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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To Mr. Ebert on His Death

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I meant to send you a letter a month ago, but in the jumble of everyday rituals and goings-about, it slipped my memory.

I confess I was also intimidated by the thought of writing to you, the humble amateur blogger fan scribbling away to a witty Pulitzer prize-winner. How I regret that now.

I’ve been reading your reviews since the age of twelve, when I eagerly scrambled for the local newspaper’s tiny entertainment section every Friday before my sisters could get to it. I didn’t always agree with you – you like boobs and the occasional Nicholas Sparks adaptation – but you always write with wit, knowledge, insight and passion. Your writing has soul. No one who has read your work could doubt this one fact: you truly love films.

Because of you, I gained a greater appreciation for the art of film, even seriously considered majoring in it. I opted for science instead: I wasn’t sure I could endure watching movies like Mad Dog Time. Then again, your reviews of horrible excuses for films were some of your most entertaining. So there may be hope for me yet.

Your blog posts, too, are thought provoking and a delight to read. I wish I could have seen the end product of the many plans you had as you mentioned in your last post.

There is so much more that could be said about your accomplishments, your life, your influence on the film industry. I leave others to the daunting task. Never has the death of a complete stranger moved me so much. To your wonderful wife, Chaz Ebert, I offer my condolences.

You will be missed.

Roger Ebert, blogger, journalist, film critic, died today after a long fight with cancer. He was 70 years old.