On this day in 1908, my favorite actor James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, PA. I’ve expressed before how he’s the actor that really got me into classic films, with my viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life and Rear Window igniting the flame. Through the years I’ve watched many of Jimmy’s films; up to now, I’ve seen more than 50! That’s the most films I’ve seen of any actor, so I thought I’d celebrate his birthday with some of my favorite films. Instead of doing a ranking of his films and performances though, I decided to put a fun spin on it, so for this post, I’m listing my favorites from different genres, with different directors and co-stars, and other superlatives. For anyone curious about which of his films I’ve seen, I made a list on Letterboxd here.
Before I begin, here are a few honorable mentions:
I wasn’t able to single out these films on their own for this post, but I think they’re still worth checking out (especially if you love Jimmy like I do).
Vivacious Lady (1938)
With a filmography filled with many memorable and iconic movies, there’s a few hidden gems that get lost when thinking of Jimmy’s best films, and this is one of them. I’ve written before how much I love this film, which you can read here.
Born to Dance (1936)
In the beginning of his career, MGM didn’t quite know what to do with him. At this point he was getting more prominent roles in his films, and here he received second billing. The film stars Eleanor Powell, which means it’s a musical, so Jimmy actually does some singing and dancing! He wasn’t quite cut out for musicals, but he does a good job here anyway, and I actually would’ve liked to seem him in a couple others (the only other one I’ve seen that comes close is Pot o’ Gold). The film introduced a couple of popular Cole Porter songs, including “Easy to Love”, which was sung onscreen for the first time by Jimmy himself (you can watch the clip here). Another number I like is “Hey, Baby, Hey”, which features Jimmy dancing alongside the rest of the cast (you can watch the clip here).
FAVORITE EARLY ROLE
After the Thin Man (1936)
This was another case of MGM putting Jimmy in a role that wasn’t entirely suited for him, also made the same year as Born to Dance. I won’t say more about his role here as it’d spoil the movie, just that’s it’s a little different from the roles he became known for playing. It’s interesting to see him play a little against type, even if he wasn’t actually typecast as the honest American middle class man yet.
FAVORITE LATER ROLE
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
I haven’t seen too many of Jimmy’s films past the 1950s (there’s a lot of westerns that I’m slowly getting around to), but I’ve enjoyed the couple that I’ve seen where he plays the family man. He’s wonderful here as an overworked banker in need of a vacation with his family, and I especially love that he’s paired with the marvelous Maureen O’Hara. Jimmy was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for his work here.
FAVORITE BIOPIC ROLE
The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Jimmy played a number of real life people throughout his career, such as Charles Lindbergh and Wyatt Earp, but his portrayal of the famous musician is my favorite. The movie as a whole is a good dramatization of Glenn Miller’s life, and I think he and June Allyson make an especially fine pair as husband and wife. Jimmy received a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actor for his performance here.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
As one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men, Jimmy has had his fair share of onscreen romances. I love a lot of the romances in his films, but most aren’t primarily focused on his character’s love life like it is in The Shop Around the Corner. Plus no one could do romance and comedy quite like Ernst Lubitsch. The film also paired him with one of his most frequent leading ladies and close friend Margaret Sullavan, and by this point their chemistry was at its peak.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Aside from various dramas and comedies, the western genre was the one Jimmy frequented the most, especially in his later years. I’m still working my way through them, and I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve seen so far, even if westerns aren’t necessarily my favorite. I can’t imagine any of the westerns I haven’t seen yet topping this John Ford film though; it’s an excellent movie featuring a top-notch cast, and it’s easily in my top ten of Jimmy’s films.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
This is excluding the films he did under Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, which deserve a category of their own. Directed by Otto Preminger, this is a thoroughly engaging film, which mostly takes place in the courtroom. It’s one of Jimmy’s best performances, and it received the most award recognition out of all the roles he played throughout his career, including BAFTA and Oscar nominations. I’ll be writing more about the film for a blogathon next month.
FAVORITE WITH ANTHONY MANN
The Naked Spur (1953)
Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock are the two directors Jimmy is most associated with, having made a handful of films with each. He collaborated with a few other directors a handful of times as well, but none as much as Anthony Mann, with whom he made a total of eight films. Most of the films they made were westerns, but they were all great nonetheless. The Naked Spur is my favorite of all their collaborations, western or otherwise. Along with a great morally complex role for Jimmy, it features a stunning cast that includes Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan. The latter is TCM’s Star of the Month, and the channel is playing some of his films today as they’re doing every Friday in May. And it just so happens that The Naked Spur is airing today, so definitely check it out if you haven’t seen it.
FAVORITE DIRECTOR COLLABORATION
Alfred Hitchcock – Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958)
Though Jimmy and Anthony Mann made a great team, my favorite director collaboration overall is the one he shared with Alfred Hitchcock, and together they made the finest films in both their filmographies. The Master of Suspense also brought out a darker side to Jimmy, which really reached its apex in Vertigo, Jimmy’s best dramatic performance and just one of his greatest overall.
Ruth Hussey, Cary Grant, & Katharine Hepburn – The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Jimmy has worked with many great actors, some even more than once, but the dynamic he had with these three can’t be beat for me, and it’s too bad he didn’t make at least one other film with any of them. Generally speaking, this is one of my all-time favorite movie casts, and everyone in it is fantastic. Though I wouldn’t have necessarily given Jimmy his sole Oscar for his role here, I love that he did anyway as it is one of my favorite of his performances.
Jimmy received five Oscar nominations for Best Actor, including one for his work in Harvey. His filmography features a lot of terrific, heartfelt performances, but for me this is the best of them. The film could have easily fallen apart if it weren’t for Jimmy’s brilliant portrayal of a man with an imaginary, human-sized rabbit friend. It’s a comedy overall, but along with the slapstick Jimmy infuses some subtle humor and has a few great dramatic moments. Someday I’ll post more coherent thoughts on why I love his performance here so much.
FAVORITE MOVIE OVERALL
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The movie that started it all. It’s the first one I saw with Jimmy, and I loved him instantly. George Bailey is one of my favorite characters ever, and much of it is due to Jimmy playing him. The film itself is just perfect, and I never get tired of watching it every year around Christmas. Along with being my favorite film with Jimmy Stewart, it’s my second favorite film of all time.
This post was tougher to put together than I anticipated, mostly because Jimmy made so many great films, and there’s still a number of good ones I haven’t seen. I hope my post encouraged you to celebrate the actor by watching one of his movies today, whether it’s one you haven’t seen or one you’ve seen multiple times. Jimmy and this kitten from the 1947 film Magic Town thank you for your time in reading my little film tribute (gif made by me):
Happy birthday to the wonderful James “Jimmy” Stewart, an actor I’m forever grateful to for turning me onto classic films.