Classic Movie Actor Spotlight: James Stewart

Most people think of James Stewart as the upright, fight-for-your-ideals, invite-to-the barbecue-for-a-beer kind of guy. But the iconic actor did play a villain. Twice. Yes, all of TWO times. Not surprisingly, he played the roles early in his career. The films hit the box office in 1936, two years after his debut in the short Art Trouble. In both, he’s so overshadowed by ridiculously famous on (and off) screen couples that he appears as a mere whisker on the cinematic canvas.

Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy fans will remember Rose-Marie, in which Eddy plays a dashing Canadian Mountie pursuing MacDonald’s no-good, on-the-lam brother played by – guess who – James Stewart.

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Stewart led in handcuffs by Eddy, who proves that no one looks good in Mountie breeches.

Then there’s After the Thin Man, a William Powell/Myrna Loy collaboration, but I won’t say more about it, given that it’s a mystery film and all …

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Did I say too much?

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On the set of After the Thin Man with a tall glass of milk and looking … not quite so villainous.

Now for all his good guy films. Everyone knows about It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to the film’s copyright issues, or rather, lack of them…

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This is the scene I remember most vividly — when realization sets in and he stares into the camera. Creepy.

That and the pool/ensuing camellia bush (?) scene.

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“I could sell tickets!”

Of course there’s his brilliant work in Hitchcock’s films: Rope (’48), Rear Window (’54), The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56) and Vertigo (’58)

And my favorites, both Capra films co-starring Jean Arthur: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (’39) …

The filibuster scene. Capra was a genius.

… and the screwball You Can’t Take it with You (’38).

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Stewart discussing photosynthesis and the possibility of solar energy (really!) in You Can’t Take it with You.

Stewart also starred in The Shop Around the Corner (’40), on which In the Good Old Summertime (’49) and You’ve Got Mail (’98) were based. I didn’t care much for it. Due to the bickering star couple, cheating spouses and — spoiler alert — an attempted suicide, I found it pretty downbeat (is that a word?) for a romantic comedy.

For big-band lovers like myself, I recommend the delightfully music-saturated film The Glenn Miller Story (’54).

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Stewart accompanied by Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story.

And Harvey (’50), the hilarious, thought-provoking, poignant film about a rabbit and his visible human companion nominated Stewart for an Oscar (which I think he deserved).

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They had such great chemistry.

As for his personal life, Roger Ebert wrote this tribute on Stewart’s passing in 1997 (Interestingly, Ebert neglected to mention the villainous role in Rose-Marie).

Stewart also starred in a bajillion other movies — including his Oscar-winning film The Philadelphia Story (’40) — of which you and I have neither the time nor patience to read/write about. Suffice it to say, Jimmy Stewart was awesome.

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Murder Comedies: The Trouble with Harry

Liz on The Trouble with Harry:

Like Arsenic and Old Lace, The Trouble with Harry is morbid but leaves me laughing anyway. Part of the appeal is the actors. The Captain, played by Edmund Gwenn (or, as I generally refer to him: Mr. Bennett), is a particular favorite of mine.

Surprise is often associated with humor, and the Vermont villagers’ different reactions to the discovery of a body in the woods certainly excites that emotion. After all, finding a body in the woods and then making a sketch of the man’s face is a perfectly expected reaction, right?

Or how about assuming you shot the man while hunting? This, of course, leads to the frightened Captain to bury the body, identified by a very much not distraught widow as Harry. But poor Harry isn’t left in peace. He gets buried and dug up several times, and then cleaned up, so he can be found once again.

Humorous and well-acted, and though a little risqué in parts, it is an entertaining watch. It’s quite different from other Hitchcock movies, but it does include the traditional brief sighting of Hitchcock. Of course, I also love that the movie begins with a man walking through a lovely countryside singing a song about Tuscaloosa. The entire score is bouncy and amusing; it reminds me of Peter and the Wolf.

Jaz: “If you’re going to get shot, do it where you’re known.” Nobody cares who Harry is, or that he’s lying dead – feet sticking comically up in the air – in the middle of a clearing. Not even his wife.

Harry is met with varying levels of nonchalance as the day wears on. The Captain and his next door neighbor chat pleasantly over the corpse and form a romantic attachment. The town doctor stumbles over Harry twice without looking. The painter sits down to sketch his face. The tramp takes his shoes. The little boy is the only person to react normally to the sight of a corpse.

Several people think they are responsible for his death. Was it the Captain’s neighbor with her heavy shoe? Or the Captain with the stray bullet intended for a rabbit? Or Harry’s wife with the milk bottle? Or someone else? Who cares, just as long as they get the body out of sight. So they bury Harry. But wait … won’t that prove their guilt? So they dig him back up. Then they bury him again. Then they dig him back up. After a while I lost count.  

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual departure from Hitchcock’s signature style, a spoof of his own films. The only clue to this being a Hitchcock creation is the dramatic music, which contrasts humorously with the content. I have to admit I didn’t get it the first time I popped it into the VHS player (yes, it was a while back). The third time I laughed throughout. It’s the kind of film you appreciate more with each additional view.