Tuesday, May 06, 2008

JIMMY STEWART: THE AW SHUCKS EVERYMAN was one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament. He is almost universally beloved among movie fans as a star while still managing to turn in performances that were layered and sometimes surprising. The "aw shucks" first impression is a little too simplistic because frankly the man could act. What follows are my ten favourite Jimmy Stewart movies; ones I return to again and again. But please note, these are in order of movie preference; not necessarily his "best" performances. That would probably shuffle the order around somewhat. Since my number one film is not his best performance; it's the movie as a whole I'm responding to. And also one final word: beware there may be spoilers ahead!
  1. REAR WINDOW (1954) - Not only my favourite Stewart film but also my favourite Hitchcock film. Like I said, Stewart's performance is not as towering as some of the movies you'll see later in this list but REAR WINDOW is a stone cold classic among classics. Wheelchair-bound Stewart has nothing to do but voyeuristically peer out his apartment house window and sees some things he shouldn't see. Was there a murder across the way or was there not? Strangely unable to commit to his knockout goddess of a girlfriend (Grace Kelly -- I mean C'MON Jimmy!), there are, as usual, plenty of things going on under the surface of this Hitchcock film. Among them are Hitch's comments on the very voyeuristic nature of cinema itself. Add to all this another classic performance by Thelma Ritter as well as a truly menacing Raymond Burr and a strong performance by Wendell Corey -- particularly when he visits Stewart's apartment and silently takes in the evidence of Grace Kelly's unseen presence. Who could ask for more?
  2. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) - This was a near one. Very narrowly edged out by REAR WINDOW, MR. SMITH is one of those towering acting performances turned in by Mr. Stewart. The justly famous "filibuster" sequence at the end stills gives me goosebumps to this day and I've seen the film countless times. One lone little greenhorn freshman Senator finds out his political idol (Claude Rains) ain't as pure as he thought. The disillusionment and pressure put upon Stewart's character is palpable and we the viewers feel ready to cave in to the pressure when Stewart stands up for what is right. Thrilling! Add to this the spectacular Jean Arthur (boy, I love her -- a hell of an actress often underrated) and we have here the movie that SHOULD have won best picture in the golden year of 1939. Instead of that Civil War mess.
  3. VERTIGO (1958) - Another Hitchcock classic and a stunning performance by Jimmy Stewart who reaches inside himself to depths which make his character quite unlikeable and creepy. Obsession personified. Stewart takes a job to trail a friend's wife (icy Kim Novak) who has been acting strangely. He soon falls hopelessly in love with her. Then loses her. Then finds someone else who looks kinda like her. Then tries to forcefully mold her into his dead love. Then.... Well, this has been widely called Hitchcock's masterpiece and it just might be. A complex film on so many levels.
  4. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) - This one has my beloved Kate in it along with Cary Grant. This is also the one Stewart won the Academy Award for. Again, not really his greatest performance but the movie is a classic comedy which knocks an alabaster goddess (Katharine Hepburn) off her high horse. Stewart is very fine as the "man of the people" reporter (with whiffs of Marxism, actually) whose distain for the rich folks melts to more tender feelings toward Hepburn. Of course, there's Hepburn's dissolute bounder of an ex-husband (Cary Grant) in the mix and everybody seems to be trying to prevent Hepburn's upcoming marriage to a noodge. Hepburn (labelled box office poison a couple years earlier) snagged the rights to this play written expressly for her and wisely insisted that any studio buying the successful play would star her. She also demanded her choice of leading men: Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. What she got was Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Not bad runners-up, I'd say.
  5. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) - In the same year he made Mr. Smith, Stewart also scored with this incredibly likeable comedy/western in which he plays a loveable gunfighter who just will NOT pick up a gun. This is also the film which revitalized Marlene Dietrich's career (also labelled box office poison the same time Hepburn was) as she plays a boozy strumpet of a saloon singer ("See what the boys in the back room will have and tell 'em I'm having the same"). This role single-handedly changed her image from the aloof, exotic femmes fatales she had been playing for years. A western with real heart and a tearjerker ending. Oh yeah, and the huge cat fight between Dietrich and Una Merkel.
  6. ROPE (1948) - It's Hitchcock again and not one of the more famous ones. This is a film which a lot of people dog but I still really enjoy. Of course, the concept was that Hitchcock wanted to shoot a movie in single takes; in other words, he started filming and only stopped when the can of film ran out. So the film is acted just like a stage play. And I frankly have never had a problem with movies that feel like stage plays. If the writing and acting are interesting, who cares if there's only one set? Not I? While this is certainly no knock 'em dead classic, it's still very enjoyable as it provides a thinly-disguised riff on the Leopold & Loeb murder for kicks case. John Dall (from GUN CRAZY) is mesmerizing while Farley Grainger is suitably twitchy. Then there's Kate Hepburn's old coach Constance Collier and Sir Cedric Hardwicke along for the macabre fun -- all through a dinner which is served over a dead body.
  7. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) - It may be a predictable choice, it may be corny, but in between the saccharine still can be found a really good movie. The Christmas perennial that answers the question: "What if I had never been born." Frank Capra's relentlessly hopeful movie gives Stewart another chance to deliver a fine performance. The scene where Stewart and girlfriend Donna Reed a sharing a telephone receiver is electric with erotic energy (no kidding, it really is) while Stewart's ultimate despair on the bridge as he contemplates suicide is suitably dark and stunningly enacted. All this can help us excuse the cringingly sappy final scene with the gratingly-voiced child screeching about a bell ringing.
  8. THE NAKED SPUR (1953) - One of several Anthony Mann directed westerns featuring Jimmy Stewart, this one provides Stewart with an incredibly flawed and sometimes very dark character to sink his teeth into. And this he does as he desperately tries to bring in outlaw Robert Ryan for the reward money. Beautiful technicolor scenery beneath brilliant blue skies and a superb cast that also includes PSYCHO's Janet Leigh and KISS ME DEADLY's Ralph Meeker. Then there's the stunning scene at the rapids where Stewart's character sinks about as low as he can in the movie.
  9. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) - It's been called John Ford's last truly great film. This western finds Stewart in a strange echo of Destry as a man who refuses to pick up a gun. Add to the mix John Wayne and a villainous Lee Marvin -- not to mention a whole passle of superb character actors: Vera Miles, Edmond O'Brien, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, Denver Pyle and John (THE GRAPES OF WRATH) Qualen. This is also the movie that gives us the immortal line: " This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
  10. BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) - Yet another one of those Anthony Mann westerns with Jimmy Stewart this time as a bounty hunter trying to put his shady past behind him by helping found a community in the Oregon territory. Of course, nothing could be that simple as the food and supplies they had previously purchased are never delivered by an unscrupulous money grubber because the goods have skyrocketed in price since they were sold. Stewart has to find a way to recapture the goods that are rightfully theirs as well as fight a mutiny. The role gives Stewart a chance to demonstrate his steely resolve and never-say-quit attitude in a more heroic role than THE NAKED SPUR. Surrounded by another stellar cast: Rock Hudson, Julie (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Harry (M*A*S*H*) Morgan, Lori (REVENGE OF THE CREATURE) Nelson, and Frances (ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) Bavier.

Well, there you have it: the ten Jimmy Stewart films I like the most. I wonder what star I'll look at next??? Any suggestions???

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