Jimmy Stewart and the American Dream


This post in honour of James Stewart’s birthday is an essay originally written for my “Crash to Crisis: American Cinema 1931-2015” course as part of my Film and Literature MA at the University of York.

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James Stewart’s star persona navigated the country’s disillusionment with the American dream in the years immediately before, during, and after WWII. The nature of Stewart’s persona enabled the American public to engage with the instabilities of a society shifting into a modern era of international conflict, in which the US would play the most central role for the first time in its history. In the two films Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the James Stewart character is able to mediate the role of the male individual within American society as that society’s identity as a meritocracy is called into question over the WWII period.

Star persona is a combination of what is known about the actor’s private life and how his film performances shape audiences’ assumptions about him. Jimmy Stewart’s star persona is that of your typical “all-American boy,” and all the et ceteras that includes. The reading of the Stewart star text within the context of the Mr Smith and Wonderful Life film texts support and reflect director Frank Capra’s vision of America around the WWII period. The American dream in the first film stems from the ideals of the Founding Fathers, their texts, and the individual citizen’s relationship with them. The postwar film on the other hand acknowledges and praises the role of the small town in defining true American patriotism.

There is a series of particular Jimmy Stewart tropes and persona qualities which are exhibited in both these films. These similarities help to define how these films define American values, while their difference show how the priorities of these values suffered a sea change following the war. In his article about “The Structure of Myth”, Will Wright says:

“The narrative structure varies in accordance with changing social actions and institutions. The oppositions, on the other hand, create images of social types that are fundamental in the consciousness of a society” (27).

The myth in question here is how the consciousness of mid-century America identified what was truly American and what the ideal American citizen looked like. In these two films, Stewart was able to project this myth by both embodying what was recognisable and familiar in that image and simultaneously revealing its shortcomings.

james_stewartWhen war broke out in Europe, Stewart enlisted in the United States Air Force, several months before the US was bombed at Pearl Harbor and entered the international conflict. After spending a successful five years in combat, Stewart returned a war-hero, even more fully embodying the typical American male experience, which now included the complexities of the postwar transition to normalcy. The identification of Stewart-as-war hero is the linchpin to understanding the relationship between Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life. A viewer cannot comprehend the shift in Stewart’s persona and its effects on these two narratives without having some understanding of his career as an Air Force bomber pilot during the war. His transition from the boyish cynicism of Jeff Smith in the first film to the pragmatism and compromise of George Bailey in the second is reliant on the audience’s awareness that he spent an intervening five years away from filmmaking and away from America, fighting in a World War.

One example of how the public identified the Stewart persona with the returning war hero image can be found on the cover of the December 1946 issue of Newsweek magazine. The cover shows a still from It’s A Wonderful Life, the now-iconic image of a dishevelled George Bailey with his family in front of the Christmas tree. The caption below the image read “The Return of Jimmy Stewart.” Charles Wolf speaks to the “interweaving of fictional and non-fictional images” when he describes the significance of the three images used in the article. The first image shows Jeff Smith delivering his filibuster in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The second picture is of Stewart in his Air Force uniform, and the third shows George Bailey smoking a cigar in Potter’s office in It’s A Wonderful Life:

“Prewar, Stewart-as-Smith stands in idealistic, even bitter, defiance; postwar, Stewart-as-Bailey flirts with compromise… [The middle photograph] appears to represent Stewart in a yet another role in a different theatre of action – the war” (Wolf 98).

“An effort is made to link Stewart’s return to a prewar profession with the return of veterans to prewar professions everywhere” (104).

Although the narrative of readjustment is marginal to the plot of Wonderful Life (certainly when compared with William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives released the same year), Jimmy Stewart’s position in the lead role provides this narrative. Publicity like this Newsweek article reinforced this reading of Stewart’s star text, and makes it difficult for audiences to experience this film without the underlying nature of that text as representative of the returning veteran experience.

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In order to read Jimmy Stewart’s persona in the context of Mr Smith and Wonderful Life, we must assess how these films define the American myth. In other words, what and where is America according to these two films? The America of Mr Smith is found in the Washington monuments, in the public memory of the founding fathers, and in the nation’s “sacred texts”: Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the Bible. Eric Smoodin points out that the film itself “practically became an actual historical artifact (sic)”:

“One motion picture exhibitor, showing films to a general patronage, typified this slippage between the monumental, the historical, and the real and the importance of how all of this got represented, and he did so while providing his fellow managers with advice on how to sell the patriotism in Mr. Smith: ‘The Lincoln Memorial scenes alone will sell more America to them than any book or story ever published’” (Smoodin 11).

When Jeff Smith first arrives in Washington, DC, he is drawn to the national monuments like he’s in a trance. Between all the “gee whizzes” and “boy oh boys”, we are shown scenes of a number of memorials, each shot intercut with an image of the ringing liberty bell. The most poignant scene takes place at the Lincoln memorial, where Jeff overhears a young boy reading the Gettysburg address, with the help of his grandfather, while an elderly black man looks on. Lincoln in particular comes to represent a great many things to Jeff, partially because of his humility and his humble origins and as a champion of lost causes. In Mr Smith, Lincoln serves to convey “simple and recognizable meanings which reinforce rather than challenge social understanding” (Wright 23).

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Lincoln’s portrait also hangs about George Baily’s (Stewart) work desk in It’s A Wonderful Life, though it’s presence is more problematic than comforting. This second film envisions America in the home town, on the home front, far distant from the politicians of Washington, DC and the wars they wage. The message of the postwar film is that the real America exists in the homes of its working and middle classes, not in Washington and not in foreign wars, victorious or no. According to Bedford Falls, everything can be found in small town America; morals and decency stem from specifically not leaving home. If Bedford Falls is the equivalent of Jeff Smith’s hometown, which he has left, thus leading to his disillusionment, then It’s A Wonderful Life argues that wanting to leave is unpatriotic. A small example of this can be found in Violet, whose entire experience, as a single women, is dependent on the stability of her hometown. As Bedford Falls faces the possible collapse of the Building and Loan, she prepares to leave, only to return at the end of the film when order is restored.

Violet is an unusual character in It’s A Wonderful Life because she is not attached to any single male figure, nor does the film attempt to associate her with the family unit. In other ways, both Capra films are rather traditional in their limited view of women as tangential to their male partners. The worse fate that can befall Mary is that she would have become an “old maid” if it hadn’t been for George. In his article “George Baily and the Vital Center”, Randall Fallows points out that as limited as George’s role is:

“Even more limited is the corresponding gender role for women, who only fulfil themselves vicariously through men. That the role of housewife is the only truly fulfilling role for women is shown many times throughout the movie” (Fallows 55).

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Saunders (Jean Arthur) of Mr Smith Goes to Washington is pitiable because she hasn’t been able to land herself an acceptable husband. Her view of the world is cynical until Jeff Smith comes along and brings her out of the tunnel and into the light. It is only when she admits that she loves him that she is able to operate with the country’s best interest at heart. It is also at this point that she allies with Jeff’s mother (who, interestingly is played by Beulah Bondi, as is Ma Bailey in the later film), thus creating a connection with the nuclear family. Violet’s connection with her home town and Saunders’ connection with Jeff serve as their fulfilment of patriotic duty.

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 It is important to examine how both films glorify the American boy and his role as the conscience of America and the future of the nation. In Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Jeff Smith is the head of the Boy Rangers, a fictional version of the Boy Scouts of America. The boys of America worship him and he worships them, performing a 24-hour filibuster to fight for a summer camp that would “get the boys off the streets and out of the city to learn about nature and American ideals.” It is a full twelve minutes into the film before Jeff Smith makes an appearance, but we have already heard him praised by the sons of the governor who eventually appoints him, as they accost him over the dinner table:

“He’s a man! Right now he’s the biggest hero we ever had. He’s the greatest American we got, too, Dad! He can tell you what George Washington said, by heart.”

According to this argument, the highest praise these innocent boys can give their ideal man is that he is American, and that being American is defined by being able to recite George Washington. Smith later returns the compliment to America’s [male] youth when he argues that the boys summer camp will make them better citizens:

“Boys forget what their country means by just reading ‘the land of the free’ in history books. When they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…. Boys oughtta grow up remembering that.”[1]

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As in Mr Smith, James Stewart doesn’t enter his role as adult George Bailey until several scenes into the It’s A Wonderful Life. The boy George is already a hero, having saved his brother’s life and preventing his boss Mr Gower from poisoning a sick child. Stewart as George appears as a result of these heroic childhood deeds. He himself doesn’t have as direct a relationship with the boys of his town as Jeff Smith does, and this fact serves to remind us of what has passed in the years between the two movies: James Stewart has become a man – Jeff Smith may play the childish innocent, but George Bailey, and the man who is playing him, is definitely a man. As the Newsweek article highlights:

“The boyishness Stewart projected as a personality before the war, Newsweek notes, ‘has vanished with his return from the B-24s, which left him with a few un-boyish grey hairs’. His performance is praised as an ‘adult, appealing, postwar impersonation’” (Wolf 104).

In a discussion about his son’s future, Peter Bailey says, “You were born older, George.”  The portrayal of father-son relationships in both films is significant to the development of the boy into an upstanding American citizen. Because George was “born older,” he and his father speak as equals, and he is the natural successor to his father’s business. As a child, he responded to the poster that read “Ask Dad – he knows” whenever he had a problem. In adulthood, he turns to the picture of his father in his “shabby little office” and to the embroidered sampler under it, which reads: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away,” a clear reference to the first film Stewart and Capra made together, You Can’t Take It with You (1938). This sentiment, along with the other values Peter Bailey instilled in his son, leads George to embrace his responsibilities as an American citizen, namely, to sacrifice his personal desires in order to maintain the stability of the nuclear family and the small town.

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 In Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart’s character does not see American citizenship as a burden or a responsibility, but as a right and privilege. It is with pride, honour, and naïveté that Jeff Smith plays the Don Quixote role. His desire to do so is rooted in his faith in America’s founders, aptly called the Founding Fathers, and in the lesson he learned from his father: “Dad used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes.” However, Jeff-as-boy (as opposed to George-as-man) is thwarted by another father figure, his Senate colleague and father’s best friend Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who insists that his naïveté has made him unfit for the role of a politician in American government:

“You’ve been living in a boy’s word, Jeff – and for Heaven’s sake, stay there! This is a man’s world and it’s a brutal world and you’ve got no place in it. You’ll only get hurt… This is a man’s world and you have to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.”

Eventually, the child politician ends up breaking the experienced politician down as Jeff’s innocence forces Paine to acknowledge the corruption of his position and how he has failed himself as a citizen by permitting Taylor to use him.

The Founding Fathers had a great influence on Jeff through their own words and the monuments he visits in Washington, but Saunders (in her role as babysitter to the male protagonist), shows him how Jeff is truly their offspring because of his role as Don Quixote:

“Your friend Mr Lincoln had his Taylors and Paines. So did every man who tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against them didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools like that. They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington – that kind just throw bigger shadows, that’s all.”

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Not only did her words encourage Jeff to adopt their legacy, his actions as a result of her advice position him as part of that legacy, which would be adopted by future politicians, like President Ronald Reagan who, as Smoodin explains:

“Capra’s film would be appropriated by powerful mainstream politicians seeking to make voters believe that they were, in reality, virtuous but nearly defenseless Don Quixotes jousting at monolithic institutional windmills” (Smoodin 3).

But however much Mr Smith Goes to Washington encourages the individual American citizen to claim his right to be a fool and fight windmills, one question is posed both verbally and across the text of the film, a question that foretells the change exhibited in the postwar film: “One man by himself can’t get very far, can he?” WWII forced the nation to realise this in a very real way, thus turning the focus of national identity from the individual fighting for his own sake, or at least for the sake of future individuals, to the individual sacrificing self to preserve the integrity of the community. George Baily is denied the right and privilege to go abroad and fight his windmills, as laudable, legitimate, and humble his aspirations may be. The lost cause in Wonderful Life is George’s desire to travel and build things, and it is a lost cause which the postwar film text forces him to abandon. A nation attempting to return to normalcy after a world war has little patience for dreamers and Don Quixotes. The responsible American citizen must learn to buckle under and chip in to restore the touchstone of American democracy – the small town.

One of the ways this shift is manifested in the films is reflected in the protagonist’s relationship with antagonist. Taylor represents huge machine, but Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore[2]) is the machine. Taylor is always at arm’s length, having few scenes with Stewart’s character, but George Baily has several direct exchanges with Potter over the length of the film. Potter, and all that he represents, has a direct effect on George’s personal life and his career in many ways. The villain has come a lot closer to home since WWII. The two antagonists are not in themselves dissimilar. Taylor has massive influence and power over the whole nation while Potter’s power extends over the whole world of Bedford Falls, which serves the same purpose for the film text in question. Peter Baily’s description of Potter could describe both men:

“He’s a sick man. Frustrated. Sick in his mind and sick in his soul, if he has one. He hates anybody that has anything he can’t have. He hates us mostly, I guess.”

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Taylor as a figure merely represents how corruption has worked its way into the federal government. The film naively simplifies him as a distant evil who may or may not have an adverse effect on the individual lives of the citizens (although there is no doubt that in principle, which Jeff Smith patriotically represents, he is un-American in every aspect of his character). The audiences of the postwar film were far more aware of the immediate danger of men like Potter, whom they had observed operating as profiteers during the war, disrespecting the men who fought and died in it, and taking advantage of the middle and working class returning veterans trying to build a new life for themselves. Fallows describes the nature of the menacing Potter figure:

“The first time Potter appears, the guardian angel Clarence asks “Who’s that, a king?” implying that the power and wealth accumulated by Potter is more suitable to undemocratic forms of government… That Potter is less an individual and more a representation is revealed by the fact that he never ages or dies” (Fallows 52).

“Potter is certainly not bothered by a moral code; he has nobody to be kicked, and he is described by George’s father Peter Bailey as “sick in the soul, if he has one.” Both Schlesinger and Capra characterize the political Right as placing greed over morality, money over physical needs, fascist ideals over democratic values” (53).

George is not given Smith’s luxury to fight men like Potter in the relative anonymity of a Senate filibuster. Rather, George must face Potter in his father’s office as a child, in his own office as a member of the Building and Loan, in Potter’s office when he offers him a job, in his local bank where Potter steals the Building and Loan’s money, and even in his own home, in a figurative sense, where Potter has sent the reporters and the DA to arrest him. Stewart, the war hero, must fight “the Battle of Bedford Falls”. In doing so, George’s dreams are crucified as his compromise is celebrated. There would be no going back for Stewart either, who would continue to make films that position him as a representative for America’s instabilities, as evidenced in his work in the Western and suspense genres.

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The films both promote the ideals, potentials, and limitations of the individual man, a common trope among Capra productions, and a quality James Stewart was celebrated for being able to convey almost as notoriously as John Wayne, though in an entirely different way (Dyer 112). Mr Smith displays the innocence of the individual and gives Stewart’s character a chance to defend that innocence in the name of common American decency, while the post-war film is much more cynical in the freedom an individual man has to assert himself, thus placing him in a constant position of frustration as he is forced to prioritise the needs of others over his own dreams. The America of It’s A Wonderful Life is much more pragmatic than the idealistic vision proposed by Mr Smith.

 “Peter Baily was not a business man. That’s what killed him. He was a man of high ideals, so called. But ideals without common sense can ruin this town!”

“What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?”

The importance of the distribution of money in both films is key to understanding how the films define the morals of work and worth in regards to the individual citizen. Neither film attempts to argue that the individual should take any handouts either from the government or from organizations like the Baily Building and Loan. Just as Al Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) encourages the bank to invest in small private loans, both Mr Smith and Wonderful Life suggest that the success of America’s future lies in the possibilities of individuals to start their own businesses and farms, and to “Own Your Own Home,” as the sign reads in the Bailey Building and Loan office:

“If bankers are good men, then they will grant small loans (not large loans, apparently) to deserving veterans (those who are willing to work hard) without demanding collateral. (This is “gambling on the future of America”; the small loan is apparently conceived to be some kind of solution to the economic difficulties of capitalism-cf. It’s a Wonderful Life.)” (Warshaw 129).

In Mr Smith, Jeff places great emphasis on the fact that his park for boys would be established on a loan from the government, not a grant, and that this loan would be humbly but diligently paid off by the boys themselves, those taking direct advantage of the scheme. George Bailey of Wonderful Life defends what Mr Potter calls a “discontented lazy rabble,” arguing the case that reasonable financial support for the working class leads to better citizenship:

“[My father] did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr Potter, and what’s wrong with that… Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? … Just remember, Mr Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? … People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle.”

The protagonist’s relationship with his community’s working class is absent from Mr Smith where it is replaced with Jeff’s relationship with the boys. Just has the Stewart persona has grown from a boy to a man, so has the country around him. Boy rangers have become working citizens, and their role in society has become much more critical than running underground newspapers. The boys of Mr Smith haven’t learned about American citizenship in summer camp though, they have learned it in army camps and concentration camps and internship camps. Is it any wonder that the postwar film is less patient with George’s dreaming than the prewar film was with Jeff’s lost causes and windmills?

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The setting of the postwar It’s A Wonderful Life reflects America’s desperation to return to normalcy, and it accomplishes this effect with the casting of a war hero and with images of extreme nostalgia. The nostalgia of Mr Smith is for the principles of the times when America’s government was founded. As Smoodin says:

“[Mr Smith Goes to Washington] becomes an eloquent if somewhat utopian assertion of universally recognized and understood democratic values” (Smoodin 4).

On the other hand, It’s A Wonderful Life attempts, in effect, to go back in time to the happier, more stable prewar period. In this way, this film can be compared with another postwar film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which also adopts this tactic. By using familiar images to describe small town America, the films are able to invoke the audience’s nostalgic sentiments without verbalizing their meaning within the narrative itself, thus:

“…impressing the spectator with the dignity and meaningfulness of ‘typical’ American experience (his own experience) and making him feel a certain confidence that the problems of modern life (his own problems) can be solved by the operation of ‘simple’ and ‘American’ virtues… be patient and work hard (not to ask too much of life) and to face the future cheerfully” (Warshow 125).

James Stewart, the son of a hardware store owner in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a high school athlete, and college graduate represented all that America valued during the pre- and postwar periods. Stewart’s middle class, mid-Atlantic, Anglo-Saxon background positioned him in an advantageous position to articulate the insecurities of America’s dominant group. His career may have gotten off to a slow start in Depression Era Hollywood, but his three films with the uber-patriotic Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and It’s A Wonderful Life) solidified his persona as the all-American boy. This persona was further developed by his forays into the Western genre later in his career. One could also argue that his persona’s role in the development of the nation’s insecurities is revealed in his work with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s. Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life are examples of the role the movie industry played in defining American patriotism for Americans, and Stewart’s contribution to this widely accepted and very popular vision of American consciousness cannot be underestimated.

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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart!

[1] Apparently, these aren’t things either Jeff Smith or Frank Capra think that girls need to remember, but of course this was during a time when very few women were in politics. However, it’s important to remember that films like these, which so glorified the American boy as necessary to the country’s future success, contributed to the marginalisation of women by denying the possibility that they could participate in the political sphere, even though several women had done so by this point in history.

[2] . The relationship between George and Potter is all the more striking when considering that Barrymore played the father figure to Stewart’s character in You Can’t Take It With You

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