Jimmy Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, 103 years ago today, May 20. His star image of the Everyman who embodied uncomplicated honesty and integrity seems the stellar opposite of today’s tarnished stars and publicity-hungry celebrities. Stewart’s career and star image epitomized an era when movie stardom held value for American culture, when each star represented a value or ideal on the big screen that audiences admired, respected, and maybe aspired to. In that world, Stewart’s star persona as the sometimes naïve but always morally centered protagonist—cemented with his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—was admired and beloved.
After decades of “actors” who undermined their star power with repulsive behavior or publicity-mongering celebrities chronicled by an ever-rabid press, today’s audiences are cynical about movie stars—if they think about them at all. And, as the age of the target demographic gets younger and younger, fewer and fewer movies thrive on terrific star turns by charismatic actors. After all, children prefer comic-book characters and thinly drawn archetypes over good actors or movie stars. The day of the movie star as a meaningful cultural symbol is over. Few of today’s could turn a flat script into a film classic with their performance as Stewart and his generation frequently did, or provide comfort and meaning to audiences wracked with the insecurities of latest war, economic breakdown, or international crisis.
Some food for thought as you ponder my list of favorite Jimmy Stewart films. Most of these are classics; some are just quirky favorites made better by Stewart’s performance. I would love to hear what your favorite Stewart movie might be—and why.
1. CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). Hands down, this is my favorite Stewart film. Set in Chicago and based on a true story, this gritty semi-documentary drama stars Stewart as a reporter who uses his investigative skills to free a wrongfully accused Polish immigrant from a murder conviction. Partly shot on Milwaukee Ave. and in the Loop, the naturalistic cinematography by Joseph MacDonald offers a snapshot of the Chicago of 60 years ago.
2. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). Stewart plays the morally righteous tenderfoot to John Wayne’s violent man of action in John Ford’s saddest western. Here, his customary honesty and integrity isn’t enough to tame the West, and he is backed by Wayne who commits a dishonorable deed to save Stewart’s skin. It’s a different take on civilization vs. the wilderness for Ford, and he uses both Wayne’s and Stewart’s star image to their best advantage.
3. THE SHOOTIST (1976). John Wayne’s last film is an elegy to his career and his star persona as the ultimate western protagonist. To back his old friend and costar, Stewart signed on to play the doctor who tells Wayne’ character he has cancer. As fate would have it, Wayne found out during production that he was dying of cancer, making his scenes with his old costar all the more poignant.
4. FOOL’S PARADE (1971). Stewart plays Mattie Appleyard, a one-eyed convict whose long stint in prison is about to end, except officials don’t want him to leave alive. Here Stewart’s star image comes into play because it serves to make his law-breaking character sympathetic and helps to convey the idea that the convicts are more honest than the judicial system.
5. THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940). This romantic comedy by Ernst Lubitsch is a charming story of two shopworkers who don’t get along but fall in love as secret penpals. Stewart has great chemistry opposite his friend Margaret Sullavan, a force of nature in romantic comedies, though she is largely forgotten today. This was released the same year as The Philadelphia Story, which also starred Stewart, but this one is just as good. The horrible modern rom-com You’ve Got Mail was a remake of this film, which proves it’s not the content or storyline that makes a good film but the people behind it.
6. TAKE HER, SHE’S MINE (1963). Objectively speaking, this may be the weakest film on the list, but it’s one of my favorites. Stewart plays an average father who sends his oldest daughter (played by an adorable Sandra Dee) off to college. The story unfolds through his eyes as he puts up with his daughter’s ever-changing interests, majors, and boyfriends. Best scene: When Dee turns beatnik and sings in a coffee house. Mandatory viewing for anyone sending a kid off to college because some things never change.
7. HARVEY (1950). Stewart’s star image works well in his role as Elwood P. Dowd in this charming comedy, in which he plays a man who is convinced that his best friend is a giant, six-foot, invisible rabbit named Harvey. Because of Stewart’s star image as the honest, morally centered protagonist, you believe that he is telling the truth about fuzzy friend.
8. REAR WINDOW (1954). Hitchcock made use of Stewart’s star image in this classic thriller, but he played with audience expectations of that image by offering them a flawed character, L.B. Jeffries. Because audiences expected Stewart to play characters who always did the right thing, it’s disconcerting to see L.B. Jeffries treat his girlfriend badly, snoop on his neighbors, and let his girlfriend take all the risks—even getting excited as she does so.
All but Fool’s Parade and Take Her, She’s Mine are available to rent here from Facets.
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