Thursday, November 9, 2017

Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart

Author:  Scott Eyman
Genre:  Biography/Film

Hardcover; Audio CD; Digital Book; Audiobook
ISBN #:  9781501102172; 9781681689623
Simon & Schuster Publishing (Highbridge Audio)
384 Pages
$18.90; $39.99; $14.99 Amazon
October 24, 2017


Henry Fonda and James Stewart were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood for forty years.  They became friends and then roommates as stage actors in New York, and when they began making films in Hollywood, they roomed together again.  Between them they made such memorable films as The Grapes of Wrath, Mister Roberts, Twelve Angry Men, and On Golden Pond; and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, The Philadelphia Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, and Rear Window.

They got along famously, with a shared interest in elaborate practical jokes and model airplanes, among other things.  Fonda was a liberal Democrat, Stewart a conservative Republican, but after one memorable blow-up over politics, they agreed never to discuss that subject again.  Fonda was a ladies' man who was married five times; Stewart remained married to the same woman for forty-five years.  Both men volunteered during World War II and were decorated for their service.  When Stewart returned home, still unmarried, he once again moved in with Fonda, his wife, and his two children, Jane and Peter, who knew him as Uncle Jimmy.

For Hank and Jim, biographer and film historian Scott Eyman spoke with Fonda's widow and children as well as three of Stewart's children, plus actors and directors who had worked with the men - in addition to doing extensive archival research to get the full details of their time together.  This is not another Hollywood story, but a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary friendship that lasted through war, marriages, children, careers, and everything else.


If anyone knows classic films at all, then these two actors' names will be right up there with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant.  While their films, for the most part, of all these actors were very different, their onscreen presence was palpable.  There was no mistaking that you were in the presence of a great actor when you sat down to watch.

I have always known that Fonda and Stewart were best friends - anyone who claims to be a classic film buff would know this.  And, I must say, I knew quite a bit about their professional lives, and their personal, as far as marriages.  I also knew that they both served in World War II, Fonda in the Navy and Stewart in the Army Air Corps.  However, Mr. Eyman has gone far deeper into their pasts.

He begins right where they do - from birth; and tells us of their very different upbringing in life.  He goes on from there to their early life on the stage, and their eventual move to Hollywood.  But their lives take very different turns.  Hank was married five times - he was wound too tightly most times to make a marriage stick; his emotions stayed beneath the surface and were rarely exposed; Jimmy was married once, when he was 41 - Gloria was the love of his life and the marriage was a happy one.

Their careers took different turns, also:  Hank preferred stage to screen; Jimmy stayed in Hollywood and made many memorable films (and a few he probably wished he hadn't).  But the films Hank made were, for the most part, memorable also, and I am sure everyone has that particular film of both of them that stays with you and you will watch over and over.  I love Hank's films The Mad Miss Manton, Mister Roberts, and The Rounders (not a spectacular film, but very funny).  For Jimmy's films, I love The Shop Around the Corner, Rear Window, and The Rare Breed.  

It is obvious that Mr. Eyman has done extensive research on his subjects.  The book is neither cloying nor filled with Hollywood gossip; it gives us an honest and well-written biography about two remarkable men, the like of which will never be seen again.

While I've read other biographies of Fonda and Stewart, I believe that Mr. Eyman's is the best by far.  While I am sure there are those who like only one or the other, I consider myself a true classic fan, and while I may not like an actor personally, I can watch their body of work and appreciate it for what it is.

While this book points out that Hank wasn't the best father in the world, he also changed as he got older, and his loyalty to his friends was always unwavering.  Perhaps because they never expected anything from him, knowing he didn't offer up as much of himself.  Jimmy, on the other hand, seems more open and giving to both family and friends.

They were there for each other through triumphs and tragedies; through good times and bad; and never allowed their personal politics or personal demons stand in the way of their enduring friendship.  One can only hope for a friendship in their life as strong as the one between these two.

I am grateful for this book, for giving us the insight into two remarkable men who became extraordinary actors and had an exceptional friendship.  Highly recommended.


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