Often regarded as the third greatest actor of the Golden Age of Hollywood only to Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, this man was not just a celebrated actor, but also a decorated war veteran. If Grant and Bogart were the romantic heroes, leading men who were larger than life and got the women in the movies, Stewart was the everyman lead. A man who could conjure up a universal vulnerability and portray sympathy when called upon, Stewart’s roles often saw him as an ordinary man who is forced into extraordinary circumstances and has to cope. Here is the list of top 12 James Stewart films.
12. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
One of Stewart’s most successful collaboration was with the great Alfred Hitchcock and this suspense thriller sees Stewart as Dr. Ben McKenna. The plot revolves around the McKenna’s receiving information about an assassination plot from a dying agent. However, before they have a chance to act on it, their son Hank is kidnapped and they are forced to risk their lives to recover him – which includes a brilliantly shot opera sequence at the Albert Hall and managing an invitation to the embassy where Hank’s mother sings ‘Que Sera Sera’ to signal to Hank. Stewart fits Hitchcock’s requirement perfectly as he effortlessly portrays a regular man put in extraordinary circumstances who by grit and a little luck comes out on top of the situation.
11. The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch who is known for his smooth urbane comedies, this film sees Stewart as Alfred Kralik and Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak. The plot eschews the politics that led up to World War II and is based in a shop in Budapest. The story revolves around Alfred and Margaret who cannot stand each other but secretly begin to fall in love with each other unbeknownst through their correspondence through letters. Stewart delivers a powerful and wholesome portrayal of love, which might not transcend the ages, but is real and much more believable than a lot of celebrated cinema romances.
10. Winchester ’73 (1950)
This collaboration with Anthony Mann saw not only Mann’s finest western but also established Stewart as a prominent actor for Westerns in the 1950s. A gritty tale about a Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his friend Wilson as they chase an outlaw Brown, this movie shows the chase after the desired object at two levels – the chase of the outlaw and the ‘One of one thousand’ Winchester rifle. In a climax where the outlaw is shown to be Lin’s brother, this film remains a definite turning point in Stewart’s character as his firm grip in the Western genre came at a perfect time for the 1950s was the greatest period for Hollywood Westerns and Stewart got his fair share.
9. Harvey (1950)
Based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, this comedy-drama sees Stewart as Elwood P’ Dowd, a middle-aged eccentric man with a rabbit as an imaginary friend. The hurdles which form the comic basis of the film is through the interactions of different people with Elwood and Harvey, the rabbit, and their attempts at trying to make Elwood ‘normal’ by their standards. A truly comic delight that stresses friendship, pleasantness and all good things of human nature that should be magnified, the film leaves everyone confused at the end about Harvey’s existence and that is just how the director Henry Koster intended in this film which would be remembered as one of Stewart’s finest performances.
8. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
A successful fruit of one of the most remarkable collaborations between James Stewart and Frank Capra. The film sees Stewart as an honest member of the Senate, Mr. Jefferson Smith. Selected for his naïveté and apparent ease of manipulation, Smith soon becomes a scapegoat for a bill. However protesting his innocence and reaffirming his faith in ideals, eventually, one of the people who set him up has a change of heart and confesses to the thing, clearing Smith’s name. Stewart delivers a powerful role as an inexperienced but honest politician and lets his faith int he democratic system shine through this movie.
7. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Directed by Frank Capra, this is perhaps the most successful of the Stewart-Capra collaboration, winning this movie the Best Picture and the Best Director in the Academy Awards. James Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the son of wealthy banker Anthony Kirby. The story follows the realization of the futility of material wealth and the value of more fulfilling things such as friendship and love. The film is set against the backdrop of Tony’s love for Alice, a girl from a humble household, and Tony’s father trying to drive Alice’s family, unaware of Tony’s feelings, from their house to acquire it for a business deal. This movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Kaufman and Hart and is a fine example of a screwball comedy starring James Stewart.
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6. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
While James Stewart is known for his everyman roles and his share of screwball comedies, this courtroom drama sees him bring a characteristic gravitas and seriousness to the screen. stewart plays the character of Paul Biegler, a small town lawyer who must defend his client against a murder charge on grounds of psychological trauma. It becomes difficult as his opposition is a big city attorney and the evidence is against his client. However, Stewart’s character relies on skill and conviction and Stewart delivers a memorable performance in this thrilling courtroom drama, merely heightening an already illustrious acting career.
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Directed by JohnFord, this is probably one of Hollywood’s finest films and no less than an art form in the Western genre. Starring the very talented John Wayne and James Stewart, this movie focuses on the importance of myths and legends. An idealistic lawyer Stoddard (Stewart( arrives in the West and finds out that law books don’t go very far there, guns and fists do. A showdown between the old justice system and a more humane system as represented by Stoddard, the final showdown between Stoddard and the bully Valance marks the climax of the film. One of Stewart’s best westerns, this movie remains one of his finest films throughout his career.
4. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
This film won Jimmy the Academy Award for best actor and showed us that he could carry his weight even when co-starring with some of the biggest names in the industry like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Stewart plays Mike, a tabloid reporter who goes to cover Tracy (Hepburn’s) remarriage. Tracy finds herself enamored by Mike’s qualities despite having disliked him at first and things come to a heated conclusion when Mike and Tracy apparently fool around in the pool after Tracy has a little too much to drink. A Hollywood classic and a great screwball comedy, this marks one of Stewart’s finest performances.
3. Vertigo (1958)
One of Hitchcock’s greatest works, this film was only mildly accepted upon release and marked the end of an illustrious Stewart Hitchcock collaboration. However, it is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, primarily due to the production of the ‘vertigo effect’ using a dolly zoom, to represent the protagonist’s fear of heights. However, the success of the film also largely rests on Stewart’s acting merits as he plays Scotty Ferguson, a man who retires after his partner falls trying to save him but is forced out of retirement to tail a man’s wife upon request. Showing mental torment brilliantly as a man torn between reality and haunted by the past, Stewart delivers a performance that can only be the result of maturity and experience.
2. Rear Window (1954)
Often considered one of Hitchcock’s best films, this movie stars James Stewart as Jeff Jeffries, a photographer who is confined to his wheelchair due to an accident. Jeff indulges the voyeur in him and begins to spy on his neighbors. In the course of this voyeurism, he becomes convinced that one of his neighbors have committed murder and sets out to prove just that, risking his own life and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly’s)life in the process. This film marks the pinnacle of the Stewart Hitchcock collaboration and is one of Stewart’s finest roles, near perfect in its characterization as an everyman detective, a thrilling film that leaves the suspense till the end and Stewart’s portrayal of Jeff makes us wonder if his paranoia is justified and if it is getting to us a little bit as well.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by Frank Capra, this film is one of the cornerstones of Hollywood movies, and perhaps one of the few classics that most people across the world have watched. However, at the time of its release, it was only warmly received and this marked Stewart’s first film after returning from the war. He plays the role of George Bailey a man whose family is more successful than him and after a series of mishaps he contemplates suicide but is visited by an angel and realizes the virtue and value of life. Now considered a Christmas classic, this film is loved by multitudes and marks one of the fine films of Stewart’s career, one that went unnoticed at the time it was made.
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