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James Stewart: On the Actor's Centennial, His Ten Best Films

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Viewing the evolution of Hollywood films over time, I tend to place our male movie stars in one of two categories: romantic leads, and what we'll call "everyman" leads.

First and foremost, romantic leads attract the ladies in a way that seems effortless. Exuding self-confidence, they represent who we'd like to be-or at least look like. Today's romantic leads include Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Jude Law. A generation ago, we had Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Before that, it was Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Tyrone Power.

These types of stars have always faced the challenge of not being typecast too much, and not allowing their physical attributes to overshadow their ability to act and communicate effectively. Most often, they also need to continually play to their pre-defined image, and the conundrum there is to make that sameness appear fresh and interesting with every new picture.

By contrast, "everyman" leads may or may not win their female co-stars, but regardless of outcome, they usually have to work much harder at it. They reflect us more as we actually are- wary, uncertain, awkward, caught in the maelstrom of life and not always winning without a fight. Today, among our everymen, we have Tom Hanks, and within the younger contingent, Tobey Maguire. Before them, there was Dustin Hoffman, preceded by Jack Lemmon.

And even earlier on, there was a gangly Pennsylvanian named James Stewart.

Stewart and the actors that followed him have confronted different but no less daunting hurdles in honing their craft: they could never rely on simply projecting an ideal or fantasy of their own sex; instead, they had to keep their pulse on what was true about the complex inner life of regular human beings, and then release the appropriate emotions so that unfailingly, we would somehow see ourselves in them.

Jimmy Stewart was particularly adept at achieving this tricky, nuanced objective consistently. Thus he was and remains for me the ultimate everyman, squarely of his generation but at the same time, evergreen in his appeal and his impact.

A Princeton graduate, he bore no resemblance to the romantic Scott Fitzgerald prototype. A right-wing super-patriot throughout his life, he was never vocal enough to cause a stir. (When he and lifelong friend Henry Fonda got into fisticuffs over a political argument in the forties, on making up they promised never to talk politics again- and kept that vow.)

Stewart was also a bona-fide war hero (a decorated pilot in World War II who flew multiple bombing missions over Germany) though he never exploited it. Later a supporter of the Vietnam conflict and a Brigadier General in the Reserve forces, he visited Indochina but wanted no publicity. He viewed this as a separate, private part of his life- quite civilized and honorable by today's standards.

Likewise, his on-screen characters combined humanity with a homespun, purely American nobility, and most of his best roles share a common denominator: he played fundamentally decent men who find themselves either at a disadvantage, or transformed by tragedy, or just facing big trouble. Stewart's innate capacity to project a sympathetic, universal vulnerability, and when called upon, the strength of ordinary men doing extraordinary things, made him an actor we could all hold to our hearts- and did.

As we approach this outstanding actor's centennial on May 20th, I've chosen what I consider to be Jimmy Stewart's ten best films, listed in ascending order. All remain well worth watching or re-visiting. (As Robert Altman said about viewing great films again, "You always see something new, because though the movie hasn't changed, you have.")

10) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)- Returning to the old frontier town he left long ago, U.S. senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) recalls his run-ins with a notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and gun-toting rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who repeatedly saved the then young lawyer Stoddard's life-despite the fact the two men loved the same woman (Vera Miles). John Ford's last great moment came with this film, largely panned on release, when the director's romanticized vision of the Old West seemed outmoded. The film's resurgent popularity is due both to dynamic star performances and a seminal western story: the railroad's influence in transforming the rule of the gun (represented by Valance and Doniphon) to the rule of law (represented by Stoddard). "Valance" remains a touching and insightful portrait of the passing of an age, and a tribute to the western genre itself.

9) Harvey (1950)- Stewart re-creates his Broadway triumph portraying Elwood P. Dowd, a benignly unbalanced tippler with an imaginary friend who just happens to be a six-foot-tall rabbit. Although everyone takes Elwood's fantasy act as harmless bluff, his older sister tries to have Elwood committed to a mental institution, until Harvey himself intervenes. A sweet, endearing movie about faith and the sheer value of optimism, this contagious romp showcases Stewart in a role perfectly suited to his gentle, whimsical comic gifts. Josephine Hull, who reprised her part from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, won a well-deserved Oscar for her role as the antagonistic sibling. (Trivia note: reputedly, the part of Harvey was first offered to Bing Crosby, who turned it down!)

8) Vertigo (1958)- Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) is a police officer who learns too late that he's afflicted with vertigo. Suddenly sidelined, Scottie is enlisted by an old school chum to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is behaving oddly. Reluctantly, Scottie agrees and soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery where obsession, deceit, and murder all play a role, and where his own paralyzing fear of heights will be tested yet again. Hitchcock's psychological tingler was not a huge success on release (the director blamed Stewart's age), but has achieved cult status over time. Ambitious, dense and twisted, "Vertigo" is both an elaborate puzzler and a meditation on man's basest fears and desires. Stewart brings a barely suppressed desperation to Scotty that resonates, while Novak is ideal in a dual identity role, playing Madonna-like Madeleine, and the garish Judy, whom Scottie meets later in the saga. Glorious San Francisco locales and a peerless Bernard Herrmann score complete this winning package from the master of suspense.

7) The Shop Around The Corner (1940)- When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) uses her wily sales technique to impress Hugo (Frank Morgan), a Budapest gift-store owner, she is hired to work alongside clerk Alfred Kralik (Stewart), but the two don't hit it off. No matter: Alfred is secretly hoping to meet a woman with whom he's had a promising correspondence via the personals. Klara, meanwhile, begins to fall for an anonymous man she's been writing to as well. So it's a big surprise when they discover the true identities of their respective pen-pals. Noone made romantic comedies quite like director Ernst Lubitsch, whose famed "touch" lights this wry, poignant film. Veteran players (and old friends) Stewart and Sullavan make a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonely-hearts, conveying their characters' vulnerabilities with delicacy and heart. Subplots involving owner Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming employee, let Lubitsch impart further texture to a tale that's a delight from start to finish.

6) Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)- Paul Biegler (Stewart) is a former prosecutor who's at a professional turning point. Now out of the district attorney's office, he's a defense lawyer, and needs a high-profile assignment to establish himself. He finds it in the case of Lieutenant Fred Mannion (a young Ben Gazzara), an army officer accused of killing the man who raped Bannion's sexy wife Laura (Lee Remick). The case grows more complex the deeper Biegler probes, and he's also up against a ruthless young prosecutor (George C. Scott) intent on winning a conviction at all costs. Otto Preminger's crackling courtroom drama makes for a twisty, racy, irresistible film. Stewart is in his element as the dogged Biegler, but junior players Gazzara, Remick and Scott are every bit as good. Gritty atmosphere and a smoky Ellington score (with Duke himself in a rare on-screen appearance) help make this daring, distinctive picture hum. An underrated champ.

5) Winchester '73 (1950)- Lin McAdam (Stewart) is roaming the prairies, looking to settle a score with one Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Unfortunately, when the two meet up, they're in Marshal Wyatt Earp's jurisdiction and must surrender their weapons. The two do compete in a shooting contest for a new Winchester '73 rifle. McAdam wins, but through an act of treachery, loses the rifle. McAdam goes after Dutch Henry again; only this time, he wants his rifle back too. At this career stage, Stewart craved a change from his folksy roles, and chose a western to give his image a harder edge. Director Anthony Mann and he collaborated on four more oaters after this highly successful outing. "Winchester" brought a new complexity of character to the Western form, helping resuscitate a fading genre. This role also revived Stewart's career by displaying the actor's impressive range: Stewart's McAdam is a dark, angry fellow, far removed from the Elwood P. Dowds of the world. "Winchester" also features sterling support from Dan Duryea and a comely Shelley Winters as a sweet-natured showgirl.

4) The Philadelphia Story (1940)- Haughty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is engaged to marry self-made George Kittredge (John Howard), after divorcing wealthy spouse C.K. Dexter-Haven (Cary Grant). C.K shows up for the event with no hard feelings, along with society reporter/frustrated novelist Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). What transpires next is a peerless comedy of errors, where, thankfully, everything comes out right in the end. George Cukor's pitch-perfect adaptation of Philip Barry's play marked a big comeback for Kate (having earlier been labeled "box-office poison" by exhibitors), and an Oscar-winning vehicle for up-and-comer Stewart, playing a fish out of water in high society. Grant is every bit as good as the raffish C.K., while Hepburn shines in what may be her signature role. Sly and sophisticated, this title stands as one of our finest screen comedies.

3) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)- The young, idealistic Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is appointed an interim junior Senator on the basis that he will be too green to ruffle the cozy Washington establishment. But when one of Smith's first initiatives threatens a lucrative project championed by his mentor, powerful Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), the embattled Smith gets a first, bitter taste of cut-throat politics. Still, Smith will not yield the fight. Frank Capra's still potent morality tale remains one of Stewart's finest hours. (Indeed, when the actor won an Oscar the next year for "The Philadelphia Story", he felt it was delayed compensation for "Smith".) Solid support comes from Rains, as well as Jean Arthur as the cynical Clarissa Saunders (Jefferson's "keeper"), Edward Arnold, and Thomas Mitchell, who actually appeared in five Oscar- nominated pictures that year. Don't miss the justly famous filibuster scene!

2) It's A Wonderful Life (1946)- On a desolate Christmas Eve, small-town banker George Bailey (Stewart) finds himself embroiled in a scandal and overwhelmed by the feeling that he is a personal failure. Stopped from leaping to his death by an awkward guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), Bailey recounts his eventful life on the road to ruin, from his marriage to high-school sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to his final showdown with tyrannical competitor Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). This heartwarming Capra film may offer the ultimate statement on the value of love, life, and community. The bittersweet storyline-in which Bailey sacrifices his own dreams to run the family business and keep his hometown out of Potter's control-is pure magic. Reed and Barrymore give exceptional performances, but Stewart, in one of his best roles, is the dynamic force holding it all together. "Life" is nostalgic and achingly sentimental, but never shrinks from portraying the dark side of American life. Given a tepid reception on release, this movie has since found a wide audience spanning most every generation.

1) Rear Window (1954)- After breaking his leg on the job, photojournalist Jeff Jefferies (Stewart) passes a sweltering New York summer looking out his apartment window--into his neighbors' windows-and his natural nosiness causes him to study a battling couple across the courtyard. When the woman disappears, Jeff suspects her husband, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), of foul play, and enlists his chic, adoring girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) to help him investigate. One of the most celebrated suspense films in history, this classic takes its time, but once the tension starts building, it doesn't stop until the heart-pounding conclusion is upon you. Here Hitchcock hit a new peak in blending the story of a crime that may have happened with the dark side of human obsession--in this case, voyeurism. The movie also marks a high point for Stewart as this most careless and human of heroes. And I ask you, who can resist the bewitching Grace?