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?

James Stewart milk After the Thin Man

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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12 Classic Films for the Bucket List (Before You Kick It)

Snap out of West Side Story. Ditch Gone with the Wind. And don’t even think about playing Casablanca. They’re already on hundreds of lists. Why rehash the obvious? It’s boring. So without further ado:

1. Lilies of the Field (1963) Based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett, the film follows the story of a wandering jack-of-all trades (Sidney Poitier) who comes across a group of German nuns convinced he’s been sent by God to build them a church. I love this film.

2. My Man Godfrey (1936). A ditzy socialite (Carole Lombard) hires a hobo living in the dump as the family’s butler, then promptly falls in love with him. Whether he returns the affections is more doubtful, especially considering the utterly irrational in-laws he would be stuck with …

 3. Bringing Up Baby (1938) A prim paleontologist (Cary Grant) wants a sponsor to donate one million dollars to his museum, but messes it all up after getting mixed up with a harebrained woman and her leopard. My first screwball favorite.

 4. Rebecca (1940). Joan Fontaine plays a young, naïve bride tortured by the lingering presence of her husband’s deceased first wife. And also by the super creepy Mrs. Danvers.

5. To Have and Have Not (1944) This was Bogart and Bacall’s first film, and smolders with chemistry. Bogart rents a charter boat to tourists in Martinique and is asked to smuggle out resistance fighters. He refuses, but then has a fateful encounter with a pickpocket. Bacall was 19 (19!) when she filmed this.

6. It (1927) Clara Bow has definitely got “it” in this silent film. She plays a strong, independent working female set on getting what she wants … one of which happens to be the company’s head honcho.

7. Interrupted Melody (1955). This film is based on the life of Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, who was struck by polio at the height of her career. It has fantastic famous opera scenes and stars the talented and gorgeous Eleanor Parker (the evil baroness from The Sound of Music).

 8And Then There Were None (1943) Psychological thriller based on Agatha Christie’s mystery. Ten guests are invited to a house on a lonely island and are killed off one by one. It’s creepy and suspenseful.

9. Carefree (1938) What list is complete without a film starring the iconic Astaire/Rogers duo? This one involves a psychologist, hypnosis, and skeet shooting gone hilariously awry. (Shall We Dance is another good film, and features the catchy “potato, patahto” song.)

10. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to experience anti-Semitism firsthand by saying he’s Jewish for two weeks. It’s thought-provoking and gives a revealing look at anti-Semitic sentiment during the 40s.

11. Seven Chances (1925). Critics and hardcore classic film buffs rave about The General, but do you ever hear much about Keaton’s Seven Chances? It’s got great visuals, obvious when the hero runs down a canyon in the midst of rocks that look like giant meatballs. Plus he gets chased by an angry horde of wannabe brides.

 12. Naughty Marietta (1935) Another film for the opera fan, starring Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. MacDonald plays a French princess who runs away to New Orleans to avoid marrying a stuffy old Spaniard. There’s a great scene with singing marionettes (they’re cute, really).

The Phantom of the Opera

Welcome to Our Mutual Friends Blog! This month we’re talking about “scary” or ghoulish classic movies or books. We’re starting with The Phantom of the Opera.

Jaz on The Phantom of the Opera

I wish Hitchcock had directed a film version of The Phantom of the Opera. As it is, I contented myself with the 1943 movie starring Claude Rains (The Phantom), Susanna Foster (Christine Dubois) and Nelson Eddy (Anatole Garron). While Claude Rains was a talented actor, this role didn’t quite mesh with his onscreen personality. I see him as the repentant accomplice in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not a sinister, masked musical fanatic. But I did like the effect of the ominous caped shadow fleeing through dark halls.

The film is based on a novel of the same name, first published as a serial in 1909 –according to the all-knowing google – by French author Gaston Leroux. I haven’t read it, but informed sources (i.e., my sister) clearly indicate the film is to the novel like a mini marshmallow is to a 24-oz steak: light and sweet versus dark and intense.

Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy show off their gorgeous voices, and that helps make up for the film’s lackluster attempt at horror. There’s one scene in particular that I liked: when Christine stood in diva Biancarolli’s place and sang a succession of impossibly high notes as clear as glass. What a moment of triumph!

Clear glass aside, I found it a bit difficult to empathize with Foster’s character. She seems shallow and affected. Her joyful reaction to the news that Biancarolli had been taken ill, as well as her indifference to the rival suitors, makes her appear callous.

This film was not without humor – albeit unintentional. In one scene Anatole Garron breaks a deadly fall by gripping onto a stage curtain for dear life. After hanging there for a good while, he manages to catch hold of a rope and slide down to safety. The entire time, three workers on the stage below idly glance up at his antics. And the sight of the phantom working away at the chandelier’s giant chain with a tiny hand saw was rather humorous. I kept expecting him to turn away in frustration.

I didn’t have time to view the 1925 silent film, but it looks creepy. I might watch it this weekend. Expect an update soon …

Liz on The Phantom of the Opera

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the Andrew Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera and or listened to the soundtrack. However, the plot of the movie has several major holes, like how did a gypsy boy grow up in the caverns of an opera house to become a well-educated “genius” (according to Meg’s mother) living in posh surroundings? The 1943 movie of the same name has a much better plot and some pretty good music, though of a more classical bent that Webber’s score. I haven’t read the French book on which all of these are based, so I can’t compare them to it.

The 1943 movie: Claude Rains does an excellent job as the poor, soft-spoken violinist who morphs into the cruel phantom of the opera. In love with one of the chorus girl, Rains secretly pays for her to have voice lessons until he tragically loses his job due to arthritis or some joint trouble that hinders his playing. Having spent his savings on paying for Christine’s voice lessons, he tries to sell a symphony he’s written. The arrogant music publisher refuses to talk to him. Rains hears someone playing his composition, mistakenly believes the publisher has stolen his music, and goes mad and strangles the publisher. The man and his assistant were doing acid etching when Rains arrived, and the assistant throws the tray of acid into Rains’s face, causing the phantom’s famous deformity. Rains seeks shelter under the opera house and turns his love for Christine into a passion to make her prima donna at whatever cost—a much better origin for the phantom of the opera than that given in the Webber play in my opinion.

Christine has two suitors in the movie, a tenor played by Nelson Eddy and a policeman. Both are likeable and their attempts to beat the other out and win Christine’s affection are humorous.

The end of the movie was a bit surprising, but I won’t give that away. I’ll simply recommend you watch the movie to find out what happens.