I read a phenomenal interview on the BFI’s website with James Stewart earlier this year, around February when The Philadelphia Story was re-release for Valentine’s Day, but for some reason they took the interview down. This is a crying shame because they had such a good quote by Stewart and is the whole reason for this post, one I’m actually quite gutted I will never find again.
But the gist of it was about the subject of screen acting and what he thought he was trying to achieve on screen. He said that when you’re acting, your goal is to create these moments on screen, a minute or two of pure chemistry, a fleeting snapshot of cinematic perfection. What he said really got me thinking, because that’s so true. Jeez, he’s such a good actor. I have thought long and hard about this, but ever since I wrote an essay on him in my first year of University, Jimmy Stewart has been my favourite classic Hollywood actor, probably my most favourite actor ever (sorry to my boy Joaquin Phoenix), and wow, has he had some great acting moments.
So below are my favourite James Stewart moments out of some of the films I have actually seen him in, though I’m sure there are many, many more missed.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
James Stewart as Mr Smith in this film is typical of his early work. Later in his career we see him go against type in more cynical, weathered characters, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning. His tall, slim frame made him look gangly and awkward unlike the typically handsome Cary Grant and other actors of old Hollywood. His characters were naive, loveable and forever trying to fight for good. This is exactly what Smith is doing here during his filibuster as a Senator, his search for the truth literally exhausting him, his care for the common good overwhelming him. It gives me a pang of sadness at the lack of genuinely good politicians that would make it into power through conventional means.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
I wanted to write about a much smaller snippet of this film; the bit where Stewart as Macauley Connors wanders into the library where the librarian speaks English like she’s Shakespeare. This causes Stewart to, at first, participate with her in her choice of dialect as a way of subtly mocking her. But when he walks around the corner to go in search of the book he wants, he pauses to glance back at the odd woman from behind the shelf as a visual way of saying “did that really just happen.” The timing is perfect. The amount of Stewart’s face we see is perfect, the moment is perfection.
However, James Stewart won the Oscar for Best Actor for this movie (though I’m sure few will disagree that this movie was really a Katherine Hepburn masterpiece) so I have to mention the scene that I think sold the Academy members. I watched the film for the first time recently, and up until this scene I was wondering why on earth he won such a coveted award, and then this happened…
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I particularly want to draw your attention to the line ‘Oh why don’t you stop annoying people!’ as Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey continues to give the other guy evils until his face leaves the frame, I find that moment so funny. I also can’t help but smile at the thought that Mary caught George’s eye only because he was so damn tall. I also love George’s awkward dance of the Charleston with limbs flying everywhere and the really serious, concerned look on his face, it’s pure James Stewart. He always looks so serious in the funniest of scenes, making them even funnier.
I’m not the biggest fan of Harvey but I simply must include it as it’s a James Stewart masterpiece. He performed the role of Elwood on Broadway before reprising his role for the film. I think the main thing we need to focus on here is just how much no one else could have done this role. Can you IMAGINE Cary Grant parading around with an invisible 6 foot odd rabbit pal and portraying that role in a legit way like he wasn’t selling out or whatever? I don’t think even Johnny Depp couldn’t play that role without turning him into deranged asylum escapee. And, again, Stewart plays just the kindest possible man who sees the good in everyone even when they’re hating on him. Naivety? Or is he actually wiser than us all?
Rear Window (1954)
What an effing masterpiece. Rear Window is without a doubt one of my favourite films, and you feel the shift in the kind of characters Stewart chose to play. He’s been the happy-go-lucky, decent, honest fella but decides to take up the rare character of a man who would ACTUALLY TURN DOWN GRACE KELLY. The thing I love about this movie is that Stewart’s familiar traits are completely stripped away from him. His imposing height and the awkwardness that comes with it? Gone. His childlike innocent is replaced by a worldly cynicism that strips the serious humour to just downright serious. The result is some terrific acting that relies on minimal facial expression, subtle ticks and slow, concise movements.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
In this scene, this is the kind of crap I would normally ask myself. I adore that smile at the end. I love Stewart in this role because I know he was so into flying in real life and you can tell Stewart the person is genuinely loving this role.
By the time Vertigo happened, Mr Smith was almost 20 years old and Stewart had actually just turned fifty, it’s only natural he was choosing more mature roles. His worldly cynicism only intensified from Rear Window and man, it’s such good acting, this scene always gives me the creeps and I literally don’t know why it still has such a big effect on me. Maybe it’s James Stewart’s crazy eyes…
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
I’m loving the fact James Stewart got into Westerns in the last stages of his career. Westerns for crying out loud! In the case of Liberty Valance, Stewart once again plays a Senator so it’s nice to come full circle from Mr Smith. Stewart has completely come into his own and he’s totally self-assured and confident. In this scene, I particularly like how he has his leg up the whole way through and that he never really looks at the reporter interviewing him, just smirks to himself. From a drunk comic relief character shouting C.K. DEXTER HAVEN!!! in The Philadelphia Story to a cock-sure Senator, James Stewart played them all with the same amount of integrity and oodles of talent which have all come together to form one of my favourite actors in the business.
Do you love James Stewart as much as I do?
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