James Maitland Stewart began his career in the early 1930’s and by the start of World War II was a successful leading man. His career as a leading man lasted until the mid 1960’s, when he began to gradually shift into more grandfatherly parts. Early on, Stewart was known for his earnest persona but in the 1950’s he began to play more complex parts in a series of films for both directors Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Clearly one of the greatest actors Hollywood produced, here are James Stewart’s 15 greatest films.
15. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
One of the Stewart’s first important actor – director relationships was with Frank Capra, who used Stewart ‘average guy’ persona to great effect. Here Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the vice president of a powerful company that is owned by his family, who falls in love with his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). Troubles occur when Tony’s rich father (Edward Arnold) needs to buy a home owned by Alice’s grandfather, Martin (Lionel Barrymore, Jr.) and the eccentric Martin doesn’t want to sell. Tony and Alice are caught in the struggle between the ambitious, wealthy Kirbys and the wacky but happy Sycamore clan.
Based on a Kauffman and Hart play, You Can’t Take it With You is an early example of Stewart talents being put to good use by Capra in a classic 1930’s screwball comedy.
14. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Set in Budapest, Hungary, Stewart is Alfred Kralik, the longest term and most trusted employee in a gift shop owned by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Kralik is corresponding with a mystery woman whom he hopes to meet, and is annoyed when his boss hires Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) to work in the store with him. It turns out that new girl Klara and Alfred’s mystery woman are one and the same, so Kralik must reconcile his personal conflicts with Klara and also help Mr. Matuschek when he finds out his wife has been unfaithful to him.
Directed by the master of urbane, sophisticated comedies, Ernst Lubitsch, The Shop Around the Corner showed that Stewart could be believable playing characters other than the average American boy.
13. Destry Rides Again (1939)
Stewart’s first western role was in this film, a light hearted look at the old west co-starring Marlene Dietrich as dance hall girl Frenchy. The town of Bottleneck is under the control of saloon owner Kent (Brian Donleavy) who has had the town’s sheriff killed for asking too many questions about a rigged poker game. When town drunk Dimsdale is made the new sheriff, he brings in Destry as deputy to help him clean up the town.
Though he is an expert marksman, Destry refuses to wear a gun, much to the hilarity of the town gunslingers. Can a gunless deputy clean up the town and win Frenchy’s heart in the bargain? You’ll have to watch the enjoyable Destry Rides Again to find out!
12. Call Northside 777 (1949)
In 1941 Stewart, a certified pilot, enlisted in the Air Force and ended up becoming a decorated pilot, flying numerous dangerous missions during the war. On his return to Hollywood, Stewart had difficulty getting his career back on track as filmgoer’s tastes had changed considerably. The film noir Call Northside 777 is an example of one of the different roles that Stewart tried out, as he plays a reporter, P.J. McNeal, who comes to believe that Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) convicted of murdering a cop some years earlier is innocent. Needless to say, the Chicago police are none too eager to having McNeal look into the case, and they make it as difficult as possible for him to investigate.
Call Northside 777 shows Stewart expanding his range in a more hard boiled film that also, on some levels, recalls his late 1930’s films in which he took on the establishment to fight for the little guy.
11. Bend of the River (1952)
In 1950, Stewart began a fruitful collaboration with director Anthony Mann. Bend of the River was the second of these films, with Stewart playing Glyn McLyntock, scout for a wagon train of settlers, who saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching. After helping his party settle in the wilderness, McLyntock runs into a conflict with Tom Hendricks, who has agreed to supply food for the winter but now appears to be reneging on the deal. With the assistance of Cole and Laurie (Julie Adams), McLyntock appears to have saved the day for the settlers, but the duplicitous Cole may be ready to double cross his ‘friends’.
The ‘Anthony Mann Westerns’, as they came to be known, established a harder edged image for Stewart, who often had to play characters that walked a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys.
10. Harvey (1950)
Counter balanced with the ‘tough guy’ image of the Anthony Mann films, was Stewart’s role as the pleasant, middle aged Elwood P. Dowd, who has befriended an invisible 6 foot ‘pooka’ (rabbit) named Harvey. Elwood’s delusional friendship with Harvey causes his sister, Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece, Myrtle Mae to try to have him placed in a sanitarium run by Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway). Eventually nobody in the film is sure whether or not Harvey is real and Elwood is sane or not, but it doesn’t really matter; the most important thing is that we, along with Elwood, believe Harvey is there.
Based on a successful Broadway play, Harvey was shot on the Universal backlot with loving care by workmanlike studio director Henry Koster and has remained a family favorite and one of Stewart’s best known roles.
9. The Man Who Knew too Much (1956)
Like Mann and Capra before him, Stewart developed a highly successful relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock. Although he was badly miscast in his first outing for Hitchcock in Rope (1948), he was put to better use in the director’s remake of his 1934 British success. Stewart is Dr. Ben McKenna, who is given some information by a dying secret agent about an planned assassination in London; before Stewart can do anything about it, his young son Hank is kidnapped by the plotters to keep him and wife Jo (Doris Day) quiet. Jo ends up foiling the plot at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in one of Hitchcock’s greatest sequences, and she and Ben have to infiltrate a foreign embassy to get back Hank.
Stewart was perfect as Hitchcock’s average man put to the test by stressful situations, an icon of the 1950’s American male dealing with a dangerous world in anxious times.