Actor Spotlight: James Stewart
Few actors in the history of cinema are as well-beloved as James Stewart. His affable drawl epitomizes the all-American idealist that we fear we’ve become too cynical to believe in, and yet we do when Stewart’s on-screen, backing up an easy-going personality with a passionate investment in whatever each character cares about. Whether he’s filibustering in the US Senate, arguing in court for his client’s defense, trying to maintain peace in a town of outlaws, obsessing over a potential killer or a lost lover, learning how much his life actually means to those around him, or just hanging out with an imaginary giant rabbit, Stewart is always delightful, always convincing, and in his most enduring persona, makes us want to be better people than we are. As we’ll see, his range is quite a bit broader than the aw-shucks idealism of Jefferson Smith, and his legacy far greater than just It’s a Wonderful Life.
James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, to a middle-class Pennsylvania family. He started to pursue acting while at Princeton, joining the summer stock company University Players and becoming close friends with fellow Player Henry Fonda. After a few years of acting on Broadway, Stewart followed Fonda out to Hollywood and began rising through the ranks of MGM contract players, helped tremendously by Fonda’s ex-wife Margaret Sullavan, who encouraged him to hang on to his boyish charm and shyness and make it part of his acting style. He did, and it become an integral part of his star persona throughout the rest of his career, whether he played straight with that persona or against it.
As a child, Stewart had dreamed of being a pilot, and by the time WWII broke out, he had logged over 400 hours in the air with personal planes. He was drafted in 1940, and he was all too eager to serve (in fact, he was the first major American actor in uniform for WWII), choosing the Air Force and managing to become a flier even though he was technically above the cut-off age for flight training. He spends the first few years of the war in the US as a flight instructor, but he desperately wanted to be sent into combat, and not held back because of his celebrity status. He got his wish and flew twenty bombing runs over Germany in 1943 and 1944. By the time he left active duty, he was a colonel; he remained in the Reserves until 1968, and attained the rank of Brigadier General in 1959.
When he returned to Hollywood in 1946, his first film in five years was Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that both harkened back to his pre-war idealism and showed his new, post-war dark edges. It’s a Wonderful Life has its sentimental side to be sure, but George Bailey is in many ways a bitter man, and that darker Stewart would emerge more and more throughout the late ’40s and ’50s, especially in his films with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
Stewart seamlessly transitioned out of romantic leads and into patriarchal roles in the 1960s. He effectively retired from the screen in 1978, and passed away in 1997, three years after his beloved wife Gloria – they had been married since 1949, one of the longest and happiest marriages Hollywood has ever seen.
Stewart has a whopping eleven films in the Flickchart Top 500, and two more make their way into the Top 1000, so let’s take a brief look at these thirteen Films to See Before You Die.
13. Winchester ’73 (1950)
Stewart made eight films with director Anthony Mann (five of them westerns), which makes this collaboration the most significant one in Stewart’s career, though his films with Mann are much less well-known than his work with either Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra. Winchester ’73 is their first film together, and set the tone for the rest of their westerns. Stewart is tracking down an outlaw, but ends up in a shooting contest with him in Wyatt Earp’s Dodge City – the prize is a nearly priceless Winchester rifle. The misadventures of the rifle as it gets stolen, traded, won, gifted and otherwise passed around from outlaw to trader to Indian chief to soldier and back is quite a nice way to show a microcosm of the western milieu, while also keeping our focus on Stewart’s character, a dogged man who refuses to give up the search either for his outlaw prey or the rifle that is rightfully his. Stewart is still a likeable guy here, but his morals are much more amorphous, and there’s a dark side to his character that was only fleetingly visible in most of his earlier films. The Stewart-Mann cycle are some of the best films of Stewart’s career, and ripe for rediscovery by a mainstream audience.
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12. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Stewart’s first of three films with Frank Capra went right to the top in 1938, winning the Best Picture Oscar, as well as Best Director for Capra. Though it received the highest honors at the time, it’s really the least of their three films together, as the Flickchart ranking correctly shows. I don’t tend to use the term Capracorn because I think Capra is an excellent and versatile filmmaker, but You Can’t Take It With You, while charming, does exhibit the kind of simplified class struggle and lovable eccentricity that the term encapsulates. Stewart is the son of a wealthy business magnate whose expansion plans are thwarted by an eccentric homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) who refuses to sell his property; meanwhile, Stewart is in love with a stenographer (the always wonderful Jean Arthur) who – surprise, surprise – turns out to be the eccentric homeowner’s daughter. Everyone in Arthur’s family is a little kooky, and they of course eventually turn Stewart’s stuck-up family around. It’s an enjoyable movie, but go on to the higher-ranked Stewart-Capra films to see what they were really capable of creating together.
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11. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
All four of the films Stewart made with Alfred Hitchcock are in the Flickchart Top 500, and this would be the collaboration that would define Stewart’s later career as Capra would define his youthful one. To their credit, none of Stewart’s roles for Hitchcock are the same, though all benefit from Stewart’s ineffable persona. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a remake of Hitchcock’s own 1934 film, and it’s an improvement on the original, though it’s still lesser Hitchcock. Stewart and Doris Day play the McKennas, a married couple vacationing in Morocco with their young son. They accidentally become embroiled in an assassination plot that ends up in their son being kidnapped. The film is fine entertainment, with Day’s climactic rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” winning an Oscar and becoming a pop classic to the point of cliche, but doesn’t hit the heights (or the psychological depths) of Stewart’s other films with Hitchcock.
Currently ranked #430
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10. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
In the 1920s and early 1930s, director Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself directing urbane, sophisticated comedies that pushed the censorship envelope with innuendo and sly wit. It seems little surprising, then, to find him directing a simple, sweet, and almost provincial story like The Shop Around the Corner, which finds its romance in a pair of Budapest shop clerks who antagonize each other by day and carry on a written correspondence with each other (though neither knows the other is their barely-tolerated coworker) by night. It’s also the basis of You’ve Got Mail, but The Shop Around the Corner is filled to the brim with wonderful side plots and characters that, granted, barely feel Hungarian, but do feel sympathetic and fully realized in a short amount of screen time. It’s an interesting role for Stewart in that he’s kind of a jerk at the beginning, which is not something we expect from Stewart in 1940. He has little use for Margaret Sullavan’s sales skills, and his arrogance and often downright meanness to his subordinates is a sign of the less-cuddly Stewart to come in his post-war films.
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9. Harvey (1950)
Stewart didn’t originate the unusual role of Elwood P. Dowd on Broadway, but he did play it for three years before Harvey was filmed in 1950. It’s difficult to think of another film actor who could pull off such a film – you see, Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend is a six foot three invisible rabbit named Harvey. As you can imagine, this eccentricity is irritating to his family, and his sister Vita (Josephine Hull, see also Arsenic and Old Lace) tries to have him put in a sanitorium. Through various circumstances, Elwood’s kind and warm demeanor charm all comers, and it’s not long before Harvey seems to be reaching others, too. The film is a whimsical bit of fluff that never explains Harvey or Elwood, but embraces them as they are.
Currently ranked #254
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8. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Small-town lawyer Stewart, full of folksy language concealing keen intelligence, takes on a case defending a man accused of murder – it’s not an easy case, as the man (Ben Gazzara) admits he did the deed, but that the man he killed had raped his wife. Even then, it’s a tricky defense of momentary insanity, and Stewart is up against big-city prosecutor George C. Scott. In one way, this is a very pure courtroom drama – it’s concerned with the minutiae of legal research and argument to the point that many lawyers have hailed it for its accuracy. On the other hand, it’s perfectly willing to slow down and just spend time with Stewart’s lawyer as a character study, which is particularly compelling when it’s accompanied by Duke Ellington’s wonderful jazz score. The subject matter involving rape is racy for the time – director Otto Preminger is well-known for challenging the Production Code office during the 1950s, and didn’t pull any punches with this one.
Currently ranked #158
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7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
If there’s one image that defines the enduring persona of James Stewart, it’s probably the one above. Jefferson Smith is the epitome of the idealist, a boy scout leader appointed to replace a recently deceased senator because the corrupt governor assumes Smith with both please his reform-happy constituents while also being easy to control. But Jefferson’s belief in America and the power of goodness leads him to filibuster the Senate on behalf of a bill that would support a boys’ camp rather than a graft-led dam project. American idealism is on a downturn right now, but only the most hardened cynic can deny the power and sincerity of Stewart’s performance here.
Currently ranked #124
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6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In a film often cited as marking the transition from classical western to revisionist western, director John Ford examines the shift from the old west, ruled by outlaws and gunslingers, to the new west, ruled by law. James Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard comes to a frontier town as an idealistic lawyer who doesn’t want to use a gun to keep peace. John Wayne counters him as old-school rifle-toting Tom Doniphan, who knows that sometimes violence is necessary, especially when dealing with outlaws like Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). There’s a lot at play in this film, right down to the need for Stoddard to take credit for stopping Valance in order to solidify his future as a law-upholding leader. Stewart’s idealism and Wayne’s realism balance each other perfectly as Ford looks at the way legends become fact and the innate need we have for heroes to worship.
Currently ranked #118
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5. Rope (1948)
Rope is Stewart’s first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, and also one of Hitchcock’s most experimental films. Based loosely on the infamous 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder (where two college students killed a 14-year-old boy purely to commit “the perfect crime”), here the two brilliant students strangle a friend and place his body in an enclosed table at the center of their apartment, then have a party there basically out of arrogance. Stewart is their professor, who has discussed the idea of the ubermensch in class, thus giving the pair the idea of demonstrating their intellectual superiority and above-the-law status. The camera is situated directly on top of the table for the entire film, which is filmed in ten minute takes to simulate a real-time, unbroken shot as nearly as possible in 1948. The film is more interesting as a technical and intellectual exercise than anything else, but the juxtaposition of Stewart’s philosophical treatment of the ubermensch with its principles played out in reality remains powerful.
Currently ranked #113
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4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
If you’ve only seen one James Stewart film, odds are it’s this one. A staple of network TV at Christmastime, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the most beloved classic films of all time. Originally, though, it was never meant to be soley a holiday film, and in fact, the Christmas scenes are a very small minority of the whole film. Nor does the film itself uphold the schmaltzy, sentimental reputation, but it’s surprisingly dark, as the image I chose above suggests. George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to be out of provincial Bedford Falls and to see the world, but every time he tries to go, something keeps him there. His father’s death puts him in charge of the family Building and Loan business; his brother’s college career lands him a cushy job, so George stays on instead of letting his brother take over; the Depression hits and threatens the town, so he stays to protect the Building and Loan from the dastardly Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore); and on and on. His despair when he thinks he’s failed even at disappointing life he’s lived is probably the darkest thing Frank Capra has ever filmed, and it’s only topped by Vertigo for Stewart. Of course the message is that even when George thinks his life is so unimportant, so far from the world’s center, and so held back by his circumstances, his selfless actions (no matter how begrudging) have had a huge impact on the world. I know the film seems hopelessly familiar (even if you haven’t seen it!), but it continues to offer rich rewards.
Currently ranked #108
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3. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
After losing the 1939 Best Actor Oscar (for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), it’s widely assumed that Stewart won an Oscar for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story as something of a consolation prize, and there’s something to that. Stewart’s role here as a nosy reporter seeking a scoop at a posh socialite wedding is good, and he’s excellent in it, but it’s no Jefferson Smith. That said, The Philadelphia Story is one of the most charming and sparkling comedies Hollywood ever produced, with Katharine Hepburn‘s stuck-up Tracy Lord all set to marry dependable George (John Howard), but whose encounters with her ex-husband Dexter (Cary Grant) and reporter Mike (Stewart) shake things up on the weekend leading up to the wedding. This was Hepburn’s triumphant comeback to film after a string of failures in the late 1930s labeled her box office poison, and she owns the film, though Stewart manages to steal some of it away from her – if he does earn his Oscar, it’s with two sequential tour-de-force scenes. First, when he goes to call out C.K. Dexter Haven, one of the best drunk scenes on film, and second, when he returns (still drunk) to an also-drunk Tracy and they go swimming – he sells a monologue about “the fire within” Tracy that could easily be ridiculous but isn’t. Between the three unbeatable leads and a hilarious script, this film is simply wonderful.
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2. Vertigo (1958)
Stewart’s films with Hitchcock and Anthony Mann really showed his dark side, and none more than Vertigo, a tale of murder and obsession second to none. When detective Scotty Ferguson meets Madeleine (Kim Novak), a woman he’s supposed to be following for a client, he falls for her hard, and losing her put him in a spiral of despair that only shows signs of alleviation when he meets Judy, who looks remarkably similar. There are a lot of plot elements and layers to the story, but what holds it together is Scotty’s single-minded obsession with Madeleine to the point of near-insanity. The film was a box office and critical failure when released, but its reputation has only swelled in the ensuing decades: in 2012, Vertigo ousted Citizen Kane from atop the influential Sight & Sound Greatest Films list. Never before had Stewart portrayed a man so profoundly broken, and yet so charismatic that we ache for him even as he does terrible things. It’s a masterpiece of a film, and of a central performance.
Currently ranked #45
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1. Rear Window (1954)
Yet the #1 spot on Flickchart’s James Stewart chart (as well as its Alfred Hitchcock chart, of course), belongs to Rear Window, which has a wheelchair-bound Stewart spying on his neighbors during his convalescence from a broken leg. The actual plot is much easier to relate than Vertigo‘s – Stewart begins to suspect one neighbor of murdering his wife and looks for evidence to prove it – but the thematic and symbolic depth to Rear Window is almost unparalleled in Hitchcock’s career. Its voyeuristic tendencies are often likened to how audiences watch movies, or more trenchantly TV, flitting from one “program” to the next looking for something sensational, but it’s also an exploration of relationships, both individual and communal, and the outcome of a lack of engagement/commitment to either. Hitchcock confines his camera to the Stewart’s living room, so we always get his vantage point, but here that feels less like a technical experiment (as it does in Rope) and more like a narrative necessity. Perhaps Stewart’s biggest acting job here is acting like he’s not sure he wants to be in a relationship with a luminous Grace Kelly, and he even pulls THAT off with surprising believability. Meanwhile, cinematic treasure Thelma Ritter steals nearly every scene she’s in, no matter how good Stewart and Kelly are. I’ll be honest, this is my #1 film of all time. It’s hard for me to keep my enthusiasm for it under control.
Currently ranked #10
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A Few Hidden Gems
Most of my personal favorite Stewart films ended up in this Top 13, but his filmography is so deep that there’s plenty to seek out if you’re looking for more. Here are just a few worth your time.
- The Man from Laramie (1955) – ranked #1851
- Destry Rides Again (1939) – ranked #1329
- Call Northside 777 (1947) – ranked #2808 (see our Reel Rumbles featuring this film)
- After the Thin Man (1936) – ranked #1306
- Shenandoah (1965) – ranked #4685
What are your top James Stewart movies?