Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart, bridged by Abraham Lincoln
The following is the final post in series on Tom Hanks specifically, part of a work-in-progress on Hollywood actors as historians generally.
Other than noting that the two men held parallel roles in The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail, I have thus far avoided making a direct comparison between Tom Hanks and another figure who dominated U.S. cinematic life for much of the 20th century: Jimmy Stewart. Type in the two actors’ names in a typical search engine or periodical database and you will find dozens of hits that do not merely contain their names, but make explicit and sustained connections between the two. There are lots of obvious similarities: both enjoyed long careers as Everyman. Both were unremarkable in their looks but attractive to women in their demeanor, language, humor, and understated intelligence. Both were widely known and liked by their peers, and worked with repeatedly with the best directors of their time. And both played a variety of roles across genres, their versatility obvious and important, but never more so than a star persona that made it impossible for their characters, whatever their demons or frustrations, to ever be seen as true villains.
There are subtle similarities, too. Both men had complicated and difficult relationships with their fathers. Both men had relatively long apprenticeships, the memory of their many flops largely erased by a few early big hits (for Stewart, these were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and The Philadelphia Story in 1940, for which he won his only Best Actor Oscar). The silly but successful Harvey (1950) was Stewart’s Turner and Hooch, though his rabbit was imaginary and Hanks’s mutt was real. Margaret Sullavan, the blond beauty with whom he appeared a number of times, was Stewart’s Meg Ryan.
Hanks, aware of these similarities, has shrewdly—which is to say modestly—distilled Stewart’s appeal in ways that captures his own as well. “Sure I would like to have the class of a Cary Grant. I would like to have the enthusiasm of a Jack Lemmon. But above all I would like to be Jimmy Stewart,” he has said. “He’s not the most handsome man in the world, and he has kind of a geeky voice, but it doesn’t matter—there are women out there who are rabidly in love with him, and men who admire him. Mostly, without a drastic altering of look or personality, you believed him in everything he did.”
Less commented upon on are the two men’s differences. Stewart came from an illustrious East-coast family; Hanks from an unremarkable one (other than that Nancy Hanks pedigree, an ironic distinction given the lowliness of her origins). Stewart attended a prep school and then Princeton; Hanks a pair of relatively undistinguished California public colleges. In addition to portraying military men, Stewart actually served with distinction in the Air Corps, a forerunner of the Air Force; Hanks never got closer to shots being fired than the set of Saving Private Ryan. Stewart was a lifelong Republican; Hanks, notwithstanding the conservative currents that run through many of his movies and his widely reported unhappiness with Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair, is a lifelong Democrat (and at one point in the nineties, a bona fide Lincoln bedroom visiting Friend of Bill).
For our purposes, though, there’s one core similarity and one core difference that really matters in the juxtaposition of Stewart and Hanks. The similarity is that as actors, both men carried the torch of institutionalism in their time. The difference is that they did so at different times.
This is not the place to rehearse Stewart’s vast output in any detail; suffice it to say from early pictures like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), to middle-period ones like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), to late ones like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he was always cast as the upholder of community values. As with Hanks, the institutions he represented ranged from the U.S. government to businesses like the fabled Savings & Loan of Wonderful Life, often in contrast to gun-slinging contemporaries who prized their autonomy. Stewart was a fixture of the Western—something Hanks has not been—and here too he is typically the lawman, or, at the very least, the promoter if not enforcer of shared ideals, particularly in the string of psychologically complex Westerns he made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s.
As such, Stewart was the Lincolnian figure of his generation, and was recognized by such by his contemporaries and those who followed. As Stewart biographer Marc Eliot has noted, “Henry Fonda may have played Abe Lincoln on screen [in Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939], but in real life it was Stewart who as far more Lincolnesque: tall, awkward, soft-spoken, reali-life heroic.” Stewart got one of his first assignments as an MGM contract player in Of Human Hearts (1938), a Civil War movie about a man who rebels against his father’s strict religious upbringing and becomes a battlefield surgeon. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene at one point in the movie when Stewart’s character is summoned to the Oval Office by President Lincoln (a rather impressive looking John Carradine), who reveals that he knows the young man has failed to write his long-suffering mother and demands the lad do so at his desk immediately (we get a close up of Stewart writing on “Executive Mansion” stationery). A far more famous example of Stewart’s intersection with Lincoln comes from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At the start of the movie we see the naïve boy senator awed by the Lincoln Memorial, hoping that he will be worthy of the Great Emancipator. Later in the movie, disillusioned and in despair over the betrayal of his father’s old friend Senator Paine (Claude Rains), he makes a night pilgrimage to the Memorial alone. He’s joined by the once-cynical Jean Arthur, who has gone from skeptical to charmed to moved by Smith, and now seeks to prop him up. “You didn’t just have faith in Paine, in any other living man,” she counsels him. “You had faith in something bigger than them. You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that.”
Tom Hanks could never appear utter such a line; he could never appear in such a movie, whose widely noted sentimentality—“Capracorn,” in the lingo in cineastes—would be laughable, though as some have noted, Mr. Smith was far more controversial in its depiction of government corruption than a contemporary viewer would realize. Which is what brings us to the key difference between the two men. Stewart’s career corresponded to a time of global crisis, from the Great Depression to the Cold War, when it was self-evident to a great many Americans that only large-scale institutions could respond to the huge challenges of the time. This did not mean that all Americans loved big institutions, nor did it mean that Americans turns a blind eye toward their inevitable defects and corruptions, particularly government institutions that ranged from the presidency to the armed forces. But they recognized the need for them, and actors like Jimmy Stewart helped ease their accommodation to them. Indeed, the fact that Stewart was a Republican made him all the more credible in this meta-role.
Hanks, by contrast, came of age in a very different era, one of suspicion of government on the Right, and just about every other kind of institution, from religion to big business, on the Left. In such an environment, only a much more low-key, even ironic, approach for the kind of institutionalism he represented could begin to work, and in this meta-role, Hanks, who has always had a quicker wit than Stewart, excelled (humor, of course, is a signature Lincolnian trait). The real surprise is the degree to which Hanks has been able to smuggle in (really) big government affirmations like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13 into his body of work. Actually, it’s not coincidental that the center of gravity for Hanks’s vision of American history is precisely that Stewart-era locus of the twentieth century stretching from Road to Perdition to That Thing You Do! He could only serve this meta-role by showing his huge audience that his brand of institutionalism has had a history—a history that worked. And that institutions of the people, by the people, and for the people represent our last, best hope.
The question now is whether we can believe it.
Coming soon: Jodie Foster as historian
Coming soon: Jodie Foster as historian