While often portrayed as a time of placidness and conformity the nineteen fifties were anything but. McCarthyism was rampant as was the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The Supreme Court shook the foundation of America with its decision on Brown vs The Board Of Education and The Civil Rights Movement which was about to come into its own was set to do the same. Everything from the Beat Generation to Rock n Roll to the explosive growth and influence of television made the fifties anything but a dull period.
It would also be a time of great change for Jimmy Stewart.
On the Hollywood scene since the mid-thirties Stewart would expand his range as an actor well beyond the everyman hero he had come to personify in movies like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life.
Certainly his age and the taste of post-World War II audiences had something to do with it. And the transformation itself did not necessarily start right at the beginning of the nineteen fifties. Viewing his performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope from 1948 you can see things are not what they used to be.
The year 1950 would see this change in persona fully realized with two legendary films. The amiable but hopelessly alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend is a six foot three and a half inch invisible rabbit name Harvey.
The other is Lin McAdam in Winchester ’73. Stewart and director Anthony Mann would team up for a number of westerns in this decade with many of them having a dark quality. Often times desperate and driven to the point of psychotic Stewart turned the whole idea of the western hero upside down.
His exploration of the dark side did not end there. This is the decade he would also reunite with Hitchcock again to devastating effect. During this period they made three films together but two in particular stand out. The first is Rear Window where Stewart plays a photographer laid up with a broken leg who thinks one of his neighbors in an apartment complex has committed a murder.
What sets this apart from other murder mysteries is the fact that Stewart’s character Jeff Jeffries is in essence a peeping tom who uses his idle time to spy on his neighbors. In one sequence after having a fight with his girlfriend played by Grace Kelly he turns around in his wheel chair to face the open window. He gets a slight grin on his face as if someone just turned on the TV to his favorite show. Spying on the neighbors is his entertainment!
The other collaboration with Hitchcock is Vertigo. Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson a detective who after a close call suffers from an almost paralyzing fear of heights. He also has the crazy idea of transforming one woman into the exact likeness of his dead girlfriend. At one point when the woman (both roles played by Kim Novak) objects to this insanity Ferguson begs, “Please. It can’t matter to you.” In other words go along with his perverted obsession just because.
Of course it was not all tales from the dark side with Jimmy Stewart during this period, as evidence by one of his personal favorites The Glenn Miller Story although it does have a tragic ending. What the fifties showed was an actor who was always good getting better. Infusing characters with more of an edge, more willing to take chances and confident in the results. If the Fifties were a conservative conformist decade then Jimmy Stewart didn’t get the memo.