The essential Jimmy Stewart
A critical look at the actor's most memorable films, like ''The Philadelphia Story,'' and ''It's a Wonderful Life''
It’s amusing to see how Hollywood flailed around with its great stars at first, casting them in ludicrous opposition to who they would eventually become. Signed in 1934 to MGM’s $350-per-week beginner’s contract, Stewart played mad-dog murderers, speedway mechanics, a singing sailor, and Rowdy Dow, the foppish suitor to Joan Crawford’s 1830s presidential mistress in The Gorgeous Hussy. The upside is that the actor honed his craft on 12 movies in his first two years — so that when the time came to play Jimmy Stewart, he was ready.
The Murder Man (1935) In his first feature film, a newspaper melodrama starring Spencer Tracy, the 6’4” Stewart is cast as a reporter named Shorty. ”I was all hands and feet,” he said years later. ”Didn’t seem to know what to do with either.” Tracy had more sanguine memories: ”I told him to forget the camera was there. That was all he needed.”
Next Time We Love (1936) Pretty thick mush about the marriage between a reporter and an actress (old pal Margaret Sullavan). He got costar billing for his third film, thanks to Sullavan’s demands for his services.
After the Thin Man (1936) The second of the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy mystery comedies, above, casts Stewart as, er, ah…all right, he’s the killer, and he gets off a great raving-nutjob monologue at the end.
The Shopworn Angel (1938) His second with Sullavan, above, and their roles — a love-struck country boy and a manipulative actress — weren’t too far from their offscreen relationship. ”I don’t know what the hell it is,” L.B. Mayer said of the duo’s chemistry, ”but it sure jumps off the screen.”
THE YOUNG IDEALIST
MGM still stuck him into fluff like Ice Follies of 1939 and Ziegfeld Girl, but Stewart’s persona was nevertheless jelling on screen. When he met director Frank Capra, the final warily earnest puzzle piece clicked into place. Off screen, this was the period of high-living Jimmy: He had affairs with some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women (Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, and Olivia de Havilland — the last of whom he even proposed to) while enjoying being a cog in the machine. (”MGM was a wonderful place where decisions were made on my behalf by my superiors,” he said. ”What’s wrong with that?”)
You Can’t Take It With You (1938) Director Capra may have softened the Kaufman-Hart Broadway farce, but as the nice young man looking to marry into a family of crazies, Stewart finally blossoms into the Jimmy we know and love.
Made for Each Other (1939) Of note as the one film pairing of Stewart and Carole Lombard; would that it had been a comedy. Instead it’s high Hollywood corn, with an endless climax involving serum being flown through a snowstorm to save the couple’s child.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) The first of the four-star, gold-plate, no-kidding James Stewart classics. Regardless of whether you think Capra’s little-guy-against-the-Senate populism is dangerously naive, right on the money, or just dramatically stacked, Stewart is thrilling to watch. From the hush of the Lincoln Monument scenes to the raspy, betrayed despair of the final filibuster, his performance shows an actor coming into the full power of his craft — and then hiding it. So thoroughly, in fact, were character and player fused in viewers’ minds that The Nation wrote, ”One can only hope that after this success Mr. Stewart in Hollywood will remain as uncorrupted as Smith in Washington.” Nice call, actually.
Destry Rides Again (1939) The actor was not exactly dangerous at this point in his career, so casting him as a gunslinger was clearly a goof. Stewart, though, found both humor and dignity in his pacifist killer — and the teaming with Dietrich was hot on screen and off.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Two retail clerks loathe each other by day and exchange aching anonymous love letters by night. His third with Margaret Sullavan isn’t just their best together — it’s one of the warmest, wisest, deepest romantic comedies ever made.
The Mortal Storm (1940) MGM’s attempt to set a drama in Nazi Germany without actually calling it Nazi Germany made for a garbled film, but Stewart and Sullavan have a chilling moment as lovers hemmed in by a thicket of Hitler salutes.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) If you’re still of the persuasion that Jimmy Stewart could only haplessly play himself on screen, watch him as Spy reporter Mike Connor: the offhand cynicism of the opening scenes, the lusty worship with which he tells Katharine Hepburn that she’s ”lit from within,” the sly early-morning drunk scene in which he actually shows Cary Grant a thing or two about timing. Some critics — even Stewart himself — have suggested that his only Best Actor Oscar was more benevolent than deserved. Again, we say: Watch that drunk scene.
Pot o’ Gold (1941) The movie that Stewart himself singled out as the worst he ever made. No love lost between him and costar Paulette Goddard, either; about his appeal, she sneered, ”Anyone can gulp.”
THE POSTWAR CRAFTSMAN
Stewart saw more action and human loss than any other major star during World War II. He entered the Army Air Corps as Pvt. James Stewart in 1941 and was mustered out as a colonel, four years later, with more than 20 bombing missions under his belt, a Distinguished Flying Cross on his chest, and a pained new awareness of the world in his heart. About all that he knew on his return to Hollywood was that he couldn’t make war films; beyond that, he said later, ”I felt…I had lost all sense of judgment.” By the late ’40s, when The New York Times contacted him about a proposed article titled ”The Rise and Fall of James Stewart,” he resolved to bury his prewar persona. ”I looked at some of my old pictures,” he said, ”and couldn’t believe what I was watching. One of them, [1936’s] Born to Dance, made me want to vomit…. I knew I had to toughen up.”
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Unavoidable now, sure, but back then it was a qualified fiasco that ended Frank Capra’s dreams of independence. It’s easy to see why audiences didn’t bite; as homespun as this small-town fantasy plays today, it’s a dark work that must have tasted like rancid eggnog in 1946. George Bailey’s a guy whose dreams of getting out of his small town are never realized, and Stewart slowly builds and intensifies the character’s bitterness until it explodes with naked, suicidal despair. All the angels and happy endings in Hollywood can’t erase the harsh taste of where this movie goes — and it is Stewart more than Capra who takes it there. His inspiration? A man who took over his family’s small-town hardware store and ran it until his 80s: George Bailey ”was my father. I just pretended I was him.”
Call Northside 777 (1948) Cannily jumping onto the post-war trend for documentary-style dramas, Stewart went to Chicago as a newspaperman getting falsely accused Richard Conte out of jail.
Rope (1948) A not-too-promising introduction to Alfred Hitchcock, since the technical challenges of shooting a film in 10-minute takes overshadowed both actors and story. Stewart was reportedly sleeping too little and drinking too much at the time, and the tension shows.
The Stratton Story (1949) A stirring but tough-minded biopic about a ballplayer who climbs back onto the mound after losing his leg. MGM’s 1949 box office champ put Stewart back in the commercial ballpark.
Winchester ’73 (1950) What really saved Stewart’s creative bacon was a Western that Universal forced him to make in exchange for playing the lead in Harvey. Luckily, director Anthony Mann was part of the package as well. The five Westerns they made together revived the genre and shot it through with a new and violent maturity. As for what they did for Stewart — well, when he smashed villain Dan Duryea’s head on the bar, 1950 audiences sat bolt upright and rubbed their eyes in disbelief.
Broken Arrow (1950) A solid, groundbreaking, pro-Native American Western, even if it does cast blue-eyed Debra Paget as an Apache. Filmed before Winchester ’73, it shows Stewart attentively feeling his way into the genre.
Harvey (1950) Stewart knew that the stage role of calmly deluded Elwood P. Dowd — whose constant companion is a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit — was a career definer, and he campaigned hard to star in the Hollywood version after subbing for Frank Fay on Broadway. The result was solid but no classic, and even Stewart conceded that he played Elwood ”a little too cute-cute.” Still, Harvey may capture the star’s gentle side better than any other film, with just enough hints of Elwood’s real madness — ”I wrestled with reality for over 35 years, and I’m happy to say that I finally won out over it” — to give it ballast.
No Highway in the Sky (1951) An intriguing little curio in the canon, with Stewart giving odd shades of obsession to the role of an absent-minded aviation scientist stuck on a plane he’s convinced is about to crash.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) Stewart had fantasized about joining the circus since he was a kid, and Cecil B. DeMille’s big-top extravaganza cast him in the gimmicky role of Buttons, who, under the makeup, is a doctor on the lam for mercy-killing his wife.
Bend of the River (1952) His second oater for Anthony Mann, in Technicolor this time. The director on his star: ”He didn’t seem to realize what a great quality he had in Westerns. But it was obvious from my side of the camera. He was magnificent walking down a street with a…rifle cradled in his arm.”
The Naked Spur (1953) The harshest and the best of the Stewart-Mann films, with the star scarifyingly intense as a bounty hunter edging close to madness. Only Stewart could have pulled off a crying scene in a Western.
The Glenn Miller Story (1954) Enjoyably sentimental blarney and one of the biggest hits of 1954, with Stewart hitting all the dramatic stops as the beloved, doomed bandleader.
Rear Window (1954) Another one-set wonder for Hitchcock, but this time it resulted in one of the greatest of all suspense films. As the wheelchair-bound photographer peeping on murderer Raymond Burr across the way, Stewart has a largely reactive role — but just watch how much he conveys with his eyes. And who better to play this stand-in for movie audiences — a man watching from the dark as stories unfold before him — than the star who is most like us?
The Far Country (1955) Back in the saddle for Mann again, this time in the Canadian Rockies. It’s the weakest of the bunch, with Stewart’s coldhearted cattleman looking a bit like a pose.
The Man From Laramie (1955) The quality was back for the last collaboration with Mann, Stewart’s own favorite of all his Westerns. The scene in which he screams as his hand is shot at point-blank range remains a harrowing benchmark in screen violence.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Coasting along with Hitch in a glossy remake of the director’s 1934 suspenser. Though there is that eerie scene where Stewart makes Doris Day take a sedative before telling her their son has been kidnapped.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) At 47, the star really was too long in the tooth to play 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh — and who had the bright idea of hiring Billy Wilder to direct an uncynical portrait of a hero? Nice try, but a major flop.
Vertigo (1958) Also a bit of a flop at the time — but in this case, its reputation has grown with each passing year. Hitchcock’s most personal film contains Stewart’s single most ambitious and unsettling — many would say best — performance, as a detective who becomes obsessed with the woman (Kim Novak) he is tailing; then, after her death, he tries to make another woman (Novak again) into the image of his beloved. It’s your basic inquest into voyeurism and necrophilia, but what gives Vertigo a tragic dimension is that Stewart lets us see, buried under all the neuroses, the sweet, simple, lost Jimmy of an earlier era.
Bell, Book and Candle (1958) Back with Novak, but it’s no Vertigo. It is, however, a fun and goofy romance between a stolid book publisher and a chic witch.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Trotting out his folksy-Jimmy persona — and the steel-trap mind underneath it — he plays a small-town lawyer taking on a seamy case. (So seamy, in fact, that Stewart received outraged fan mail: ”I take my family to see a Jimmy Stewart picture,” he described the average letter, ”and you’re up there in court talking dirty and holding up women’s panties.”) Thanks to the verbal duels with George C. Scott, the actor got the last of his five Best Actor nominations.
THE GRAND OLD MAN
By the mid-’50s, Stewart was one of the country’s top box office draws, and as the new decade began, he started to ease up. Not to say he got lazy — there was just little left to prove. The long, courtly fade began in the ’60s with a mix of genial family fluff and Westerns, some almost as good as the ones with Mann. His pace tapered off in the ’70s — with forays into TV and a series of benign but pungent cameos (Airport ’77, The Big Sleep) — and settled down in the ’80s with poetry-reading spots on Carson, voice-overs for Campbell’s soup ads, and a floating status as Beloved Institution.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) His last classic role. As the frontier newcomer who rises to the Senate while true hero John Wayne falls back into the shadows, Stewart embodies with autumnal wisdom the movie’s maxim: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) Hugely successful piffle — a sitcom catalog of terrors — about a family man trying to find peace and quiet in the country. Stewart’s fine-tuned knack for peevishness keeps it on track.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964) His roistering Wyatt Earp was such an anomaly in John Ford’s dead-serious final Western that some theater owners cut the entire 14-minute segment. Too bad. It was the most fun in the movie.
Shenandoah (1965) A Civil War patriarch pulled into the conflict against his will and raging all the way. The last — and hardly the least — of his embittered 19th-century loners.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1966) A fascinating boy’s-own adventure that casts Stewart as a pilot stranded with an oil-company crew in the Sahara — until the men build a new plane from the wreckage.
The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) A devastated Stewart learned of his stepson’s death in Vietnam during production. Such was his professionalism that the film still holds up as a picaresque jaunt.
The Shootist (1976) John Wayne had his moving swan song as a dying gunfighter; adding to the poignancy was Stewart’s one-shot as the frontier doctor giving the Duke the bad news.
Right of Way (1983) Late in the day, Stewart leapt at the chance to act opposite Bette Davis in an HBO movie about an elderly couple contemplating suicide. Last minute front-office interference kept it from being another On Golden Pond, but Stewart’s performance has a gallant, clear-eyed toughness that feels like a wise farewell.