James Stewart: 10 essential films

Sometimes only a Jimmy Stewart movie will do, and these classics all repay endless repeat viewings.

20 May 2016

By David Parkinson

Vertigo (1958)

Trying to pigeonhole James Stewart is like shovelling smoke with a pitchfork in the wind. Of course, there was the ‘aw-shucks’ decency that helped make him the most empathetic everyman in golden age Hollywood. But a very different Stewart emerged when he ventured out west or strayed into the noir-ier corners of the big city.

It took him a while to master his ungainly physique and drawling delivery, but Stewart took co-star Margaret Sullavan’s advice to be himself on screen and perfected a distinctive brand of behavioural naturalism long before the Method generation. He later insisted: “I don’t act, I react.” But he was typically modest in claiming to have made it somehow by being “the inarticulate man who tries”.

Had he been killed in one of his 20 USAF bombing raids over Nazi Germany, Stewart would have been remembered for his Oscar win as a lovelorn reporter in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940). But it was the roles he took after witnessing humanity at its most pitiful and depraved that secured his place in screen history.

The various cowboys, cops, aviators, misfits, fathers, musicians and clowns he played were often wracked by guilt, obsession, repressed emotions and/or self-doubt. But no matter how hard he and directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann tried to besmirch Stewart’s noble idealism, audiences just kept rooting for him.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Director: Frank Capra

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Replacing Gary Cooper as Frank Capra’s man of principle, Stewart confirmed the impression the director had drawn while shooting the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take It with You (1938) that he was “probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen”. As the Boy Ranger leader-turned-junior senator who finds himself ensnared in a shady land deal, Stewart exudes the hayseed naiveté that corrupt veterans Claude Rains and Edward Arnold are convinced they can exploit. But, during an epic filibuster (for which Stewart used dichloride of mercury to give his voice an exhausted rasp), he salvaged the democratic ideals that many contemporary politicians were convinced had been savaged by Sidney Buchman’s screenplay.

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

It’s fascinating to compare the images of Europe presented in the two features that Stewart made with Margaret Sullavan in 1940. Frank Borzage sought to challenge isolationist complacency with his unflinching account of the rise of Nazism in The Mortal Storm. But, in celebrating communality, Ernst Lubitsch plumps for a nostalgic depiction of daily life in the Budapest clothing store where clerks Stewart and Sullavan loathe each other without realising they are actually each other’s beloved pen pals. Intriguingly, Lubitsch cast Stewart because he was “the antithesis of the old-time matinee idol; he holds his public by his very lack of a handsome face or suave manner”.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Can you envisage a good George Bailey fighting his evil alter ego on a bridge over a raging river? That was how Clifford Odets ended his adaptation of the Philip Van Doren Stern short story that Frank Capra hoped would distance him from the sentimental screwball crowd-pleasers for which he was renowned. Stewart was also seeking a fresh start and had joined the MCA talent agency to control his own destiny. Ironically, this audaciously cynical denunciation of small-town venality failed to find an audience. Yet it enjoyed a TV revival in the mid-1970s and it’s now impossible to imagine Christmas without Stewart helping angel Henry Travers get his wings.

Harvey (1950)

Director: Henry Koster

Harvey (1950)

Such was Stewart’s determination to play Elwood P. Dowd in the screen version of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winner that he returned to Broadway for the first time in over a decade to cover for Frank Fay while he took the quirky comedy on summer tour. The gambit worked and Stewart earned the fourth of his five Oscar nominations for his edgily delightful display as a tippler whose companion is a six-foot invisible rabbit. Josephine Hull took the best supporting actress award as Elwood’s stressed sister, but director Henry Koster was most impressed with Stewart’s professionalism, on top of which “he put the whipped cream of great talent”. 

Bend of the River (1952)

Director: Anthony Mann

Bend of the River (1952)

As part of the Harvey deal, Stewart promised Universal he would headline Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950). Thus began an eight-film partnership that transformed Stewart’s career, as the five psychological westerns the pair produced enabled him to explore a darker, more conflicted side of his screen psyche. Gone was the pacifist lawman in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939) and in his place came a man with a past who is prepared to do whatever it takes to guide a wagon train from Missouri to the Oregon Territory. Arthur Kennedy and the supporting ensemble excel. But what makes this frontier noir is Stewart’s seething unpredictability. 

The Naked Spur (1953)

Director: Anthony Mann

The Naked Spur (1953)

The third of Stewart’s Mann westerns shatters the genre’s traditional notions of rectitude and decency and replaces them with a desperation and moral ambivalence that reflected both the crisis of masculinity in postwar America and the impact on Hollywood of the communist witch-hunt. Traversing Technicolor locations chosen to evoke his mental state, Stewart’s bid to recover his lost land is entirely laudable. But the dubious methods his bounty hunter employs in bringing fugitive Robert Ryan to justice test the audience’s faith in Stewart the star. It’s almost as if he and Mann made The Glenn Miller Story (1954) to atone for the pitiless pulping of the Blackfoot brave.

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window (1954)

Having played a cynical reporter in Henry Hathaway’s noir Call Northside 777 (1948), Stewart rejoined the Fourth Estate for his second collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock after Rope (1948). As a Capa-esque photographer reduced to spying on his Greenwich Village neighbours while nursing a broken leg, Stewart recruits model girlfriend Grace Kelly to prove that Raymond Burr has murdered his wife. The suspense aspect becomes the MacGuffin, however, as Hitch concentrates on demonstrating his technique and innate understanding of audience voyeurism. Yet, while his mastery of pure cinema is as exceptional Henry Bumstead’s intricate set, everything relies on the chemistry between Stewart’s commitment-phobic shutterbug and Kelly’s seductive domestic goddess.

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

Dismissed by Time magazine as “another Hitchcock-and-bull story”, Stewart’s final collaboration with the Master of Suspense after The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) continues to divide opinion. Adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the screenplay lures the audience into a murder conspiracy before springing the surprise that the plot is less important than the cine-mechanics that go into creating the images and icons that viewers gaze upon in the darkness. Despite the impeccable craft contributions, this is a deeply personal picture, as Kim Novak represents every leading lady Hitchcock fell in love with. He never forgave the 49 year-old, toupée-wearing Stewart for its failure. But it was his willingness to portray such twisted obsession that makes this so disconcertingly compelling.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Director: Otto Preminger

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger continued his one-man assault on the Production Code with this adaptation of a fact-based bestseller that ex-judge John D. Voelker wrote under the pseudonym Robert Traver. No wonder screenwriter Wendell Mayes’ courtroom exchanges have the ring of graphic authenticity. But the fact that Stewart’s small-town Michigan attorney could best an adversary as brash as George C. Scott’s big-city prosecutor demonstrates how Stewart’s decency had been tempered since Jefferson Smith had held the floor two decades earlier. Indeed, this is a film about language, performance and power, as Stewart indulges in well-rehearsed theatrics while directing the responses of murder defendant Ben Gazzara and his flirtatious wife, Lee Remick. 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Director: John Ford

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Coming between Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the second film Stewart made with John Ford trades on his steely ambition and die-hard conservatism to demonstrate the dangers of printing the legend. By taking the credit for old pal John Wayne gunning down psychotic outlaw Lee Marvin, Stewart’s idealistic lawyer was able to tame the frontier town of Shinbone and further his own career. Such pragmatism would never have occurred to Mr Smith and this shift in Stewart’s screen persona reveals how much Hollywood had matured in its depiction of the seedier side of American life. Moreover, it would be markedly less deferential by the time Stewart and Wayne reunited for the latter’s swan song, The Shootist (1976).

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