonderful Life" with him onto the location of every one of his movies, and showed it to his cast and crew, telling them, "This is the kind of picture I want to make."

In 1980, Spielberg among many others joined in honoring Stewart when the American Film Institute gave him its lifetime achievement award. In 1984, he was given an honorary Oscar. In addition to his Oscar for "Philadelphia Story" he was nominated for "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," "It's A Wonderful Life," "Harvey," and "Anatomy Of A Murder" (1959). It was a wonderful life.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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