Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda had one of the longest lasting friendships in the history of Hollywood. They met as young actors, became instant pals, and stayed close until Fonda’s death in 1982. Orson Welles is supposed to have said, “I thought these two guys were either having the hottest affair in Hollywood, or they were the two straightest human beings I ever met in my life. I came to conclusion that they were the two straightest human beings I’d ever met in my life.”
In a sense, they were perfectly matched. Both were tall and thin and possessed of a certain soft-spoken middle American charm. Naturally reserved, they were both always well cast as quiet men of bedrock decency. It was always easy to believe that the fella who played Jefferson Smith would be best friends with the fella who played Tom Joad. They seemed like a couple of regular guys.
Of course, they weren’t regular guys. They were world famous movie stars. Both had emotionally restricted childhoods that led them to take up the decidedly unregular guy profession of acting, and both served in World War II—Stewart as a bomber pilot and Fonda aboard a destroyer in the Navy. They were able to play regular guys because, to some degree, they were able to access the same part of themselves that believed in regular guys.
They also both made excellent cowboys. Fonda came to the genre first and in more force. He played Frank James in the excellent Jesse James (1939) and its rather lackluster sequel, The Return of Frank James (1940), and he starred in the anti-lynching drama The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). In 1939, he began an association with John Ford that would be eclipsed (eventually) only by Ford’s work with John Wayne. They made the Revolutionary War drama Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), the Wyatt Earp romance My Darling Clementine (1946), and the revisionist Fort Apache (1948). In the late fifties, he headed to television to play Marshal Simon Fry in The Deputy. And in 1968, he would issue a terrifying turn in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, giving the western one of its most memorable villains.
Stewart was slower getting out on the range. Aside from the comedic Destry Rides Again in 1939—a movie, it should be remembered, based around the joke of sweet Jimmy Stewart as a cowboy—he sat out the oaters until after the war. Perhaps it was his experiences in war that gave him the gravitas to finally fill the screen as a western hero. In 1950, he made Winchester ’73 with director Anthony Mann and Broken Arrow with director Delmer Daves, and he never looked back. For the next twenty years, Stewart was in the business of making westerns. With Mann he would make Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955). With John Ford he would make Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
And on and on. Between the two of them, it seemed like Stewart and Fonda were forever walking down some dusty street for a gunfight. It made sense to pair them up, so they starred in 1968’s Firecreek. (They’d made the comedy On Our Merry Way together in ’48, and they’d both appeared—though not together—in How The West Was Won in ’62.) They reteamed for the film that would be Stewart’s last western, Gene Kelly’s bawdy The Cheyenne Social Club (1970). The boys play a couple of old cowhands named John O’Hanlan (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) who discover that John has inherited a boarding house from his brother. They quit the cattle game and ride across the country to Wyoming only to discover that the “boarding house” is actually a successful brothel. After a customer gets rough with one of the ladies (Shirley Jones), Stewart kills him in a fight. The man’s brothers swear revenge and all hell breaks loose.
For the most part, The Cheyenne Social Club is a light confection, kind of a goof on the western genre in general, and on the personas of Stewart and Fonda in particular. Their grousing banter is the chief appeal of the film and it’s tailored around their real life friendship. Famously the two men were political opposites, with Stewart a staunch conservative and Fonda an equally committed liberal. (Once piece of Hollywood lore says that they actually got into a fistfight early on in their friendship—which Fonda won—and they agreed to never discuss politics again.) The film works their ideological differences into some banter:
Stewart: How much money do you want, Harley?
Fonda: Fifteen or twenty dollars ought to do me.
Stewart: What do you need it for?
Stewart: Well, what kind of things?
Fonda: Just things. You know, like a drink of whiskey if I wanted it, or a new shirt or something.
Stewart: You already have two shirts. You don't want to wear but one of them at a time unless it's winter.
Fonda: There you go thinking like a Republican again.
Stewart: Well, you don't bring up politics while you're borrowing money, Harley. It ain't seemly!
Their work together in The Cheyenne Social Club is a pretty good demonstration at the way cinematic chemistry works. For all their similarities, Stewart and Fonda are markedly different performers. Each man brings a different energy to the screen. Stewart is naturally warm, while Fonda is naturally cool. This isn’t to say Stewart couldn’t play cool or that Fonda couldn’t play warm, but Stewart’s emotions are always closer to the surface (almost uncontrollably so) while Fonda seems to pull his emotions from the bottom of a very deep well. There is a good reason that Stewart so often plays hotheads and obsessives in westerns, and an equally good reason Fonda was able to embody taciturn lawmen and, at least once, a cold-blooded killer.
If The Cheyenne Social Club doesn’t really hint at the darkness that either man could bring to the screen—see Stewart in his Mann films, particularly The Naked Spur, or Fonda in Warlock and Once Upon a Time in the West—it’s still undeniable fun to see them together one last time, two boon companions cracking jokes and riding off into the sunset together.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.