Tuesday, April 15, 2014

James Stewart Blogathon: The FBI Story


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it gives us a what-if idea of what their scenes in VERTIGO (1958) would look like if Miles hadn't gotten pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak.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.


Patti said...

I have not seen this film, but it sounds interesting to me...kind of like a collage of a bunch of different stories, as the FBI agent's long career is brought to life.

It's always fun to learn of others who might have taken on a role. For the most part, the person who actually played the part is the only one we can ever imagine playing it. Rarely do we wish the "first choice" had gotten the role. So I'm sure your thought about preferring Kim Novak to Vera Miles is quite universal. As for this gal...I have no thought on the subject, because I have never seen "Vertigo." (Shocking, I know, but true.)

Caftan Woman said...

I remember seeing "The FBI Story" once as a kid. It seemed to take the whole Sunday afternoon to get through it, including commercials. I've never had the gumption to try to tackle it again. Jimmy or no Jimmy.

Funny thing, my sister and I were speaking about "Vertigo" this morning and how much we admire Kim Novak in that picture. The more often I see the film the more far-fetched it seems to imagine anyone else in her roles.

DorianTB said...

Kevin, I must agree with you about THE F.B.I. STORY being rather like, as you put it so well, "kind of like a collage of a bunch of different stories." Vera Miles is an excellent actress, but I think her part pretty much amounts to being the worried wife, but hey, a gal's gotta eat! I do like her in Psycho and and The Wrong Man (not a happy film, but her performance moved me to tears) and I found her quite delightful in William Castle's nutzoid horror-comedy THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, as well as Henry Hathaway's thriller 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET. Great job, Kevin, and best wishes to you and yours!

Kevin Deany said...

Hi Patti: There's sometimes I can first choice people in a role. I can picture Anita Louise as Marian in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. She would have been fine in the role, but no Olivia. But I can see why they would consider her. I like Vera Miles just fine, but I can't picture her in VERTIGO. But Hitchcock must have something in her, because he really wanted her for the role.

CW, I remember THE FBI STORY from my youth with some fondness, and my liking of period gangster movies helped my decision to pick it for the Stewart blogathon. But I'm older and wiser now, and it was a tough slog for me this time.

Dorian, "kind of like a collage of a bunch of different stories"? Good Lord, that's a lot of prepositional phrases. I'm usually better than that and was a asleep at the switch when editing that paragraph. Yikes. I need to see the Castle and Hathaway films. I like her in Liberty Valance quite a bit too. All the best to you, too and everyone at the HQ.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I like your analysis of this film, which I've not seen, but probably would take a crack at it just for the various aspects -- maybe even including the embarrassing scene--you described. Your mention of the Vera Miles matchup and how this film might help us to imagine their paring in VERTIGO was interesting, but I laughed at this: "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)."

Great review.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I've haven't seen THE FBI STORY in years, but remember enjoying it for the most part. While not one of James Stewart's best, it certainly is an ambitious film as it attempts to cover three-plus decades of the Bureau's history. I don't buy the contention by those who claim it's pure government propaganda. It true that the FBI is portrayed in a positive, sometimes noble, light. However, Stewart's agent buys into Hoover's agenda almost too enthusiastically, even at the expense of his family (he puts himself in harm's way an awful lot!). Stewart is solid in the lead; I don't think the film would work at all without him. That said, I need to watch it again to see what I'd think of the tissue paper scene now! Your excellent review (with references no less) makes for engrossing reading!

John/24Frames said...

Kevin, It's been years since I have seen this but honestly, it sounds as if it was a paid advertisement for Herb Hoover boys. You're right thought, it was a product of its times, when the U.S. was still all white picket fences and mama was in the kitchen. Enjoyed your take on it!

Cliff Aliperti said...

I really like how you pulled the various Stewart screen personas into your post. I "kind of" like The FBI Story, but enjoy some vignettes better than others, while a few leave me twiddling my thumbs hoping the next one is better! You're dead on about the family stuff slowing it down.

Kevin Deany said...

Jacqueline, I found the family scenes in THE FBI STORY more than a little bland, which is why I was making the VERTIGO connections in my mind. Obviously not what LeRoy wanted.

Rick, I agree. I can't picture anyone but Stewart in this role. He's always worth watching, even when the material doesn't help him.

John, paid advertisement sounds about right. One can only imagine what the LeRoy of the 1930s could have given us. I'll guess we have to settle for William Keighley's G-MEN, which is one of my favorite gangster films ever.

Cliff, I did enjoy the Indian segment quite a bit. The communism sequence amused me, if only I find these Cold War capers fascinating on a historic level. They're tracking the spies to Yankee Stadium and one of the Commies has the nerve to eat that most All American of foods - a hot dog with mustard. The nerve and what a slap in the face to America.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful review. I think I've only seen the movie once and it seems that a lot of it hasn't stayed with me; likely I was too young to appreciate a lot of it. I love how there's a bit of every kind of 'Stewart' in it, that's something I get with a lot of his movies. I'm not sure if it's because he's so ordinary that he's so easy to relate to, or if there's some kind of Jimmy secret we've never been let in on.
Also, I had COMPLETELY forgotten that Miles was scheduled to play in Vertigo, and I can't imagine her in the role now.

FlickChick said...

I have to admit that I loved this film when I saw it ages ago. I am not sure I would feel the same now, but I was and am always a Stewart fan, so there you go. Imagine how disappointed I was to learn that Hoover was such a creep.

Kevin Deany said...

Girls, thanks for your nice note. Like I said, Hitchcock may have worked his magic with Vera Miles in VERTIGO, but I think Kim Novak is sublime. I liked your comment about a little bit of Jimmy in all his roles. Even when he's playing the most obsessive stalker in movie history in VERTIGO, he's so sincere that the audience's sympathy is with him, even though what he is doing is monstrous.

FlickChick, I hadn't seen THE FBI STORY in years and remember liking it, one of the reasons I picked it for the blogathon. But your tastes change as you get older, and this time I found it a tough slog to get through. Thanks for writing.