Thursday, June 18, 2009

Favorite Actors, #2: James Stewart

First Movie I Saw Him In: The Stratton Story (1949)

Three Favorite Movies: The Philadelphia Story (1940); Anatomy of a Murder (1959); Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)

Honorable Mention: Bend of the River (1952)

Favorite Performance [this week, anyway]: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Why I Like Him: I was stunned by my babbling incoherence in the previous entry, so I’ll taper back on this one.

Do you know how hard it is to pick only three favorite James Stewart movies? Choosing a single favorite performance is even more difficult. I’m staggered by the amount of great movies he’s done and the directors with whom he’s worked. He’s also well-known enough that I know that what I like about James Stewart is most likely what everyone likes about him.

Stewart’s career was so rich and varied that his career can be divided into separate periods: The young, idealistic Jimmy that dazzled us as an everyman in the 30s and 40s; the hard, tightly-wound Stewart of the early 1950s whose psychological torment as seen in all those Anthony Mann westerns reflected the dark, unpleasant side of America; and there’s the elder statesman, whose man-of-the-establishment, folksy wisdom and “seen it all” attitude, which was representative of a generation of Americans who had endured the most horrific conflict the world has ever known. Every decade of Stewart’s career is fascinating and for a man who was often labeled the everyman, Stewart himself was, too.

With Stewart, I’d want to be like his greatest screen characters. To be thoughtful, reflective, and even-handed enough in my beliefs and judgments that it would result in my attaining a decency and dignity like Stewart himself idealized in his greatest roles. I love the elder statesman Stewart the best, which is why the otherwise fluffy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation is among my favorite movies of his. He’s a rock of the establishment and still possesses those great qualities that made him one of the most beloved stars in movies. By the time that film was made, James Stewart was an icon and an institution. Actually, he became that icon the moment he completed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. After that, he would catapult himself into the legion of immortal actors—but not before serving his country and performing the most dangerous duty of World War II—bomber pilot over Germany. At the start of his career as a leading man, Stewart put that promising career aside, serving in the military and remained in the reserves for two decades. It’s as though Stewart was the common man of the Greatest Generation and that his growth in his film career reflected the changes both he and his country faced. That sounds heavy-handed but that’s how I see him.

Big concepts aside, I just like his folksy, aw-shucks manner, and average Joe characterizations; he’s just so darn likable! When I see his early movies and then flash forward to his latter period, I see the same character. It’s like having a grandfather who’s older and wiser, but you also know that he was once a young firebrand like Jefferson Smith or a man down on his luck like George Bailey, or the cagey lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder. But it’s more than that; his best roles are when he’s the regular guy who ends up doing things that are more important than things in his own self interest: whether it was a filibuster in Congress, defending settlers from predatory outlaws, protecting his family from the encroaching Civil War, or dealing with his own personal demons.

Random Info: In his later years, Stewart appeared on The Tonight Show and recited some of his original poetry. He was also amusing when he poked fun at his reputation for stammering.

James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


  1. "Do you know how hard it is to pick only three favorite James Stewart movies?"

    Very true, because as much as I love Stewart, I would pick three completely different favorite movies!

  2. Dave: Come back here in an hour and there *might be* three different favorite movies!

  3. Yeah, Jimmie, as I wanted :))) I'm EXTREMELY pleased. Just adore him. In everything.

  4. I am surprised you don't have any Hitchcock on your list of favorites. Of the ones you mentioned I am quite fond of Anatomy of Murder & The Philadelphia Story. And for one you didn't mention I also love The Shop Around the Corner.

    But as you said he's done so many great movies that it is hard to limit your favorites.

  5. C.K., I anticipated that Stewart would be your #1, so now I'm really curious to see who will claim this spot. I have an idea who it will be; I'll just have to wait to see how accurate my powers of prediction are. Stewart, like John Wayne, took a while to grow on me. Now, as I wrote earlier, he's my #2 favorite, exceeded only by Cary Grant. So much do I admire him that a few months ago I devoted a whole post to him at The Movie Projector (complete with a list of my favorite 10 Stewart performances--my #1, like yours, is "Anatomy of a Murder"). I really liked the way you divided his screen career into 3 phases--the three faces of Jimmy, so to speak! And your last sentence about his being "the regular guy who ends up doing things that are more important than things in his own self interest" concisely sums up the continuity in the characters he played and also explains his great appeal to viewers: he's the everyman who rises to the occasion when called on to do something extraordinary.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.