James Stewart, like most famous actors, did not pop on the scene and immediately gain recognition for his stirring performances. He had to pay his dues for several years. In Hollywood’s early days, most actors came to the screen by way of the stage. That’s how Humphrey Bogart did it. That’s how Henry Fonda did it. And that, as well, is how his good buddy Jimmy Stewart did it. And like others, Stewart had to hone his talent in front of the camera in supporting roles, or even smaller “walk ons.”
After Fonda had begun getting work in Hollywood, he talked Jimmy Stewart into coming out after tepid success on Broadway, doing some screen tests which got him a contract at MGM. His first time on camera, in fact, was reading opposite auditioning starlets in their screen tests. His first real role was in a Shemp Howard short (this was before Shemp became an onscreen “Stooge”), and he was not an instant success, due to his quiet demeanor and tall, gangly look. This suited him well for his first supporting role in a feature, the Spencer Tracy vehicle The Murder Man. That film, along with his first starring role in the feature Speed a year later, have just been released by Warner Archive Classics. For those who wish to see the young actor tackling both small and lead roles with the youthful exuberance and undeniable charm that assured he would be a household name by the early 1940s, it’s definitely worth your time to pick up 1936’s Speed and 1935’s The Murder Man.
Speed is fascinating for several reasons, least of which is for its merits as a decent film. Set at the fictitious Emory Motors auto plant, but shot in and around Detroit’s Chrysler factory, Speed is a great peek into what was considered “modern automotive engineering and design” in the mid-30s. In fact, there are several scenes where Stewart shows actress Wendy Barrie around the plant , a seemingly perfect commercial for Chrysler’s latest “airflow engines.”
Stewart plays Mechanic Terry Martin, more excited to test drive and crash cars then build them. He and his buddy “Gadget” (Ted Healy) spend their free time building a ground-breaking carburetor, but can’t seem to impress CEO Mr. Dean (Ralph Morgan – older brother to The Wizard of Oz’s Frank Morgan). Into the mix comes “lovely” Jane Mitchell (Barrie) who is starting in the PR department and interested to learn everything she can about the business. Martin takes an instant liking to her, but there’s another rival for her affections, head Engineer Frank Lawson (Weldon Heyburn). The two men vie for her attention, bringing out the age old rivalry between the mechanical world (Stewart) and the engineering universe (Lawson), and it would seem never the twains shall meet.
With Jane’s help, Martin is able to have a meeting with the boss and get his carburetor tried out at the Indy 500 (of all strange testing grounds!) and of course, Martin is the driver with his on-board engineer, “Gadget” to help him race. There’s a terrible crash which puts him and Gadget in the hospital, and all attempts at resurrecting his carburetor seem hopeless.
The archival footage is incredible to watch. In the early scenes we see a 1930s Chrysler sedan getting the hell knocked out of it as Stewart tests it, crashing it over and over again. The Indy 500 uses real footage from the race, and this adds great historical accuracy as well as amazing period coverage. In the final act, Stewart attempts to break the land speed record (all for the purposes of promoting a carburetor?!) and this daring (and near-miss) footage was captured at Bonneville Salt flats with a vehicle created just for the film.
This footage and Stewart’s off-the-cuff, lackadaisical performance are the only reasons to enjoy Speed. The story is trite and unbelievable and the supporting players (save for Una Merkel who was always a gem to behold and deserving of leading lady status) are just painful. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Ted Healy (the original “leader” of the Three Stooges (who was nothing but a scene stealer and copycat) and infamous ugly drunk) but he always ended up as the “comic relief” in more than his fair share of MGM films. Wendie Barrie (an English actress who had spent some time in Hollywood) is too stiff and flat to create real fire with Stewart (again, wish she were played by cutsie Una Merkel), and Stewart’s rival, Weldon Heyburn, is perfectly dreadful. A B-movie actor, he is your typical unimaginative leading man with a filmography to equal his talents.
The stand-out, then, is Stewart. His believable, easy-going manner would seem atypical to the Hollywood leading man proto-type, especially since these parts generally went to Clark Gable, William Powell or Paul Muni. But there is an undeniable charm to Stewart, even this early on. He could be a girl’s best friend who ends up becoming more than a friend. He was the “everyman,” much like Gary Cooper, but less of a fighter, more of a thinker.
For the second film in our double bill, Stewart has barely a featured role, more like a beefy walk on. Since we took a look at Speed, Stewart’s very first lead, it makes sense to check out The Murder Man, which was Stewart’s very first role in a feature film. He plays newspaperman “Shorty” (Get it?) one of the many wise-cracking, story chasing reporters who basically live in the police station’s press room, waiting for the next big story to hit. The top of the heap, big man on campus, is Spencer Tracy as Steve Grey, the hotshot reporter who is one step ahead of all the press in solving crime after crime, particularly murders, thus his unofficial moniker; “The Murder Man.” As always, Tracy is in top form, and for good reason. This film was his first with MGM, which would spark a twenty-year career at the studio.
Written in that Front Page-Ben Hecht style of feverish paced plotting and fast and furious “wise cracking,” the press hoi polloi (which not only includes Stewart but perennial grouch William Demarest and properly mustachioed Bobby Watson (the “Moses Supposes’” diction coach from Singing in the Rain) are all over the murder of corrupt stock broker Halford, part of the two man chiseling team of Halford and Mander, both junk bond kings (something like Bernie Madoffs from the depression era) who have bilked hundreds of average “Joe” investors who lost everything. Both men have the State Department sniffing at their heels when Halford is shot in the convertible back of his chauffeured limousine, arriving to his appointment dead. While The Star newspaper is searching high and low for their lead reporter Tracy, the rest of the press are a flurry with all sorts of angles on the murder, none of them correct.
Gossip columnist Mary (Virginia Bruce) is sent by editor Robins (Harvey Stephens) to find Tracy, most probably on one of his endless benders. It’s quite clear Mary and Grey are something of an item, and she’s worried that the constant grind of churning out columns that stay one step ahead of the other pressman is wearing him out. He does, in fact, appear exhausted, worn out and deflated when Mary tells him of the Halford murder. Working almost like a savant, he is able to deduce that there’s a shooting gallery just outside the Halford-Mander offices, and that Halford was killed with a .22, the same caliber form the shooting gallery rifles.
When Grey goes to the brokerage offices to question Mander, he overhears the corrupt partner on the phone, promising to pay back some illegal trades with the insurance money he will get from his partner’s death. It doesn’t take long for Grey to put two and two together and place Mander at the shooting gallery at the time of Halford’s death. In fact, during Mander’s trial, Grey is put on the stand and testifies against the broker, explaining that he and Halford had bilked hundreds of people out of their lifesavings, including Grey’s own father, Pop Grey, who works at the newspaper with son Steve. It’s an open and shut case, and Mander is given the death penalty. Tired and worn out, Grey and his girl Mary seclude themselves in a mountain cabin, until our favorite newspaper boy, Shorty (Stewart) shows up to pull Grey back to town. It seems the newspaper editor arranged for an exclusive interview in the death house on the eve of Mander’s execution. Something isn’t sitting right with Grey, and he turns out to reveal a shocking truth that is a nice Third Act surprise and a solid argument for why Spencer Tracy was one of our finest screen actors.
Still, this is about Stewart, and it’s easy to see why his natural style and plucky demeanor helped secure him leading man status just a year later. Both The Murder Man and Speed may only be of interest to classic film deep dive aficionados, and the former may be the superior film of the two, but still in all, watching a young Jimmy Stewart doing his best to rise above the ranks of supporting players is a sweet joy to behold.