Hollywood’s Original BFFs, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, Share the Screen at Last


It’s an idea so good you can’t believe no one did it before: a book about the deep and abiding friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart, true legends of Hollywood. Scott Eyman’s Hank and Jim: The Story of a Friendship shows them as struggling stage actors and roommates, traces their swift ascent to stardom, and shows how they anchored each other’s lives.

For Henry Fonda, who was married five times and had volatile relationships with his children, Peter and Jane, that friendship with Stewart may have been the deepest and most consistent bond of his life. And when Stewart returned from his Air Force duty in World War II, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and looking so careworn that no studio would cast him, he crashed for weeks at Fonda’s house, endearing himself as Uncle Jimmy to the Fonda kids.

To mark the publication of Eyman’s book, Film Forum is running a massive retrospective of both careers, from October 27 through November 16. Hank and Jim focuses on the actors’ personal lives; the 36-film series let you see the ebb and flow of the two careers in tandem, how the lives form parallel lines of Hollywood history.

Fonda was a salesman’s son in Omaha, Nebraska, as heartland as it gets. When Hank was fourteen, his father, a liberal Democrat, took him to the town square to witness the lynching and burning of a black man named Will Brown. Fonda believed his father did this to teach him where bigotry and intolerance could lead; if so, it worked.

For the rest of his life, Fonda carried a loathing of violence, an ingrained outrage against injustice, and an attraction to socially minded roles, one of the closest to his own experience being the cowboy who winds up a helpless and self-loathing witness to a lynching in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Director William Wellman had to promise two additional pictures to Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox to get the film made, and Zanuck predicted, accurately, that the movie “won’t make a dime.” Fonda didn’t care, and as Eyman notes, while the actor was always hard on his own work, he remained proud of Ox-Bow, with its dark, mournful atmosphere and crushingly sad fadeout.

By the time 12 Angry Men rolled around, Fonda had to produce the movie himself in order to play Juror 8, the stubborn white-suited avatar of justice who demands that a youth accused of murder get a full and fair deliberation. “Deservedly well-regarded now,” says Eyman, “it was a fast flop in 1957,” although over the years it repaid Fonda’s modest investment many times over.

Stewart also had a middle-class, middle-America background. The son of a prosperous, conservative owner of a hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania, he remained a straight-arrow Republican all his life. In some films Stewart easily embodies a certain view of American righteousness, as in the title role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), gazing in awe at the Lincoln Memorial and trying to live up to the ideals it expresses. At other times Stewart’s characters would rebel against American violence and corruption, as in the Delmer Daves Western Broken Arrow (1950). Stewart plays the historical figure of Tom Jeffords, who learns the language and customs of the Apache and comes to sympathize with them more than with the settlers trying to wipe them out.

Stewart was apparently a much more easygoing real-life personality than Fonda; he was much loved by co-stars like Dan Duryea (Winchester ’73) and Kim Novak, who told Eyman how, after the emotional turmoil of their scenes in Vertigo, Stewart would squeeze her hand and “we would allow each other to come down slowly, like a parachute.” But it was Stewart who would spend the Fifties playing dark, conflicted characters for directors such as Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. When asked what happened to the gangly charmer of the Thirties and early Forties, Eyman says Stewart would answer simply, “I’d matured.”

Famously, these political opposites had one political fight — over HUAC and the blacklist, it seems, although both men refused to give details even many years after the fact. They had long since decided that their friendship was more important than politics. Actors are notoriously competitive, but Stewart and Fonda somehow avoided that too, concentrating instead on pranking each other, going on outings, toasting glasses of beer (neither man was a big drinker), and building model airplanes together for hours on end.

In 1940 Fonda was nominated for an Oscar for his most famous and indelible role, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford. The award should have been Fonda’s, a fact that Stewart always acknowledged in later years — because Stewart was the one who did win, for his stellar romantic work in The Philadelphia Story. Fonda had to wait another 41 years for a consolation Oscar for On Golden Pond (which is not in the series), but their friendship remained serenely unaffected. If that seems an easy accomplishment, consider what Oscar rivalry helped do for sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.

As a bachelor, Stewart dated some of the most beautiful and charming women in Hollywood, including Ginger Rogers and Olivia de Havilland. He also had a brief, red-hot love affair with Marlene Dietrich during the filming of Destry Rides Again (1939), and it shows; they seem like an odd couple only if you haven’t seen them in the movie. Fonda would claim that Stewart got all the pretty girls, but his friend always countered that Fonda “had his share, and then some”: Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball.

And of course, Fonda got Margaret Sullavan, and married her, though his union with the gifted but mercurial actress didn’t last. The attachment did. Eyman suggests Sullavan was the love of Fonda’s life, and she almost becomes the third subject of the book, flitting in and out of the narrative, even living close by Fonda with her third husband, agent Leland Hayward, for a few years in the mid-1940s. Fonda made only one movie with Sullavan, the charming The Moon’s Our Home, where Fonda plays a famous novelist who marries Sullavan’s famous actress, neither realizing who the other is, in fine screwball fashion. Later Sullavan married William Wyler, who went on to direct Fonda opposite his friend Bette Davis in Jezebel. (You yearn for Eyman to include a spreadsheet to keep track of all this.) 

Meanwhile, Stewart himself had a raging crush on Sullavan during his early days with her and Fonda in regional theater, and wound up making more movies with her than Fonda did. The Sullavan-Stewart outings in the series are The Shop Around the Corner, the apex of Stewart’s period as a young and swooningly romantic lead; and Next Time We Love, from 1936, which is notable for having Stewart become mortally ill, rather than Sullavan, who died onscreen many times in her career.

The series opens on October 27 as Eyman introduces a double feature of Alfred Hitchcock directing Fonda in the grim, atypical The Wrong Man and Stewart in the look-ma-no-cuts curio Rope. (It does have cuts, but they are few and artfully hidden; the movie is much better than its reputation.) Rope spins a version of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. Stewart had top billing, but was essentially in a supporting role as the teacher whose students loved his lectures on Nietzsche a little too much.

Laid out in chronological order, Stewart’s other Hitchcock films (all of them in the series) trace a rising unlikability: the immobile photographer in Rear Window, repeatedly needling Grace Kelly from his wheelchair; the husband who slips his own wife (Doris Day) a mickey in The Man Who Knew Too Much; and last the manipulative, phobic mess that is Scotty in Vertigo. With twenty films in the series to Fonda’s sixteen, Stewart may have the edge at Film Forum. His Westerns with Anthony Mann, almost noirs in disguise, are mostly all here: The Far Country, The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, and the first and possibly the best, Winchester ’73, from 1950. That was the film that altered Stewart’s image and, thanks to a trailblazing contract that gave him a percentage, helped make him a rich man.

In the Fifties, Stewart worked with Mann, Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger (in Anatomy of a Murder, a rare role that impressed Stewart’s father, although the old man had to be convinced that the rape-case plot didn’t make it a “dirty” picture). Cinematically it was a better decade for Stewart than for Fonda. While he wasn’t blacklisted, the liberal, outspoken Fonda found the theater a more congenial home for long periods, returning to film intermittently. 12 Angry Men is the lone Fonda from the period in Film Forum’s series. Mister Roberts, the big hit that Fonda originated on Broadway and that ended his long friendship with John Ford when bitter on-set fighting caused Ford to be replaced, didn’t make it in.

That lack is balanced out somewhat, however, by the exceptional quality of two films where Fonda, like Stewart often did, went against type. In 1948 Fonda played Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in Ford’s Fort Apache. Thursday is a cold, inflexible commander who sees his men wiped out due to nothing more than his own stubbornness; it was a role, Eyman notes, that cut uncomfortably close to Fonda’s deepest flaws. Fonda played it impeccably, suggesting at times that Thursday may feel locked into his own persona. And the series closes out with what today may be Fonda’s most famous role, eclipsing even Tom Joad: the remorseless psychopath Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Chronologically, the series ends at 1968, as both men saw their careers fading into twilight. But their friendship continued unaltered through to Fonda’s death in 1982. As Peter Fonda told Eyman, Hank and Jim “made no demands on each other.… What counted were the times they were together.”

‘Hank and Jim’
October 27–November 16
Film Forum