'Hank & Jim': Fonda and Stewart, together and apart

Hank & Jim

The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart

By Scott Eyman

Simon and Schuster.

384 pp. $29


Reviewed by Gary M. Kramer


Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, who met at Princeton University in 1930, had a bromance that lasted 50 years. Both projected integrity and perseverance on stage and screen and off. Where Fonda was tightly wound, Stewart was more relaxed. They made a handful of films together, differed in their political views, pulled pranks, shared hobbies, and loved animals. They also loved and understood each other. They said very little, but when they spoke, watch out: Fonda's sly remark at Stewart's inability to assemble a train set is both cutting and funny.

In Hank & Jim, Scott Eyman, author of several Hollywood titles, including biographies of John Wayne and John Ford, chronicles the friendship between Fonda and Stewart in a charming, folksy style. The early parts of the book, where the struggling young actors are inseparable and trying to find work in 1932 in New York, are appealing. There are some terrific anecdotes, from the actors having different memories about Stewart's impromptu accordion concert in Times Square at three in the morning to building a model airplane that survives a cross-country trip and one successful flight, and a mischievous story involving cats and Greta Garbo.

Once in Hollywood, the men's careers run parallel. When Stewart won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story - perhaps a reward after being passed over for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - he beat out Fonda, who was nominated for his unforgettable performance in The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, as they aged, both men feared that every job might be their last.

There is some mild Hollywood gossip in the book. Stewart swooned over Marlene Dietrich, and she terminated a pregnancy that was likely his child. Fonda had four failed marriages, including one to Margaret Sullavan. She later acted with Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner.

Personally, Fonda was cold, especially to his five wives and two famous children, who were interviewed for the book. Stewart had a long marriage and one great tragedy: the death of his stepson Ron in the Vietnam War. Professionally, Stewart had great rapport with directors Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Anthony Mann, but he did not click with director John Ford as Fonda did. Fonda was universally respected for his craft but struggled in productions of Mister Roberts and Two for the Seesaw.

Both men went to war. A section of Hank & Jim devoted to those life-shaping experiences could have been tightened, as it gives far too much historical background that feels like filler rather than insight.

Alas, the strength of Eyman's book is also its curse. Most of Hank & Jim keeps the actors apart, suggesting that Eyman really wants to tell two stories that sometimes overlap. This works to a disadvantage most clearly when he briefly mentions Firecreek, a forgettable western Stewart and Fonda made together, to set up the more interesting story of Fonda making Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. By alternating between Fonda and Stewart, Hank & Jim yields half rather than twice as much as it should.

Gary M. Kramer has published three books on cinema. He is a regular contributor to Salon, Philadelphia Gay News, Film International, and Cineaste, among other publications.