Two Rode Together: Film Forum pays tribute to Henry Fonda and James Stewart

ScreenerBlog

They were friends, roommates and hopeful young actors long before they became major movie stars. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart had other things in common—fans considered them embodiments of all-American independence and rectitude, yet both men were also loners in life, their close friendship aside. They had differences as well, including diametrically opposed political beliefs (Fonda the Democrat vs. Stewart the Republican).

All of these attributes are well-etched by Scott Eyman in his book Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart (Simon & Schuster). New York’s Film Forum complements Eyman’s dual bio with the side of Fonda and Stewart’s lives most familiar to audiences—the screen work by these two esteemed actors—in a series titled simply “Hank and Jim.”

From October 27 to November 16, Film Forum affords viewers a chance to compare and contrast the acting styles of Fonda and Stewart. It isn’t a comprehensive or chronological study, yet placing the two side by side is a creative way to program a retrospective, so kudos to Bruce Goldstein and all the folks at SoHo’s popular repertory theatre.

Notably, the personal revelations from the Eyman book are not disconnected from the films, lending credence to the idea of actors being the real auteurs of their films. What fans saw on the screen of the 1930s and ’40s differed only slightly from the innocence and idealism of the young Fonda and Stewart. Their loner “coldness” came through in the darker anti-heroes both men bravely tackled in their later productions. Their differences as performers are more subtle, the most significant one being that James Stewart conveyed a greater degree of charm and charisma, even in his dramatic roles.

The only mystery is why the Film Forum series does not include the three feature films that actually co-star Fonda and Stewart. Though not their best work, it would have been a natural to have a single day showing of Firecreek (1968), The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and the Stewart-Fonda segment from the all-star comedy omnibus, On Our Merry Way (1948), this initial pairing being the best of the three (written by John O’Hara and co-directed by George Stevens and John Huston).

In any case and in every other way, “Hank and Jim” delivers a solid selection of movies and performances. The following guide is designed to help navigate the three weeks, though nobody will go wrong attending any particular day.

Friday, October 27

The Wrong Man (1956) was the only union between Alfred Hitchcock and Fonda, while Rope (1948) was the first of four Hitchcock collaborations with Stewart, all of which are part of the Film Forum series.

Given Hitchcock’s penchant for revising the screen personas of his stars, some viewers may be surprised to see Fonda and Stewart altering their usual, more genial images. This is especially the case with Rope, in which the post-World War II, grey-templed Stewart—in his first full-color feature—plays a cynical yet morbidly funny college professor and the unofficial sleuth at a high-rise apartment dinner party where two of his former students have hidden a corpse as part of their “thrill-killing” plot. (The story is based on the Leopold-Loeb murder.) Hitchcock’s stylized long-take experiment has not always been properly appreciated, but Rope has become a cult favorite among Hitchcock fans and a big part of its success is Stewart’s well-grounded performance in a relatively unsympathetic part.

The Wrong Man is also based on a true story but very different in technique—a throwback to the semi-documentary style Hollywood films of the immediate postwar years (see Stewart’s Call Northside 777 below). Working again in stark black-and-white, Hitchcock turns the tale of an innocent man mistaken to be a ruthless killer into a harrowing Kafkaesque critique of the American justice system. Fonda’s plunge into masochistic despair is difficult to watch, as is Vera Miles’ portrayal of the man’s mentally fragile wife. Hitchcock essentially takes Fonda’s Tom Joad everyman persona from The Grapes of Wrath and transforms it into a symbol of pathetic societal emasculation; Fonda plays the part perfectly—maybe a little too perfectly for comfort!

Saturday, October 28

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Fonda plays the liberal-minded holdout during jury deliberations over a murder trial he believes is railroading an innocent Puerto Rican youth. Sidney Lumet’s straightforward direction (his first feature) of what was originally a simple live television play by Reginald Rose is best remembered for showcasing the 12 male players of the title: co-producer Fonda plus 11 highly recognizable character actors, including E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman and the ubiquitous Lee J. Cobb.

Next, for all its “Capra-corn,” as director Frank Capra’s productions were once derided, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is the better film of the two, thanks in part to its more cinematic qualities but also because Stewart’s performance is downright soulful as the political bumpkin who becomes a jaded congressman by the time of his climactic filibuster in the well of the Senate. It was this famous scene, in fact, that many thought would win Stewart his first Oscar—it arrived one year later, as a belated consolation prize, for his smoother but less demanding effort in The Philadelphia Story (see below).

With Saturday night’s solo show, Vertigo (1958), Stewart plumbs the depths of despair again, but this time over that obscure of object of desire played in various forms by Kim Novak. In a Hitchcock film once dismissed as a failure but now considered the Master’s best work (it tops the last British Film Institute poll of world critics as the greatest film ever made), Stewart is a retired detective caught in a web of deception and murder, giving one of his most intimate and revelatory performances as a duped patsy obsessed with his mysterious quarry. Even with its minor flaws (yes, there are a few), the film remains a mesmerizing experience and demands repeat viewings.

Sunday, October 29

12 Angry Men returns and is joined by three classics: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Capra’s Wonderful Life, like Vertigo, was not a hit in its day, and has only become known as a major work in recent decades—thanks to repeated television showings during the holidays. The story and Capra’s treatment threaten to become treacly, but Stewart saves the day with what was his return to Hollywood following WWII and five years in the Air Force. Stewart’s portrayal of a small-town family man in midlife crisis is still the best and most genuine aspect of this Dickensian morality tale.

In Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Stewart has a field day playing the defense attorney to a soldier (Ben Gazzara) on trial for the murder of a man who may have raped his wife (Lee Remick). This time, Stewart’s earlier screen persona, the all-American innocent, is wearier but essentially still a good guy striving for a moral outcome. Once again, it is Stewart who holds together a weighty production.

Fonda, meanwhile, gets his due in The Grapes of Wrath, one of his finest screen performances as the migrant farm worker traveling with his family through the Dust Bowl, desperately looking for a better future. Though John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel is watered down of its political content, much of the film conveys the mood and essential themes of the book. (It is hard to believe today that the right-wing Ford was accused of promoting socialism by making this movie!)

Monday, October 30

Two with Fonda, again directed by Ford: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Fort Apache (1948). Neither film measures up to The Grapes of Wrath, and Drums, a warmed-over Last of the Mohicans, is particularly weak, despite the presence of Claudette Colbert as Fonda’s New York frontier settler bride, screenplay contributions from William Faulkner(!), and a rich use of Technicolor by cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The racist depiction of the Native Americans, common during this Hollywood period and particularly embarrassing in Ford’s pictures, mars the storyline, as does the near-absence of the Revolutionary British forces (obviously meant not to offend the U.K. during World War II).

Much better is Fort Apache, which at least is somewhat more sympathetic in its treatment of the Native American cause (post-Civil War this time). It also gives Fonda his first meaty “villain” role, that of an arrogant lieutenant colonel who misunderstands the complex relationship between the Apaches and his command, thus setting up a conflict with his captain (John Wayne) and a suicidal mission for his men. Here, Fonda is much more interesting to watch than as the bland hero of Drums Along the Mohawk.

Tuesday, October 31

It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo replay, joined by Bell, Book and Candle, that other 1958 film co-starring Stewart and Kim Novak. It is almost jolting to see the same doomed lovers from Hitchcock’s classic play light romantic comedy together, especially when you realize that Bell, Book and Candle was shot shortly afterward. (How did the actors recover in time?) But for all its precious touches, at least Candle, about a witch (Novak) ensnaring a mortal (Stewart), makes a good fit with the “ghostly” Vertigo as part of a Halloween bill.

Wednesday, November 1

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), William Wellman’s tense, dark look at mob justice, casts Fonda as the protester of a lynching. The socially conscious subtext is undercut by the absence of any racial references, but the film resonates more after reading the portion of Scott Eyman’s book that describes the young Fonda having been a witness to a lynching, an event that informed the actor’s lifelong liberal politics.

Stewart stars in Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), also a progressive-minded western, considered one of the first Hollywood films to portray Native Americans in a largely sympathetic light. In a sense, Stewart, as an army scout, becomes the Caucasian ambassador to this “brave new world” of acceptance and understanding, even though other Caucasian actors (including Oscar-nominated Jeff Chandler) play the Indian characters.

Thursday, November 2

Two more westerns follow with Stewart, working with Anthony Mann, a more artistically rigorous director than Delmer Daves. The first, Winchester ’73 (1950), pits Stewart’s cowboy against Stephen McNally’s outlaw and turns the rifle of the title into a character as well. This early effort to reveal the rough, ruthless side of Stewart’s persona was well-received by both critics and the public at the time and in retrospect symbolizes a mid-century, postwar loss of innocence as depicted through the lens of a mid-19th-century story.

The second, Bend of the River (1952), rewrites the old chestnut about a desperado trying to “go straight,” and features another multi-layered performance by Stewart. Mann’s Technicolor palette enhances the expressionistic values of the Borden Chase narrative. (Chase also wrote Winchester ’73, which had been shot in black-and-white.)

Friday, November 3

Yet two more with Stewart—both from 1940—this time in comedic mode. The Philadelphia Story is the one that brought Stewart his only Oscar, an amiable if talky adaptation of Philip Barry’s play, principally built around the talents of Katharine Hepburn, here as an heiress on the eve of her second marriage being courted by both her ex-husband (Cary Grant) and a reporter covering the wedding (Stewart). Though Hepburn originally wanted Spencer Tracy for the role, Stewart brings out the softer, more romantic side of the outwardly cynical newsman. Director George Cukor adds some delicate touches of his own, though the misogynist edge of the piece—so many “shots” directed at Hepburn’s character—mars this otherwise intelligent comedy of manners.

Better yet, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is the only time Stewart acted in an Ernst Lubitsch film and he is superb as a Budapest shop manager who carries on a feud with a co-worker (Margaret Sullavan, in their final teaming), not realizing she is the same wonderful woman he has been corresponding with by mail. Surrounded by a great cast, Stewart fits into the ensemble effortlessly and helps balance the comedy with the right amount of pathos.

Saturday, November 4

Call Northside 777 (1948), like Rope from the same year, is based on actual events, featuring Stewart as a reporter who suspects a convict (Richard Conte) might have been falsely imprisoned. Henry Hathaway’s clear-cut direction is no match for Hitchcock’s nuanced self-reflexivity, but the policier stays crisp and convincing, thanks in part to its on-location Chicago filming.

Another “ripped from the headlines” story, The Boston Strangler (1968), benefits from the post-Production Code liberation of censorship rules, depicting the manhunt for the notorious serial killer. Yet director Richard Fleischer was actually a better filmmaker during his former black-and-white film noir days (the color, widescreen and faddish split-screen add little) and the casting of a movie star, Tony Curtis, in the title role is more distracting than helpful. At least Fonda, like Stewart in Call Northside 777, plays the detective with effective understatement.

Sunday, November 5

Quite a day at the movies! The Grapes of Wrath and It’s a Wonderful Life return and are accompanied by Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Rear Window (1954).

Once Upon a Time in the West, though released the same year as The Boston Strangler, marks a radical departure for Fonda, playing against type (as in Fort Apache, but going much further) as a vicious outlaw in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti western” territory. Fonda relished the opportunity, though it is understandable that the film repelled his fans in the States (He even kills children!) while becoming a major box-office hit in Europe.

Rear Window is not only one of Stewart’s best films but also Alfred Hitchcock’s. Unlike in Vertigo, Stewart does not go completely to the dark side, but there are more than a few hints of our hero’s dangerous, obsessive nature. Stewart plays a man confined to his wheelchair in his Greenwich Village apartment, thinking one of his neighbors is a murderer. Stewart’s performance is matched by the work of Grace Kelly as his glamorous girlfriend, Thelma Ritter as his nurse, and Raymond Burr as the possible killer next door. Still, what is most extraordinary about the film is how Stewart in isolated shots conveys a range of emotions about what he is seeing without the aid of any of John Michael Hayes’ dialogue. Thus, Hitchcock and Stewart create almost an entire movie built around the “Kuleshov Effect,” as we realize that the actor isn’t looking at any of the things his character is supposedly seeing—an amazing tour de force.

Monday, November 6

It is a special treat to see the youthful Fonda and Stewart in early lead roles, both holding their own opposite the formidable Margaret Sullavan. Sullavan had been married to Fonda several years earlier (from 1931 to 1933) and their professional reunion for The Moon’s Our Home briefly rekindled their passions; they play a young married couple only getting to know each other on their honeymoon. Co-scripted by Dorothy Parker, the light screwball farce mirroring the stars’ on-again, off-again relationship was a flop in its day but deserves rediscovery.

Next Time We Love also sounds like a comedy, since Sullavan and Stewart were adept farceurs and an uncredited Preston Sturges co-wrote the screenplay, but instead the film is a heavy-going romantic melodrama and it was Sullavan who lobbied for Stewart to play the lead once first-cast Francis Lederer proved unavailable. Their chemistry is unmistakable, really the best thing about the movie, and Stewart’s home studio, MGM, paired them another three times thereafter.

Fonda’s most memorable comedy performance tops the Monday schedule: The Lady Eve (1941) casts the actor—only one year after playing Tom Joad—as a famous, wealthy but painfully naïve ophidiologist (snake expert) who runs afoul of a group of grifters, including a sexy Barbara Stanwyck. In what could be called a precursor parody of Vertigo, Stanwyck plays not one but two femme fatales—or does she?—confusing our hapless hero no end. Preston Sturges (this time directing and writing) mixes slapstick screwball, sharp wit and a bit of melancholy in charming fashion.

Tuesday, November 7

In William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938), Fonda is one of two male stars (the other, George Brent) supporting Bette Davis in the title role, a selfish, scheming Scarlett O’Hara-type of character in the pre-Civil War South. Yet Fonda’s big moment—the scene where he defies convention and dances with Jezebel (wearing a scandalous red dress) at an aristocratic ball—shows the actor’s skill at underplaying high drama. Max Steiner composed one of his most entrancing themes for this knockout sequence—alone worth the price of admission.

Fonda’s iconic Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) was his real star-making performance during that same period, though John Ford’s biopic today seems less compelling than one might expect. Part of the problem is that there is something unavoidably campy about Fonda’s appearance as Lincoln—with stovepipe hat, putty nose, et al.

Wednesday, November 8

Once again, Fonda is in support of his leading lady in Daisy Kenyon (1947), a Joan Crawford vehicle but sturdily and skillfully directed by Otto Preminger. Fonda plays returning war-vet husband to fashion designer Crawford, who maintains feelings for the married but charismatic Dana Andrews. The romantic triangle is intelligently written and performed, even if Fonda gets the least interesting of the three main roles.

Stewart is also outshined by his leading lady, Marlene Dietrich as a “dance hall girl,” in Destry Rides Again (1939), but it is Stewart’s pacifist sheriff who bestows a gentle ballast to this lively, enjoyable comic western that ends, unfortunately, in a way that conforms to sexist Production Code demands.

Thursday, November 9

The Grapes of Wrath returns yet again, paired with You Only Live Once (1937), another early Fonda performance that solidified his image as the down-on-his-luck American everyman. Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood film is similar to his first, Fury (1936), even casting Sylvia Sidney as the wrongly accused hero’s girlfriend, but Fonda is more empathetic than Spencer Tracy had been in Fury.

Friday, November 10

Vertigo and Rear Window return.

Saturday, November 11

The Philadelphia Story and The Lady Eve return.

Sunday, November 12

Harvey (1950) is directed by Henry Koster, who adds little to the stage play on which it is based. Still, Stewart is enjoyable to watch as a man whose best friend is a human-sized but imaginary rabbit.

Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is not as great as his other films with Stewart, yet the director brings out the Ugly American in the otherwise lovable star—playing a tourist in Marrakesh whose child is kidnapped. Doris Day is so good as Stewart’s wife, one wishes this exciting, funny, disturbing but also uneven picture wasn’t their only teaming.

John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is probably one of the director’s least stylish films—it resembles a TV western of the period—and suggests a disturbing pro-vigilante-justice stance, but the cast is great one: Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, John Carradine, Edmond O’Brien, Lee Van Cleef and many from the Ford stock company.

Monday, November 13

Both The Man Who Knew and The Man Who Shot join a later-career Stewart effort, Robert Aldrich’s underrated The Flight of the Phoenix (1966). It was one of several films in which the real-life war pilot plays a pilot, here trying to survive a crash in the Sahara Desert with a motley bunch of passengers. Though a box-office failure in its day, it is vastly superior to its 2004 remake.

Tuesday, November 14

The Best Man and Fail-Safe are two 1964 political-themed movies with Fonda. While neither could be considered great as films, it is Fonda again who grounds the narratives with his reassuring presence: in The Best Man he plays a Democratic candidate running for President, and in Fail-Safe, already as the U.S. President, he tries to save the world from nuclear destruction in a post-Cuban Missile Crisis scenario. Both films boast all-star casts, but it’s the laconic, low-key Fonda who stands out.

Wednesday, November 15

Two more James Stewart-Anthony Mann westerns further explore Jimmy Stewart as an embittered cowboy. The Naked Spur (1952) casts Stewart as a bounty hunter trekking through the Rockies to deliver a psychotic outlaw (Robert Ryan) to the authorities. In The Far Country (1955), Stewart greedily tries to take advantage of the Alaska Gold Rush, but is thwarted by a series of oddball characters. Both films revise the simplistic morality of more traditional westerns and seem refreshingly modern today.

Thursday, November 16

Fort Apache and Once Upon a Time in the West wrap up the series.

There are other performances not being screened but worth exploring nonetheless—Stewart’s pleasing singing and dancing in Born to Dance (1936), his surprise turn in After the Thin Man (1936), his other pairings with Margaret Sullavan, his deft support in the little-seen Malaya (1950) and his moving performance as a fugitive in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), played throughout the story in clown makeup.

Fonda fans might wonder what happened to his stage and screen triumph, Mr. Roberts (1955), or his only Oscar-winner, his final film, On Golden Pond (1981), but there are other omissions as well: Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), Preminger’s political epic, Advise and Consent (1964), and interesting failures like The Man Who Understood Women (1959).

Perhaps a sequel series is in order. In the meantime, “Hank and Jim” more than suffices, with two of Hollywood’s best actors maintaining their place in the pantheon of stars who could rightfully claim to be more than personalities with good looks.

Visit the Film Forum website for showtimes, dates for Scott Eyman’s introductions and book signings, and for other information.