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3 James Stewart Films Everyone Should See
James Stewart is one of Hollywood’s beloved icons of the golden age of film. He is probably best known for the noble George Bailey who always put everyone else first in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” With his distinctive accent and tall, lanky frame, Stewart brought a small town, mid-West sensibility to the likable characters he portrayed. Equally talented in both comedies and dramas, Stewart left a legacy of classic films that are arguably some of the best ever made.
Stewart is best remembered in the classics “Rear Window”, “The Philadelphia Story”, ”Vertigo”, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” These are all exceptional films and showcase his many talents. However, if you are new to classic movies, or just Jimmy Stewart movies, here are three that I highly recommend as a fan of both Stewart and classic movies.
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Stewart plays Chicago reporter P.J. O’Neal who is asked to report on an advertisement placed in the newspaper. In the ad, a mother pleads for information to exonerate her son who she feels was wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer more than a decade before. Offering a $5,000 reward to whoever helps to free her son. From out the outset, Stewart doesn’t believe the man, Frank Wiecek (played compassionately by Richard Conte), is innocent. But as time passes, and research is done, Stewart’s character begins to come around and work toward finding the needed evidence to convince the parole board to set Wiecek free.
Aside from the genuine performances that make you truly believe in the characters, you get to a real window back in time. Anymore, crime shows are so common and the answer always seems to come out perfectly at the end, the bad guy goes to jail and the victims are vindicated. Stories such as this are more common than I think we want to admit.
One interesting side note: this is one of the first films to ever showcase polygraph testing. In 1948, the lie detector machine was an innovative technology. In the film, the actual inventor of the machine, Leonarde Keeler, administered the test to Richard Conte. Keeler believed the machine was too sensitive and intricate to teach an actor to simulate actually using the device.
Two arrogant young men, Brandon and Phillip, have just murdered their friend David and stashed the body in a chest in the living room. They feel they are intellectually superior to the people in their lives. Before long, guests begin to arrive for a dinner party including David’s parents, his fiancé, and their favorite teacher, Rupert Cadell (Stewart). Brandon is filled with pride and his ego quickly inflates as he feels that he has committed the perfect crime. Phillip, on the other hand, develops a conscience and soon regrets their actions. As the night wears on, Cadell notices the young men behaving strangely and soon begins to uncover what has really happened.
“Rope” is an excellent example of Alfred Hichcock’s subtle style of story telling. Stewart is both cunning and sharp in this cutting tale of betrayal among of friends. What is particularly interesting about this film is the way it is shot. It is meant to tell the story in real time. The whole film is shot in long sequences and there are no abrupt cuts from one room to the next. The camera moves and flows with actors, following them through the evening in a fluid way that makes you feel like you are there, secretly listening in on everything that happens.
Overall, this is a morality tale; societal morals as the young men discuss how some people are just better than others. Some have claimed that the story was inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case.
Stewart is Elwood Dowd, a likeable, friendly man who lives with his sister and niece. His best friend happens to a six foot tall, invisible, white rabbit named Harvey. It is discovered that Harvey’s origins are that of a mythical Celtic creature called a Pooka. Harvey seems to inspire random kindness in those who meet Elwood. Unfortunately, Elwood’s sister and niece are afraid he’s lost his marbles when he inadvertently chases away guests and destroys his niece’s chances at marriage. Their frustration lead to the decision to have Elwood committed and the comedic misunderstandings and hijinks ensue.
This is one of my absolute favorite Jimmy Stewart films. He is so adept at playing these kind-hearted, good-natured men that you truly believe him when he talks about Harvey. More than sixty years after this film was released, its ideals and messages are still very relevant. Everyone wanted to call Elwood crazy because he made kindness his highest priority, he genuinely tried to make everyone his friend and would do anything for a friend or a stranger. I find it fascinating that someone who is so very selfless is looked at with suspicion and their sanity questioned. I think that idea still holds true today.
Decades of great films
Stewart made many memorable films, but these are three of my favorites. Other great films include his westerns, his war films and the family comedies. There was something about Stewart that made him approachable and human. This strikes me as unusual for the era when movie stars were glamorous, intriguing and seemed to live in another world.
His genuineness is what made him so successful in his career. This is a man that wanted to serve his country during World War II and was deeply disappointed to be rejected because he was underweight. Rather than resigning himself to work on the war bond drive, he chose to work hard and gain the needed weight to join the Army Air Corp. He spent the rest of his life serving as an officer in the Air Force Reserves. This fact always stunned me, he didn’t have to give so much of himself but he thought it was the right thing to do.
That may be why he was so believable in the roles he played. It is hard for me to think of a Stewart film I don’t like. These are three that need to be seen to help appreciate his skill and talent.
I would love to hear about what Stewart films you think are must sees. Leave me a comment with your thoughts!