A wonderful life in film - 20 of James Stewart’s greatest movies
PUBLISHED: 11:32 02 July 2018
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It’s 21 years since we lost film legend James Stewart, on July 2 1997. But his legacy lives on through his movies, and he is also fondly remembered for his wartime service in East Anglia.
With his tall, lean figure and instantly recognisable drawl, actor James “Jimmy” Stewart is one of the most beloved stars in the history of Hollywood.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of his birth, on May 20 1908, in the borough of Indiana, Pennsylvania. The town is known as the Christmas tree capital of the world, with a large number of evergreen farms in the area, which is very appropriate given Stewart’s famous role in classic festive film It’s a Wonderful Life.
There is now a statue of him in the town and Indiana County Jimmy Stewart airport is also named after the star. The naming of an airport in his honour is especially appropriate since he was a pilot and airbase commander as well as an actor, and served at RAF Tibenham and RAF Old Buckenham in Norfolk, giving him a unique link with the area.
Over a career running from 1935 right through to 1991, Stewart appeared in more than 90 feature films, shorts and TV programmes, spanning a wide range of genres, from romantic comedies to thrillers and Westerns.
He even occasionally appeared in musicals, such as Born to Dance, where he starred opposite Eleanor Powell.
In his early roles, Stewart was known for his good-guy persona and boyish charm, but later in his career he also played more conflicted characters, particularly in films directed by Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. He was nominated for an Oscar five times, winning the best actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story in 1940.
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Director Frank Capra chose Stewart to star in this heartwarming screwball comedy after being impressed by his performance in Navy Blue and Gold, about recruits at a naval academy. It was the first of three films they made together. Stewart plays a member of a snobbish and stuck-up banking dynasty, who falls for Jean Arthur, the daughter of a wildly eccentric family. Lionel Barrymore dominates the film, giving a wonderfully over-the-top performance as Arthur’s Grandpa, but Stewart is also excellent as the increasingly bewildered Tony. The film took Oscars for best picture and best director.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Stewart’s second collaboration with Capra made him a star, winning him an Oscar nomination. This powerful comedy-drama is regarded as an all-time film classic, and one of Stewart’s most characteristic roles. He plays an idealistic, naive leader of the “boy rangers”, who is encouraged to run for senator, but finds himself up against a web of political corruption. The famous filibuster sequence is nail-biting stuff. Once again, Stewart stars opposite Jean Arthur.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
It might not be quite as famous as It’s a Wonderful Life, but Stewart’s “other” Christmas film is endlessly watchable, blending romance, comedy and heartbreak. It is directed by master of romantic comedies Ernst Lubitsch and set in Budapest. Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as two employees at a gift shop. The couple are in constant conflict during their working lives, but don’t realise that they are also each other’s anonymous penpals. This film inspired You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but the original is still the best.
The Mortal Storm (1940)
This drama directed by Frank Borzage is one of a small number of anti-Nazi Hollywood films released before the US entered the Second World War. It is set in a small German town, where Stewart plays a young man who refuses to join in the local support for the Nazis. It’s interesting to watch this straight after The Shop Around the Corner, since the two films have the same lead actors - Stewart, Sullavan and Frank Morgan - and, between them, they paint a haunting picture of a small-town European way of life which was about to disappear.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Screwball comedies don’t come any wittier and funnier than this. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were both billed above Stewart, but he was the one who came away with an Oscar for best actor. It was perhaps unusual in this era to cast two top-ranking male stars in the same film, but it works brilliantly. Hepburn plays a socialite, who has divorced and is planning to remarry, but ex-husband Grant is determined to spoil the party. Stewart is the magazine reporter who arrives to cover the wedding, causing a whole new layer of complications. The musical remake, High Society, is also a great film, but sadly loses much of the dialogue from the original classic.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Quite simply, this is the best-loved Christmas film of all time, screened endlessly around the world. You can probably catch it on the big screen every year, not just on TV. So it’s quite surprising to realise that Frank Capra’s bitter-sweet, snow-laden comedy-drama made a loss at the box office when first released. Stewart did receive an Oscar nomination, but the film only really built its reputation through repeated festive showings on TV from the 1970s onwards. Stewart was already known for playing small-town boys, and his first role after the Second World War saw him cast as the ultimate character of this type - suicidal George Bailey, who just can’t escape from the small town of Bedford Falls. The wonderful cast includes Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Thomas Mitchell.
Call Northside 777 (1947)
Stewart moves from comedy to film noir in this tense crime drama directed by Henry Hathaway, loosely based on a true story. The mother of a convicted killer is determined to prove his innocence, and places a newspaper ad offering a reward for information about the real culprits. Stewart plays the newspaper reporter who is asked to take on the story. At first he is reluctant, but then he becomes increasingly obsessed with the case and determined to find out the truth. Stewart gives a powerful, driven performance.
Another film noir inspired by a real case, the first of Stewart’s four collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock is an adaptation of a Patrick Hamilton play, about two young men who decide to commit the “perfect murder”. The Technicolor film is built around long, unbroken scenes, each running for up to 10 minutes. Stewart plays the young men’s former teacher, who becomes increasingly suspicious. While this may not be one of Hitchcock or Stewart’s best, it still makes fascinating viewing.
Stewart was once again nominated for the best actor Oscar for his role in this highly eccentric comedy. He plays the middle-aged Elwood P. Dowd, a charmingly scatty character who claims his best friend is a 6ft 3.5ins rabbit called Harvey. Elwood’s family are convinced that he is suffering from drink, mental illness or both, but is there more to his illusion? Directed by Henry Koster, this is one of Stewart’s much-loved trademark roles.
Bend of the River (1952)
Altogether, director Anthony Mann collaborated with Stewart on five Westerns, all highly acclaimed, as well as three films from other genres. The Mann-Stewart Westerns have strong noir elements to them, and bring out different aspects of Stewart’s screen personality, making him darker and more complicated than he had appeared in his earlier roles. Bend of the River, their second collaboration, follows a tough cowboy who risks his life to deliver supplies to homesteaders.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Another Mann-Stewart Western, this gritty drama sees Stewart cast as a bounty hunter who has been trailing killer Robert Ryan for a long time, but hasn’t managed to catch him yet. He is forced to take on two strangers as partners to help in his quest, but realises that he may not be able to trust them. It’s well worth seeing all the films that Mann and Stewart made together, and this one is well up to standard.
The Glenn Miller Story (1953)
The first non-Western film that Mann and Stewart collaborated on is this biopic, following big band leader Glenn Miller through his rise in the music business through to his aeroplane’s disappearance over the English Channel during the Second World War. June Allyson stars as Miller’s wife, Helen. The film was hugely successful at the box office and Stewart received a BAFTA nomination for best foreign actor. Highly enjoyable if you like big bands and swing music.
Rear Window (1954)
One of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, with stunning Technicolor cinematography, this is a film that cries out to be seen on the big screen. Stewart plays a photographer stuck at home with a broken leg, who becomes obsessed with watching his neighbours through his rear window, and in particular with the apparently sinister events at one nearby apartment. Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend. There have been endless parodies, spoofs and tributes to Rear Window, but none of this takes away from the power of the movie.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1930s film teamed Stewart with Doris Day, who sings Que Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). An American couple and their son are on holiday in Morocco when they get caught up in a series of mysterious events, landing them in danger. Stewart once again gives a strong performance, although this isn’t quite up there with Rear Window and Vertigo.
The Spirit of St Louis (1957)
Following The Glenn Miller Story, Stewart starred in another acclaimed biopic, directed by Billy Wilder. Telling the story of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, this was an especially appropriate role for Stewart because of his own experiences as a pilot, and he was very keen to take the part, even though he was much older than the real Lindbergh. The film flopped at the box office, but its reputation has grown more recently, and it is gripping viewing for anyone interested in early aviation.
This haunting, complicated Hitchcock thriller famously topped the 2012 BFI Sight & Sound critics’ poll as the greatest film of all time. Stewart’s role is also one of his most acclaimed, although this time he did not get an Oscar nod. Despite being made in Technicolor, the film is regarded as a noir classic. Stewart plays an ex-police officer who has been forced to take early retirement after developing vertigo and fear of heights, following a distressing incident in the line of duty. He is hired as a private investigator by a friend, to follow his wife, Kim Novak, who is behaving oddly. Definitely a film to watch multiple teams, since there’s a lot you will miss first time around.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Stewart received his fifth best actor Oscar nomination for his role in this courtroom drama, directed by Otto Preminger with a famous title sequence by Saul Bass. Stewart plays a small-town lawyer who is asked to defend Ben Gazzara, who has been charged with murdering a bartender. The accused man claims the victim had raped his wife, Lee Remick - but what is the truth? The movie has been rated in surveys as one of the best trial films of all time, and makes compelling viewing.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961)
This elegaic John Ford Western stars James Stewart and John Wayne together, in a powerful portrayal of the passing of the Old West. Stewart plays an idealistic lawyer, the man of the future, with Wayne as a cynical rancher who is the man of the past. The two men also become love rivals for Vera Miles, while Lee Marvin plays the villainous Liberty Valance. The film is famed for its line “Print the legend,” but there is also much more to enjoy. Yet another Stewart film which should really be watched more than once.
Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
Stewart returns to comedy in this tale of a holiday from hell. He plays an overworked banker, with Maureen O’Hara as his wife, while heart-throb singer Fabian plays a possible love interest for their daughter. The enjoyable film sees the family facing a series of dramas, including a collapsing beach house and some rather bizarre birdwatching. If you’re in the mood for more Stewart comedy after enjoying his Capra collaborations, this film directed by Henry Koster should fit the bill.
The Shootist (1976)
As well as being John Wayne’s final film, this was also one of the last to star Stewart, though he did go on to make a handful more, including a voice role in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Stewart plays Doc Hostetler, who meets up with ageing gunslinger JB Books (John Wayne) at a boarding house run by Lauren Bacall. Directed by Don Siegel, this is an acclaimed and stylish latter-day Western, marking the end of an era.
James Stewart’s wartime service in East Anglia
When the US forces came to East Anglia during the Second World War, James Stewart was one of the most famous names to serve in the region.
Stewart was already a trained pilot before war broke out, holding both a private pilot’s and commercial pilot’s licence. After initially being rejected from the military as underweight, he worked hard to pile on the pounds.
He enlisted as a private in the US Army in 1941, but transferred to the Air Corps, and had a successful wartime career as a bomber pilot and airbase commander.
After being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1942, he worked as a flight instructor in the US, but the following year he was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group, becoming commander of the 703rd Bomb Squadron.
Stewart arrived in Britain with the 445th in November 1943, when the Group was assigned to RAF Tibenham, near Diss in Norfolk. After several weeks of training missions, he flew a number of combat missions, and was promoted to Major.
In March 1944, he was transferred to RAF Old Buckenham as group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group. Another famous Hollywood actor, Walter Matthau, was also based there. Stewart received the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, as well as a number of other medals, and had risen to
Colonel by the end of the war.
He paid return visits to Norfolk in later years, and opened the Norfolk Gliding Clubs Airshow in Tibenham in 1975.
Old Buckenham Airfield has a cafe named Jimmy’s, in honour of Stewart, which is open from Thursdays to Sundays.
In Tibenham, a housing development which opened in 2012 was named “Stewart Close” in the actor’s honour, to celebrate his links with the village.
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