James Stewart rediscovered

For some reason, and I wasn’t sure how until I started digging through my memory of the past few weeks, I’ve started watching Jimmy Stewart movies (when not distracted by Richard Armitage at a film festival in Newcastle and all the subsequent reports and pictures streaming in). Now, I’ve always known James Stewart, have always really liked him, he’s one of the favourite actors of my younger brother but he never made it to the top of my “I love him/her so much!” actors list. I think that has now changed!

Digging through my memory, I think it was the fault of falling into an old 1943 movie about six or so weeks ago with Jean Arthur called The More the Merrier (if you want to see a very sexy love scene from the early 1940s that also makes you smile, check out this scene from that film!). I happened upon this scene on YouTube, then found the whole movie and watched it and really enjoyed it! Charles Coburn was truly excellent and funny in it (he won an Oscar for that role; luckily I didn’t find out till after I had seen and enjoyed the movie that Coburn had been a white supremacist!) but I was also very impressed with Jean Arthur! So, I jumped to the only other movie I knew with her, called Mr Smith Goes to Washington, with James Stewart (I now know she also did Shane, still need to re-watch that one). I had once seen Mr Smith many years ago but barely remembered it, so I watched it again and that is when James Stewart blew me away (don’t get me wrong, Jean Arthur is very good in this too!). So, after watching that, I have been binge-watching all of Stewart’s movies! Well, a whole lot of them, in any case.

What I think really hit me with James Stewart this time around is how extremely well he listens and reacts to others! I was pondering that over the past few weeks and then yesterday I was reading an obituary the NY Times had done on him where he is quoted as once having said, “I don’t act, I react”. I don’t quite agree with the “I don’t act” part. I see how the criticism can be that he is often himself in movies but I think he does something way cleverer than that: every character is quite different but somehow he takes every character and he finds a way to also inject them with his own humanity. What I do very much agree with is the “I react” part of that quote. Come to think of it, I think he was one of the best ‘reactors’ I have ever seen! He is an ‘everyman’ and very human in his expressions, that makes him so very relatable.

In his pre-war movies he starred in some dramas (like Mr Smith…), there was his first Western (Destry Rides Again) where he played a pacifist lawman (co-starring with Marlene Dietrich) but mostly the movies were lighter, romantic comedies, with The Shop Around the Corner being my absolute favourite one. That movie I have seen several times and re-watching it confirmed yet again what an adorable movie it is and what great chemistry James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan had (she helped kick-start his career and was also a close friend). In these early movies you can see that James Stewart had great comedic timing and a dry humour, which has served him well throughout his career. It looks like he is never purposely funny and yet he is funny. There is light-heartedness about him that I love, like in the scenes you see in this fan video I saw on YouTube…

To me, his most brilliant comedic performance, again where his character doesn’t mean to be funny but he really is, was a scene from The Philadelphia Story that he did with Cary Grant. The story goes that this scene wasn’t rehearsed, that they just played (and shot it) in one take. James Stewart is drunk and, in the middle of the night, visits Cary Grant’s house. Apparently the part where he starts hiccupping wasn’t scripted at all (neither was Cary Grant’s “Excuse me” response) and you can see that the men are struggling to keep it together, but keep it together they did. James Stewart won an Oscar for his role in this film, and I have a sneaking suspicion that, while he was excellent in the film, him winning the Oscar may have been because of this little scene. Here it is, the very funny “Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaaaaaven” scene…

But he wasn’t only good at comedy, one of his stand-out dramatic performances was in the first movie he did after leaving the army (he had been a commanding fighter pilot in WWII), the very famous It’s a Wonderful Life. James Stewart’s time in the army did something to him, I think, in that it gave him some more gravitas, like in this heartbreaking scene from It’s a Wonderful Life which is so superbly acted (as is the whole film)… Really, this was a brilliant role for him and such a lovely lovely movie!

He also did the movie Harvey in 1950 after having played the role on Broadway and on the London stage. I’d always heard of the movie and had read about it and knew it was supposed to be legendary (Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for it) but I only actually watched it recently during this binge phase. I think that this role has now gone straight to the top of my fave James Stewart performances ever! If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it. James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, who has a 6 ft 8 invisible white rabbit (but not invisible to him) called Harvey as his best friend, is just absolutely charming and so heartwarming. I swear, it’s one of the most endearing characters I have ever seen and yes, unintentionally funny as well. Apparently it was one of his own favourite characters too. Here, have a look at one of my fave quotes of the film…

After the war James Stewart did a few very good Hitchcock movies (my fave of those is Rear Window with Grace Kelly) and he became famous yet again for his Westerns (he made many!). For almost all the Westerns he did, he rode a horse he had come to love, named Pie, and he wore the same cowboy hat in almost all those movies as well…

I’ve seen a few of those Westerns and there is a quality of tenderness in the man, despite some of the acts of violence the characters played by Stewart display. There’s a vulnerability there in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes that makes me actually enjoy watching these Westerns (not normally a genre I enjoy that much) and in some films where Indians play a role, they are even humanized instead of demonized, like in Broken Arrow (from 1950) where he helps negotiate a peace with Apaches. I think my fave Western of his is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (where he doesn’t ride a horse or wear his hat) and co-stars with John Wayne (whom I really dislike and don’t like much in this movie either). However, I do love James Stewart’s character, who is a man who believes in the power of words over violence and yet finds himself in a situation where he needs to resort to violence.

James Stewart Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceAnother surprise to me was that I hadn’t remembered how good he was at being the romantic lead and how passionate his body language is. Again, his unparalleled reaction skills truly show! And being so tall helps him too. The way he looks at the women he loves on-screen, the way he reacts to them and then the way his tall frame totally envelopes them when he embraces them, holds them oh so tight and kisses them is just absolutely beautiful! In most movies I saw, I found he managed to manufacture great chemistry with his leading ladies. In fact, I just had to make a fan video about James Stewart being in love with his leading ladies!

The first scene I used in my fan video is from It’s a Wonderful Life with the beautiful Donna Reed opposite him. The tension and subtext just jump off the screen and punch you in the gut in this phone scene (that I cut somewhat but you can view in its entirety here, including what happens right before that phone part starts). The reacting, the breathing, the outburst of a man trying to fight his feelings but being overpowered by them – I can’t praise this scene enough! The role of George Bailey, to me, may have been his greatest romantic role ever… Anyway, here’s the video I made.

He did several of his early movies with Margaret Sullavan, someone else made a nice video for that…

After the war his on-screen wife for a few movies was June Allyson, whom he also had great chemistry with…

I also really liked him with Vera Miles in Liberty Valance and another movie called The FBI Story. The film itself is not that great, but Jimmy and Vera really do work very well together. Here, take a look at this scene of them together in that movie…

In reading up on him, I think I would rarely have agreed with him politically. He was famously best friends with Henry Fonda since the early 1930s and despite vehemently disagreeing with each other’s political views, they remained close friends until Fonda’s death in 1982.

Maybe we could learn something from these two men who had such opposing political views and yet were such friends (apparently their hobby was building model airplanes together!). Jimmy Stewart really seems to have been a humanitarian and I always respond well to that. I also love that he was so happily married to his wife Gloria for 45 years until she died in 1994. He became father to her sons of a previous marriage and they had twin girls together.

Apparently his final words before he died at age 89 in 1997 were, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”

Just as everyone underestimates Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, I think I may have underestimated James Stewart. I always liked him before, but now I can honestly say I love him.

15 thoughts on “James Stewart rediscovered

  1. Judit

    Aww! I adore Jimmy Stewart! That drunk scene from Philadelphia Story is one of my favourite ever scenes in any film, ever! The hiccuping never fails to get me. I also loooooved him in Rear Window but my very fav JS movie (such a lovely chemistry -no pun intended- with Margaret) is “Shop around the corner” which is based on a Hungarian play by Miklós László and on which the Tom Hanks movie “You’ve got mail” is based. He was such a natural, understated actor, Jimmy Stewart. And a lovely human being as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I love Shop Around the Corner (and You’ve Got Mail as well)!
      Cool that you like him too! Have you ever seen ‘Harvey’? I recommend that one highly, he’s so brilliant in it!


  2. I love Jimmy Stewart, too. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of those movies where I can the romantic scenes or the tragic or happy scenes over and over. I can see his face when he finds that the town is rallying around him in the savings and loan. I enjoyed him in “Harvey” too, and of course “Philadelphia Story”. Thanks for an enjoyable post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. janesteinmiller

    He wasn’t the most handsome, or the most heroic, or the best actor, the funniest, or a great singer. He was enough of all those things that everyone loved him. Plus, a good man, a good friend, husband and father. When his son was killed in Vietnam, he was heartbroken. His friend Henry Fonda loved that boy too. They may have viewed the war differently, but they both hated that part of it. It may have even intensified the Fonda’s opposition to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think because he is so ‘normal’ he has not exactly escaped my attention (I have always liked him) but he has escaped my fascination. Till now. 🙂
      That friendship Fonda and Stewart shared all their lives was special…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always loved Jimmy Stewart, too. His movies are SO re-watchable. But you didn’t mention my one favorite movies EVER: “You Can’t Take It With You” [1938]. It isn’t his biggest or his best role. My love of it probably has as much to do with Frank Capra and the amazing ensemble as it does with Jimmy Stewart. Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur – again, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, Dub Taylor, Ann Miller and many more each gave spot on portrayals of very well-drawn characters. So many great character actors plus a FABULOUS story. TCM shows it every now and then. Anyway, this is a wonderful review of Mr. Stewart’s work. Couldn’t have enjoyed your blog more. Thanks for the memories!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool that you also love him!
      I hadn’t mentioned ‘You Can’t Take It With You” but I have re-watched it and I do really like it as well, just don’t love it quite as much as the others I mentioned. But yes, that movie is another good recommendation to anyone! I did use a short clip from that film in my ‘James Stewart in love…” fan video, at 2 minutes 26. 🙂


  5. janesteinmiller

    Another wonderful actor who may not have received the recognition he deserved was Fred McMurray. Especially anything he did with Barbara Stanwyck. I love “A Night to Remember”, which is a Christmas movie. Double Indemnity is a noir classic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen both but so long ago, I’d need to check them out again. can’t remember anything about these films… I do remember quite liking Fred McMurray, though (but was never so fond of Stanwyck).


  6. Ganz lieben Dank für den tollen Artikel über James Steward. Ich mag ihn sehr gerne, er war ein unglaublich sympathischer Schauspieler 🙂
    Mir fallen als Erstes immer die Hitchcock Filme ein, Vertigo ist so ein Wahnsinnsfilm ❤ und noch ganz viele mehr….Ich glaube schon, dass er ein richtig guter Schauspieler war und schön zu hören, dass er auch so ein wunderbarer Familienvater war….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vertigo war zwar gut, hat mich aber nie so begeistert. Ich glaube, das lag an Kim Novak für mich. Jimmy war natürlich toll. Mein Lieblings-Jimmy-Hitchcock bleibt Rear Window. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Grace and Frankie | The Book of Esther

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