Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Jimmy" Stewart in Shenandoah

To the best of my knowledge, the only time that James Stewart was officially billed as "Jimmy" was during his mercifully brief incarnation as the star of an NBC sitcom (The Jimmy Stewart Show which ran during the 1971-72 season). Otherwise, the name was always James. Yet, to the moviegoing public for whom the lanky actor represented decency and a gentler form of Americanism than that embraced by John Wayne, he was always "Jimmy" Stewart.

It’s appropriate that he was usually billed one way and addressed as another. Stewart played many roles that encouraged the audience to regard him with affection, but there were other roles that inspired a more distant form of admiration. You really wouldn’t want to be on anything but formal terms with the morbid minded detective of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo lest he confide to you his weird obsession or suicidal despair. The same goes for the grubby, sometimes vengeful sort he played in his westerns for director Anthony Mann. The man in those films was James Stewart. On the other hand, Mr. Smith, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, Glenn Miller, et al, well, those were roles that only "Jimmy" Stewart could play.

In 1965, Universal’s Shenandoah gave the actor one of his last great "Jimmy" Stewart parts, that of Charlie Anderson, a widowed Virginia farmer whose opposition to both war and slavery prevents him from siding with either the Confederate or the Union in the Civil War. His six sons also sit out the conflict, although a few do have a crisis of conscience for doing so.

Whatever their stance, their lack of involvement in the conflict does not mean they are opposed to a fight. When government agents come to the farm, first to buy, then to confiscate Anderson’s horses because they’re needed in battle, the fists fly as soon as one of the feds utters the word "yellow" to describe the family.

Circumstances change quickly when the youngest Anderson (Philip Alford of To Kill a Mockingbird) is taken prisoner by Union soldiers who mistakenly believe the Confederate cap the boy finds and wears, signifies more than it does. The patriarch, accompanied by four of his other sons and a daughter, sets out to find him. Even in those less technologically advanced times, bureaucracy is at work to hinder his search ("We have schedules to keep," one officer tells him when refusing Anderson’s request to search a train of prisoners) and, along the way, his family is drawn into the war with tragic results.

Pitting neighbor against neighbor, the Civil War had a devastating effect on a country still struggling to live up to its promise, and Shenandoah depicts the heartbreaking consequences of the war poignantly without veering into melodrama. That the film was released when the Vietnam War was also turning Americans against each other, makes Shenandoah more meaningful. With the exception of John Wayne’s rather gung-ho and much reviled The Green Berets three years later, Vietnam was ignored by Hollywood until such 70’s films like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, so this Civil War drama may be the only acknowledgment that mainstream filmmakers gave to the anti-war sentiments felt by so many at the time.

Regardless of its message, the real highlight of Shenandoah is its star. Stewart’s deeply felt performance is powerful, warm, and, like all of his best work, lacking a single false note. Otherwise, the cast is adequate, though with the focus so strongly placed on Stewart, little else could be expected from Doug McClure, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Wayne, Katharine Ross, Rosemary Forsyth, Paul Fix, James Best, George Kennedy, and the aforementioned Alford. Still, a running time of one hour and 46 minutes is rather skimpy for such a powerful subject. An extra half hour may have given the audience the opportunity to get to know the Anderson family better than it does, thereby making their loss all the more powerful.

Also lacking is Frank Skinner’s music score which fails to fully utilize the great song that shares the film’s title. Whether performed at the funeral of President Richard Nixon, or over the credits of Oliver Stone’s biopic of the scandal plagued commander-in-chief, that song never fails to touch me. The same is true of "Jimmy," as opposed to James, Stewart.

Shenandoah gives us, for perhaps the last time on the big screen, the Stewart that we have all come to know and love.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


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