Did you know that both Lincoln and Kennedy have 7 Letters? Did you know that both were shot on a Friday? Just as uncanny is the connection between genial superstar Tom Hanks and his folksy predecessor, James “Jimmy” Stewart.
If there was any question that the two share cinematic auras for their respective generations, it was blown away when Hanks inhabited Stewart’s role from “The Shop Around the Corner” in the slick remake “You’ve Got Mail”. Their parallel command performances – studies in “aw shucks,” regular guy humility – make them both exasperatingly lovable middle-class heroes – everymen doing extraordinary things.
The two stars’ respective charm-laden film careers have a great deal in common too, running the leading man gamut from drama to thriller to comedy (Stewart’s “The Philadelphia Story” is a little classier than Hanks loving on a sheep in “Bachelor Party,” but you get the idea).
And both were/are taller than your average superstar – towering over the Pacinos, Cruises, and Stillers of Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart was the grander at 6’3”, while Hanks is a respectable 6 foot even.
But which holds greater appeal in a clash of the tenderhearted titans? Or are they, in fact, the same person? Ever seen them in a room together?
Their most famous leading ladies – Margaret meet Meg:
Stewart’s Margaret Sullavan
Stewart and Sullavan starred opposite each other in four films as love interests, including the aforementioned “The Shop Around the Corner.” The chemistry between the two is spreadable on toast. Reportedly, in real life Margaret rebuffed Jimmy’s youthful, awkward advances when he was still a Princeton student. Director (and fellow Princetonian) Joshua Logan, who knew them both well, had this to say: “Margaret was a career girl and nothing meant more to her than that – I think she loved Jim so much that she never wanted to risk what friendship they had by making herself available to him. I think she knew she would have been destructive for him.” When Sullavan married Henry Fonda instead, it was a blow to Stewart, but not enough to harm the close friendship between the two men, particularly since the Fonda-Sullavan union lasted barely a year. (Though Stewart and Fonda always remained close, they made a pact never to talk politics, since Hank was left wing and Jimmy was a hawk.)
Hanks’ Meg Ryan
Though Hanks and Ryan were only in three movies together, their pairings made for wonderful box-office returns (even after the cool critical reception to their first feature, 1990’s “Joe Versus the Volcano”). As the ‘90s wore on, the two became the twin mushy faces of American romantic comedy (such as it was), but it appears their relationship was only screen deep. Tom says of his Meg, “in the best of all ways, we’re absolute peers and absolute friends but she’s constantly challenging me by the nature of how she does her job…” It doesn’t sound much like the passionate, unspoken romance of Stewart and Sullavan. More like a handshake and a gentle pat on the knee.
Meg Ryan is no Margaret Sullavan (check out their respective acting chops and you’ll see why) but their careers seem to have similarly imploded, Meg with some well-publicized bad behavior and over face-lifting, and Margaret, due to recurring depression and a bout with terrible hearing loss. When Sullavan died of a pill overdose in 1960, her old pal Stewart went into seclusion for a while, with wife Gloria quoted as saying, “[Stewart] lost the spark that had always been there… with the death of Margaret Sullavan.”
Hanks, however, seems to be in the act of throwing Ryan a towline. They plan on reuniting after 16 years on an upcoming project called “Ithaca.” However, those looking for “Sleepless in Seattle 2” will be disappointed, as the two won’t appear on screen together; Ryan is directing and Hanks producing.
The Wise Fool: “Forrest Gump” VS. "HARVEY"
- In each our hero is a loveable simpleton teaching others about the meaning of life. One has a giant rabbit for a friend and the other Robin Wright, but…
Justice for ALL: “Philadelphia” Vs. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
- In both we see one man’s effect on a larger political agenda (the rights of AIDS victims on the one hand and the evils of appropriations on the other). Hanks won the Oscar and Stewart was nominated.
Getting Gritty with it: “The DaVinci Code” (not Tom’s finest hour) Vs. “Rear Window”
- Does that make Ron Howard this generation’s Hitchcock? Doesn’t that just give you shivers?
Very Animated: “Toy Story” Vs. “Feivel Goes West”
- Hanks is, of course, the voice of "Toy Story’s" beloved sheriff, Woody – but not to be outdone, Stewart also played the voice of a cartoon sheriff, the basset hound lawman Wylie Burp in the sequel to “An American Tail,” “Fievel Goes West” (Not Jimmy’s finest hour).
It’s getting freaky now… isn’t it?
The One That Got Away: “Joe Versus The Volcano” will be Hanks’ “It’s a Wonderful Life”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” was a well-known flop on first release, proving too much treacle for an audience just shaking off the rubble of WWII. The film (and its old acquaintance) was so soon forgotten that in 1974 the copyright went into public domain and suddenly TV stations could re-air it without paying royalties. And play it they did - which accounts for how the public re-discovered it, and came to cherish it as perhaps the finest Christmas film ever made. So, what is the Hanks vehicle - unheralded in its day – that will prove to be a classic on holographic screens? I submit that perhaps audiences concerned about climate change will find merit that eluded some critics in the previously mentioned “Joe Verses the Volcano.”
And though we're obviously kidding, similarities to the larger arc of “Wonderful Life” are right there on the surface: a man with a drudge of a job contemplates his death and how life can be made better if he sacrifices himself. Though one plan is a pitch off a snowy bridge and the other into the volcano of the orange soda-swilling natives of Waponi Woo – the plots follow some strikingly similar lines. Compare Lloyd Bridges’ billionaire Samuel Graynemore for Lionel Barrymore’s scurvy-spider of a Mr. Potter. And if there’s any question left about the psychic link between these films and stars, there are two scenes in which they buy luggage.
Now all Hanks needs is a Western on the level of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and their soul-sharing connection will be complete. I’m sure, somewhere, Ron Howard is hard at work.
Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart.
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