Moviegeek5: Essential James Stewart
It is hard to think long about classic Hollywood without thinking of James Stewart. He was undoubtedly one of the major stars of his age and with his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona who excelled at playing American middle-class men struggling through a crisis. Many of his films harve become enduring cinematic classics. He rose to fame in the late 1930s with the assistance of director Frank Capra, but put his career on hold to service in the military during World War II and later in the Vietnam War, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier-general, the highest military rank achieved by an actor. After the war he became even more famous and had fruitful working relationships with director such as Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann; the latter he collaborated with on eight films, five of them Westerns. Stewart’s last big hooray was the Western The Shootist (1976), the final film of John Wayne. Three flops would follow and Stewart went into semi-retirement after a long career that earned him 1 Oscar and another four nominations as well as an Honorary Oscar in 1985. Stewart died at the age of 89 in his home in Beverly Hills surrounded by family.
Universally liked by his colleagues who described him as a kind-hearted, soft-spoken man, and a true professional, James Stewart was blessed with an amazing career that spurned more classic than you can count on two hands. Naturally that makes picking only five films difficult, but we have tried to pick some really essential performances while still giving taste of the range of his career.
Let us know in the comments below what you think. What are your five picks for essential James Stewart performances.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
This marriage comedy saw Stewart fighting for the attention of female lead Katharine Hepburn with Cary Grant. Perfectly casted as the goofy charming reporter, Stewart is in many ways the opposite of the charming Grant as the ex with chiseled good looks, making it an interesting trio to watch. This is one of the earlier, of what we today will call the great movies of Stewart’s career, and won him his first and only Oscar, an Oscar he never believed he would win, as he thought Henry Fonda deserved it more for his role in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Which only indicates the man was as humble in real life as many of the characters he played were. The movie was filmed in a short time and there is a sense of improvisation to it, that keeps it fresh even today.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
When you think of Stewart, it is almost impossible not to think of this tear-jerker of a feel-good Christmas movie and hard not to equate him with the humble, lovable George Bailey. The classic story of the angel showing George why the world needs him, just when it all looks so dark for the poor man, has this made a movie that is a must-see in many family homes come Christmas time. The sense of solidarity and unity fits perfect into the holiday season, so that is understandable, but there is no doubt, that half this movie is the way Stewart makes us fall instantly for Bailey by making him so real and believable.
Rear Window (1954)
The second of four collaborations between Hitchcock and Stewart, Rear Window arguably provides Stewart with the best character out of the four. Although bound to a wheelchair, Stewart does more with the character than any fast-running action hero. While spying on his neighbours as he waits for his broken leg to heal, he begins to watch one neighbour in particular and becomes convinced that the neighbour in question as murdered his wife. It is a step away from the middle of the road characters that Stewart otherwise does so well, and we can only thank Hitchcock for reveiling new depth to this seasoned actor’s repetoire.
Although there are plenty of other worthy contestants in his filmography for a spot on this list, we could not help but include a second Hitchcock film, if only because tis particular collaboration has so come to define Stewart’s career in the 1950s. Initially not that well received, Vertigo has since become regarded as one of Hitchcock’s finest technical achievements. We see Stewart as we have never seen him before or since, as a retired traumatised police officer who agrees to watch an old friend’s wife and becomes obsessed with before unravelling a sinister plot. It is an edgy, technical masterpiece, with an innovative thriller plot. And Stewart is perfect.
We can hardly make a list of essential James Stewart without including a Western, afterall, the man made 20 of them. The most famous one is probably The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of three films he did with John Ford in the early 1960s. Stewart plays a mature rising politician who looks back on showdown he had in his youth in a small frontier town. The film co-starred John Wayne and was shot in black & white in a style reminiscent of film noir. With ethical greyzones and a rich complexity the film was not an instant success but has since come to be considered one of the greatest Westerns. Marked the first collaboration between Stewart and Wayne and was one of the high points of the latter part of Stewart’s career.