An Evening in the Company of Legends

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I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.

CARSON POSES WITH KRAMER AND HEELEY.

CARSON POSES WITH KRAMER AND HEELEY IN 1987.

The evening begins at 8:00pm EST with what is arguably the best of the series, James Stewart: A Wonderful Life. Produced in 1987, the documentary seems like just another bio-doc familiar to anyone addicted to American Masters or the Biography Channel. Johnny Carson serves as the on-screen host, and he and Stewart walk through a studio back lot as the actor recalls his life and career. Stewart is interviewed on camera; these sequences are intercut with film clips and talking-head comments by associates, costars, and admirers. But, it soon becomes apparent that the extended presence of Stewart makes a difference, adding a warmth, authenticity, and appeal that reflects his personality.

HARLOW AND STEWART JUST BEFORE SHE KISSES HIM IN 'WIFE vs SECRETARY'

HARLOW AND STEWART JUST BEFORE SHE KISSES HIM IN ‘WIFE vs SECRETARY’

Carson begins with a description of Jimmy Stewart’s familiar star image—the everyman with old-fashioned values and down-to-earth sensibilities. Even the most casual viewer knows the Stewart persona from watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but Carson’s reminder serves as context for the comments and clips. Obligatory information about Stewart’s childhood and hometown are provided, along with his early efforts to become a stage actor with friends Joshua Logan, Henry Fonda, and Margaret Sullavan. The fun begins when Stewart and Carson begin to recount his early days in Hollywood, because the anecdotes are less familiar, and the actor’s recollections amusing. He recalls working with Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary when he was an unknown, and she was already a star. She kissed him with such passion during rehearsals that he was taken aback. He remembered exactly how many times they kissed that day, mumbling several times that “she was such a good kisser.” In another revelation about Stewart’s early career, Carson notes that he was tested for a part in The Good Earth, while a promotional still of an unrecognizable Stewart as a Chinese man fills the screen. The part eventually went to a Chinese actor.

STEWART MADE UP AS A CHINESE MAN FOR 'THE GOOD EARTH.' HE DID NOT GET THE PART.

STEWART MADE UP AS A CHINESE MAN FOR ‘THE GOOD EARTH.’ HE DID NOT GET THE PART.

The documentary offers a thorough overview of Stewart’s career via the actor’s recollections, Carson’s narration, and the comments of his peers. I was reminded that Stewart worked closely with three of Hollywood’s iconic filmmakers—Capra, Ford, and Hitchcock—as well as other major directors, like Cukor, Mann, Wilder, and Preminger. We take Stewart for granted as the lovable, gentle everyman, but it is a testament to his talent as a performer, and to his understanding of his screen persona, that he knew how to play into his image—and against it. Everyone knows that Hitchcock subverted Stewart’s star image in their films together, especially Vertigo, but Preminger also offered him a chance to do something different. In Anatomy of a Murder, Stewart played a small-town lawyer who defends a soldier against murder charges. His character was a very capable lawyer, who was serious and worldly. (Sadly, two of my favorite Stewart films were not mentioned—the family comedies Take Her, She’s Mine and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.)

STEWART POSES WITH THE PORTRAIT OF PIE PAINTED BY FONDA.

STEWART POSES WITH THE PORTRAIT OF PIE PAINTED BY FONDA.

Stewart’s personal life is covered, but—unlike today’s documentaries and programs—his privacy was not violated. His wife Gloria offers several anecdotes and stories, including a brief account of the death of their son, Ron, in the Vietnam War.

Fonda on Fonda, which airs at 11:30pm EST, makes a nice companion piece to James Stewart: A Wonderful Life because Henry Fonda and Stewart were life-long friends. In 1932, they met while acting for the University Players, a theater troupe that performed in Cape Cod during the summers. Each documentary covers their relationship but from the opposite side of the friendship. Mentioned in both documentaries is Stewart’s sorrel horse, Pie, whom the actor rode in most of his westerns in the 1950s. Fonda, who was a talented artist, painted a portrait of Pie for Stewart, and the painting appears in both documentaries—a loving gesture from one friend to another.

FONDA WAS A TALENTED PAINTER.

FONDA WAS A TALENTED PAINTER.

Unlike A Wonderful Life, in which Stewart participated, Fonda on Fonda was released in 1992, after Henry’s death. The personal touch is provided by his daughter Jane, who serves as host, as well as wife Shirlee and son Peter. Notoriously shy and isolated, Henry Fonda is presented as a man of conviction and contradictions.

Jane recounts a story from Fonda’s childhood in which his grandfather took young Henry to see the aftermath of a lynching—a dead man swinging from the branch of a tree. The grandfather wanted to teach the boy about injustice in the world as well as intolerance. It is not hard to make a connection between that unforgettable childhood episode and Fonda’s participation in The Ox-bow Incident—a film that he fought hard to get made.

'BACALL ON BOGART' AIRS AT 2:00 AM.

‘BACALL ON BOGART’ AIRS AT 2:00 AM.

The other documentaries airing on Tuesday are The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn (9:45pm), Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (12:30am), and Bacall on Bogart (2:00am). In addition to the direct participation of the star or his/her family, the documentaries feature extensive clips from notable—and not-so-notable—films. The clips don’t just illustrate a point or moment in the star’s career, they further explain it.

Each documentary also includes onscreen comments by younger stars, directors, and other relevant industry personnel. Again, this is a familiar technique, except the commentators don’t just gush over the stars like they do in typical celebrity documentaries. Instead, they offer observations with substance. It was in one of those moments that Richard Dreyfus, in A Wonderful Life, said something profound. He noted that the films of the 1930s and 1940s were his training ground. From actors like Jimmy Stewart, he learned how to handle dialogue, how to “stand and look” during a scene—“how to take a moment and how to steal a moment.” The observation describes the style of acting that Stewart, Fonda, Hepburn, and other movie stars excelled at. It was a style propagated by the studios in which personality, persona, and performance are more important than the “realism” that method actors prize so highly. The old-school stars made it look so easy –like they were “playing themselves”—though their performances were far more skilled than that.

While watching these Hollywood veterans recount their experiences in an industry they helped define, I was charmed by their humility, impressed with their work ethic, and awestruck by their grace; afterward, I was saddened by the loss of these giants and consumed with nostalgia for another time and place.

14 Responses An Evening in the Company of Legends
Posted By Jenni : April 6, 2015 5:57 pm

Thanks for the alert about these documentaries. I set my dvr up accordingly.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 6, 2015 6:14 pm

The Jimmy Stewart doc made me tear up at the end. I am such a softie about movie stars.

Posted By Medusa : April 6, 2015 6:52 pm

Good to see these getting aired! Some were made by/for TNT back in the ’90s. A different place, a different time! Thanks for the heads-up!

Posted By Paul Kelly : April 6, 2015 7:17 pm

Suzi: I’m a big fan of Jimmy Stewart. Thanks for the heads up.

Posted By Bill : April 6, 2015 7:25 pm

Fonda’s only co-produced film 12 Angry Men, is about a metaphorical lynching, as is The Wrong Man. Fonda had an easy relationship with Darryl Zanuck, who would make a money loser like Ox-Bow in exchange for a more commercial project. In this case, prob Daisy Kenyon.

Posted By Emgee : April 6, 2015 7:32 pm

“Darryl Zanuck, who would make a money loser like Ox-Bow in exchange for a more commercial project. In this case, prob Daisy Kenyon”

In fact he allowed director William Wellman to make The Ox-Bow Incident if he would direct Buffalo Bill right after that.
( A movie Wellman hated)

Posted By Lillian Smith : April 6, 2015 9:15 pm

I love their work and have my DVR set to record as well. Congratulations to David Heeley and Joan Kramer. I have been a friend for years and was blessed to hear some of the stories.

Posted By David Heeley : April 7, 2015 2:24 am

Thank you, Susan, for your very perceptive comments. You certainly know your stuff.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 7, 2015 3:33 am

Thanks for reading Mr. Heeley, and thanks for the compliment. I am honored.

Posted By Bette Hughes : April 8, 2015 12:52 pm

Oh heavens! I am just reading about this the DAY AFTER! I just checked TCM for any repeats of these and also checked TCM On Demand and do not see any repeats – I would love to see all of these – will these be repeated? Hoping!!

Posted By Susan Doll : April 8, 2015 1:40 pm

Bette: You can see FONDA ON FONDA and JAMES: STEWART: A WONDERFUL LIFE in their entirety on Youtube.

Posted By LD : April 9, 2015 2:03 pm

There was something very familiar about a couple of these documentaries and I realized not only had I already seem them but a couple of them were living in my house. The Katharine Hepburn “All About Me” is included in the two disc special edition of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. “The Spencer Tracy Legacy” is included in the Tracy Hepburn “Signature Collection”. I don’t know about the other two.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 9, 2015 4:56 pm

LD: Thanks for sharing other sources for these docs, esp. for those who missed them on TCM.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 9, 2015 6:18 pm

Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were best friends and it really shows in that photo. They enjoyed making kites and assembling model airplanes. There is a nice biography about Jimmy Stewart I borrowed from the library years ago. It’s worth checking out.

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