The All American Hero

THE STORY GOES THAT when the news first hit Hollywood of Ronald Reagan's ambitions to be president, Jack Warner, the legendarily blunt mogul, responded, ""No. Jimmy Stewart for president, Ronald Reagan for best friend.''

We know the images that flashed through Warner's head, because they were the same images the words ""Jimmy Stewart'' evoke in us all; they were why we voted for him, with our box-office dollars, for half a century, throughout his 80-film career. There was no movie star we trusted in quite the way we warmed to the man who played Jefferson Smith in ""Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' the lanky innocent whose naivete the sharks of the Capitol foolishly thought they could exploit. His was a decency, filtered through drawling Midwestern diffidence, that helped a nation define itself. We chose to believe that this consummate actor's virtues held a mirror to the American soul at its guileless best. The eternally boyish Stewart, with a reed-thin profile that might have been drawn by Norman Rockwell, never lost touch with the idealism of youth even when he became a folksy grampa, flirting with self-parody, puttering across our TV screens. The beguiling reticence that masked his firm convictions could only have grown out of a country that was feeling confident about itself and had no need to blow its horn. He was the most reassuring of stars, a reed that bent but never broke, and for the comfort he gave us we sat him at the head of our mythical family table.

With his death last week at the age of 89, that iconic Jimmy Stewart will harden in the Mount Rushmore of our memory. But there was more, a lot more, to his artistry. It was said of Stewart, as of many stars of Hollywood's golden age, that he only ""played himself,'' and if that means that he never disappeared inside a role the way a Dustin Hoffman or a Robert De Niro does, then yes, he was always Jimmy Stewart. But when you look at the true range of his roles - from the debonair romancer of Margaret Sullavan in Lubitsch's ""The Shop Around the Corner'' to the cruelly obsessive lover in Hitchcock's ""Vertigo'' - any simple notions of what Stewart was capable of crumble.

The more of his films you see - Westerns (""Winchester '73''), comedies (""Harvey''), love stories (""The Shopworn Angel''), thrillers (""Rear Window''), courtroom dramas (""Anatomy of a Murder''), biographies (""The Spirit of St. Louis'') - the more the deceptive generosity of his acting is revealed. For he was willing to expose depths in himself that more complacent actors wouldn't dare. Under the protective cover of his lovableness, he could unleash a ferocity, or a vulnerability, that borders on the aberrant. Think of the anguished sobs that rack the despairing George Bailey in ""It's a Wonderful Life'' or the outbursts of teary self-loathing from his merciless bounty hunter in Anthony Mann's ""The Naked Spur.'' Such a meltdown would be nearly unimaginable in a movie with Bogart, Fonda, Cooper, Grant, Gable or Wayne. Because we trusted his implicit decency, Stewart could stretch the boundaries of American masculinity in ways we wouldn't tolerate in other stars.

Yet the straight-arrow image clung to him properly, on screen and off. A devout Presbyterian and political conservative, he had been raised in an ethos of service by a strict disciplinarian father, who owned a hardware store in the rural Pennsylvania town of Indiana. Stewart wasn't one to complain about the roles he got or didn't get: he loved the old studio system, shuffling from movie to movie with barely a day's rest (in his first years at MGM he once worked on four movies at the same time), happily promoting his pictures like the good soldier he was.

Even though he prolonged his bachelorhood until he was 41, and was romantically linked with actresses as diverse as Marlene Dietrich and Dinah Shore, no hint of scandal ever clung to him. When he did marry Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949 (who had two sons from a previous marriage and bore him twin girls), it stuck: they stayed together 45 years until her death in 1994. It was typical of Stewart that at the height of his fame at the end of the 1930s, he enlisted in the army and resisted Hollywood's entreaties for five years. His war record was distinguished - he flew some 25 missions and returned a highly decorated colonel - but when the studios wanted to exploit his real-life heroism in postwar flyboy epics, he refused to play along. Self-aggrandizement was a tight suit he wouldn't wear.

What's been forgotten about Stewart's legend is how quickly and indelibly it was created: the classic early roles that forever defined his image all came from the 13 movies released between 1938 and 1940. Those three years alone were enough to make him an immortal: opposite Jean Arthur in Capra's ""You Can't Take It With You,'' paired with Carole Lombard in ""Made for Each Other,'' ""Mr. Smith,'' ""Destry Rides Again,'' the elegant ""Shop Around the Corner,'' culminating in his Oscar-winning performance as a reporter bedazzled by the golden Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's ""The Philadelphia Story.''

It was a different, darker Stewart who emerged after the war. ""It's a Wonderful Life'' was the first film he chose when he returned from combat, and it was his favorite (though it was decades before Capra's film achieved its classic status: it was a flop in '46). The happy, sentimental ending can't disguise the harrowing desperation Stewart brought to George Bailey, whom he modeled on his father. It was a prelude to his second renaissance in the 1950s, when he put himself in the hands of directors who saw the rabid tenacity that lay under the casual, folksy surface. In a series of five hard-edged Westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, he revealed a vengeful, selfish, sometimes anguished soul that tested the limits of our sympathy. But it was Hitchcock, with his masterful eye for perversity, who pushed Stewart to his most sublime limits, as the voyeuristic invalid in ""Rear Window,'' the anguished father of a kidnapped child in ""The Man Who Knew Too Much'' and as Kim Novak's blindly fetishistic worshiper in ""Vertigo.'' Who but Hitchcock would have seen the obsessive mania under the laconic charm?

The '50s brought Stewart not only his deepest characters, but great fortune. He was one of the first stars to forswear a salary in exchange for a fat percentage of the gross, and it made him a millionaire. But after John Ford's ""The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'' in 1962, the movies he was offered were rarely first rate. He worked steadily through the late '70s, even tried his hand at two unsuccessful TV series, but he had been relegated to the margins of the culture, a beloved reminder of what we used to be.

It wasn't just that the old studio system collapsed; all the old values he'd always stood for in the popular mind were suddenly contested. It was a bad time to be a hawk in Hollywood, and it was easy for a new generation to dismiss him as an anachronism. The war in Vietnam, which he supported, hit home tragically when his stepson, whom he had raised from the age of 5, was killed in battle. The bedrock convictions we admired him for could look narrow and obsolete: as a trustee of his alma mater, Princeton, he opposed admitting women to the school. But Stewart didn't let politics get in the way of friendship. In his early days in the theater in New York he roomed with Henry Fonda, as staunchly liberal as Stewart was conservative. An argument turned into a fistfight in the street. ""Thank God it was snowing - I went down on my face more than he did,'' recalled Stewart. But when they returned to their hotel, Fonda made a proposition: they would never discuss politics again. ""And we never mentioned it. For 30 years. It was a nice relationship.''

With the passing of Jimmy Stewart, an age of civility and graciousness suddenly seems farther out of reach. No star worked harder, or with less apparent fuss. That abashed, ""aw shucks'' stammer every Jimmy impersonator latched on to was born of an era, before strident self-promotion came into vogue, when a man blushed when good things were said about him. It's nice to remember a world when a movie star was also a gentleman.