THE FBI STORY (1959) is a product of its time, as conservative a movie made in the 1950s or any other decade. The FBI is portrayed as the finest friend the American citizen has, fighting against the Ku Klux Klan, those who would defraud Native Americans, gangsters, Nazis and, of course, Communists. I'm no expert on American crime, but I know the FBI was hardly the halo-wearing bureau as presented here.
Alas, while THE FBI STORY is not one of Jimmy Stewart's most memorable films, it does utilize many aspects of the famed Stewart persona, and provides a preview of his “befuddled” father character he would play in the upcoming decade.
With Stewart's FBI special agent Chip Hardesty character guiding us through many of the most memorable crimes and outlaws of the 20th century, there's a little something for every Jimmy Stewart fan.
You want Stewart as an upstanding lawman upholding American values? You got it here.
You like seeing Jimmy Stewart out west? Then you will likely enjoy a segment with Hardesty in Oklahoma investigating the murders of members of the Osage Indians and a plot to steal their oil-rich land. While the calendar says 1920s, it may as well be Stewart in the Old West, what with crooked bankers and shady lawyers.
Others may enjoy watching Stewart as family man. The family scenes get lots of footage with wife Vera Miles sometimes resentful, but ultimately accepting, of her husband's job and the responsibilities that come with it.
The casting of Miles is interesting because it gives us a what-if idea of what their scenes in VERTIGO (1958) would look like if Miles hadn't gotten pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. There's a scene involving a family crisis with close-ups of Stewart comforting Miles and one can't help but think of VERTIGO's many memorable close-ups.
It may be one of the most fortuitous pregnancies in movie history because as much as I try, I can't see Vera Miles as Madeline (or Judy). Because THE FBI STORY came one year after VERTIGO, I think it's easier to imagine the VERTIGO possibilities than the other Stewart-Miles pairing in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), glamor-wise the complete antithesis of VERTIGO. (I find Novak so perfectly cast I can't imagine anyone else in the role.)
Stewart's scenes as the father trying to connect with his children look ahead to his father roles in such family friendly fare as TAKE HER SHE' S MINE (1963), MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962) and DEAR BRIGITTE (1965). Personally, this is my least favorite Stewart persona, though I do enjoy the Mr. Hobbs film. The family scenes are the worst part of THE FBI STORY and help make the film an almost unendurable 149 minutes long.
They also provide what is, for me, the most painful scene in Stewart's career, where Chip Hardesty, who has fought every type of villain under the sun, throws a hissy fit because one of his kids used all the tissue paper to make an angel costume for the school's Christmas pageant. Hardesty mopes, yells and complains and its embarrassing to watch. The scene seems to go on forever and it took awhile for me to re-adjust my sympathy back to the Chip Hardesty character.
THE FBI STORY was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and, alas, his best days were behind him. I'm not going to knock LeRoy, who directed several favorite films of mine, including two 1930s classics, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. Equal parts scrappy, biting and perceptive, these movies capture the 1930s as well as any documentary could, while being supremely entertaining. But none of the pep of these movies can be found in THE FBI STORY. A lumbering script, based on a best-selling 1956 novel by Don Whitehead doesn't help, but I'm not blaming LeRoy. He had less freedom on the film then any he did in his career, what with being under the steely glare of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for the length of the production.
According to “Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Anthony Summers (G.P. Putnams Sons, 1993), Hoover cultivated Jack Warner for years. Agents would greet Warner at airports and arranged quick exits through the airport. If any studio was going to produce a love letter to the FBI, it was Warner Bros. Hoover provided THE FBI STORY with two special agents as technical advisors on government expense and five additional agents appeared in the film as agents. I'm guessing that in this case, technical advisors equals spies.
(The Warner Bros. TV series, THE FBI was also produced under close scrutiny by the agency. Hoover read all the scripts and an agent was on the set at all times to ensure proper procedures were shown, scripts were never deviated from and the bureau was always shown in the most positive light.)
Hoover could not have been more pleased with the film. He wrote to director LeRoy:
“Dear Mervyn: As I told you yesterday, words cannot express my complete delight at seeing THE FBI STORY. I felt certain the picture would be a great credit to the FBI but what I saw and heard was beyond my greatest expectations. Your treatment of the development and growth of our bureau, interwoven with a warm family story, will have a great impact on the American public. It was down with great warmth, humility and dignity...It can be truly be said you are one of us.”
According to “Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover” by Richard Hack (New Millennium Press, 2004), Hoover received $50,000 in unreported income for his services on the film as a technical consultant. No wonder he loved the film so much.
I've always thought THE FBI STORY came about due to the enormous success of THE UNTOUCHABLES television show, but that show premiered in 1959 as well. There seemed to be some sort of nostalgia boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the 1920s, especially its lawless years.
While THE FBI STORY shows the bureau tracking down Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, each of these famous characters, and others, received their own movies. Mickey Rooney shot up the screen as BABY FACE NELSON (1957), Rod Steiger was a memorable AL CAPONE (1959), Charles Bronson was a violent MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958), Lurene Tuttle scowled her way through MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD (1960), Dorothy Provine was no Faye Dunaway in THE BONNIE PARKER STORY (1958), John Ericson played PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960), and Ray Danton impressed in THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (1960). Even Robert Taylor got into the act as a 1920s gangland lawyer in the superb PARTY GIRL (1958). And of course, we can't forget Josephine and Daphne hiding from gangsters in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).
Sociologists more familiar than me with this fascination with the 1920s could provide a better explanation than me. Most of the above are of the B movie variety and have much more energy and zip than the often lethargic, though higher budget, THE FBI STORY.
But for its use of many facets of past Jimmy Stewart characterizations, and the first of his father vs. the generation gap characterizations, THE FBI STORY is worth watching for the Stewart admirer.
This post is part of the James Stewart Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. You can view the complete blogathon schedule here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2014/03/announcing-james-stewart-blogathon.html)
Lots of great films to be covered by a lot of terrific writers. It's going to be a great week.