By Wade Sheeler
Recently, the Warner Archive Collection released two lesser-known James Stewart films that offer a unique and unusual perspective on the actor from an especially fertile period just as he was attaining national recognition and acclaim.
Stewart’s big year was 1939. The previous year he had played the romantic lead in Frank Capra’s Best Picture winning You Can’t Take It With You. By 1939, he not only appeared in the career defining role of Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but also offered up his familiar shy and sly country yokel with much on the ball “persona” in his first Western, the hilarious Destry Rides Again.
However, prior to 1939, Stewart had been kicking around Hollywood in bit parts and smaller character roles for years. He stood out, surprisingly, (SPOILER ALERT) as the killer in 1936’s After the Thin Man, and, equally surprising, the very unsympathetic opportunistic son of a kindly preacher in 1938’s Of Human Hearts.
An MGM period picture, Of Human Hearts tells the story of a kind but stern frontier preacher who moves to a small Ohio village on the river where the townsfolk have long since lost their “way.” It’s obvious that Preacher Wilkins (Walter Huston) and his son and wife (Beulah Bondi) are accustomed to finer living, as the town can barely pay for or provide the minimal necessities as promised to keep the family financially afloat. The son, Jason, becomes interested in the town doctor, who also happens to be the town drunk. He’s told by his provincial father to stay away, but his curiosity about medicine and healing can’t keep him far from the doctor’s side.
As the son grows up to become James Stewart, he is more restless than ever in the backwater town, and after literally coming to blows with his father about rejecting the gift of a used coat from a poor mountain woman, he leaves home to study medicine. While Preacher Huston gets older and sicker, Stewart struggles to get through school, writing home only when he needs money. The couple sells their possessions, and Stewart seems unaware of the financial burden he places on his parents. It takes the school’s janitor constantly harranging him to get Stewart to return home just in time to witness his father’s passing. Instead of motivating him to stay and help his mother, he leaves again to get his degree and immediately joins the North in the imminent Civil War.
It takes until the third act for Stewart to realize the error of his ways and return home for good, not only to reunite with his mother, but to bring back her most prized possession: the horse her late husband trained for her, Pilgrim.
While the story reeks of high melodrama, there is an engagingly unpretentious sweetness that keeps you interested. Huston played preachers many times, most notably as the obsessive and hypocritical missionary in Rain, so the initial misconception that he will again play a fanatic is unwarranted. Interestingly, there’s a disarming sophistication to the father-son relationship at play. One would think because Stewart is a man of medicine that the two would argue over faith vs. science, but the story never goes there. Instead, the father is proud of his son pursuing a career that tends to the sick and helpless. Stewart, as well, never finds spirituality as a point of contention. In fact, both father and son’s calling has little to do with their friction, but instead, their way of looking at social castes and class. Stewart believes the family does little to “better” themselves, and takes for granted the sentimental value his parents place on their meager possessions. While Stewart ends up saving countless lives in the War, and his new methods help do away with unnecessary amputations, it takes the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln himself to set Stewart on the right path to appreciating his mother.
Speaking of Stewart’s mother, Beulah Bondi plays the role with undeniable depth and truth for the unconditional love of her selfish son. Impressively, this would be the first of five times (!) Bondi would play Stewart’s mother, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. It would seem wrong to ever have anyone else fill her shoes.
By 1940, Stewart had become a household name, and still filmmakers didn’t always know what to do with him. The same year that he delivered his Oscar turn as reporter Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Kralik in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic The Shop Around the Corner, he also played a seemingly simple country writer who becomes an egotistical alcoholic in the very strange No Time For Comedy— an unintentionally apt title–opposite Rosalind Russell.
The story centers around the cast and crew of a play about Park Avenue High Society having a hard time making sense of their script, until playwright Gaylord Esterbrook shows up. He’s nothing like the director, producer and star (Rosalind Russell) expect. He’s a backwoods hayseed that Russell mistakes for an usher, sending him out for cigarettes. While the producer loses faith in the play, Russell gets the cast to co-op the piece, and it opens as a Broadway smash. Stewart marries Russell, and follows the play with four more comedy successes, but time has not done well for their marriage. Stewart is not only in a creative rut, but seeks solace in the bottle and other women’s arms. Not until he meets wealthy but married eccentric Amanda Swift (a very good Genevieve Tobin) does Russell begin to worry about his infedelities, since he seems to believe he has found his muse and real love. Russell find some solace in the arms of Tobin’s husband, (Charles Ruggles).
Interestingly, while Stewart would like his relationship with Tobin to become sexual, she wants them to stay platonic. She lives only to be his “muse,” inspiring him to write his “great” tragedy “The Way of the World,” with predictable results.
The first half of the film is an enjoyable romp, watching Stewart play out the predictable “fish out of water” he had done so well in The Shopworn Angel and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but once the story shifts, and he becomes a cad, it’s nigh impossible to want him and Russell back together. The fact that he’s also unusually cruel to their black maid cum family friend, Clementine (Louise Beavers), does not help in his final act “redemption.” In fact, the relationship Russell has with her maid is, for its period, quite progressive. Beavers not only acts as servant, but as an actor in Russell’s troupe, and the two have a “best friend” energy that bleeds into their untraditional living situation.
Rosalind Russell is definitely an “acquired taste” for some, as here she and Stewart have little chemistry, and her resolve to accept Stewart’s philandering doesn’t’ do much for her cause. In fact, there’s a pervasive “ennui” that permeates their relationship that may be quite accurate for the Park Avenue “set,” but again, doesn’t help to make either very appealing.
The supporting players are a welcome reprieve, though, with Charles Ruggles delivering an adroit performance as the exhausted cuckold, Clarence Kolb as the blustery but insecure producer, and Allyn Joslyn as the depressed theatre director who constantly holds out hope for Russell’s affections.
For lovers of James Stewart, and those curious about his lesser known work, you owe it to yourself to screen your own Double Feature, and investigate one of the most likable actor’s “take” on some less than appealing roles.