A Beginner’s Guide to James Stewart

An introduction to Hollywood’s classic everyman.
James Stewart Mr Smith
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on April 13th, 2018

George Bailey. Jefferson Smith. Scottie Ferguson. The list of iconic characters James Stewart played in his illustrious 56-year acting career is never-ending. Few people left a mark on American cinema the way he did. That being said, I don’t think we, as a society, spend enough time talking about Jimmy Stewart. With that in mind, consider this your unofficial guide to becoming well acquainted with the actor. After enjoying these films you’ll come to think of him as a dear old friend.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

I’d like to start with Stewart’s second collaboration with director Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is the film that really introduced Stewart to the world and brought him some mainstream popularity.

Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, an idealist young man and former head of the Boy Rangers, who is chosen to become a U.S Senator. Unbeknownst to him, the reason he was selected is that some corrupt senators proposed him for the job, assuming that he would be easy to manipulate. However, Smith is no puppet, and throughout the film he finds himself standing up to an incredibly amoral system in pursuit of a truly pure, all-American goal. He wants to create a summer camp for boys (all boys, “no matter what his race, color or creed”). In the face of true adversity, Smith’s pure-heartedness prevails victorious.

Mr. Smith is the perfect vehicle for an introduction to Stewart. Jefferson Smith truly exemplifies the everyman persona that Stewart would come to be known for. A good guy with a big heart who won’t stop until he does what’s right.  Mr. Smith is also the perfect showcase for something else that Stewart would become known for: his unique sounding voice. The movie perfectly blends scenes wherein he’s nervously stuttering and bumbling with ones where he loudly commands the attention of the President of the United States.

In the same way that Jefferson Smith’s innate virtuousness turns corrupt senators to the good side in the film, Stewart’s presence will turn whatever mood you’re in into a good one. This layered performance set the scene for the variety of roles Stewart would take on as his career progressed.

It’s A Wonderful Life  (1946)

Stewart collaborated with Capra again in 1946 in what is surely his most famous performance. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart plays George Bailey. The movie tells the story of George’s life in the small fictional American town of Bedford Falls. To put it simply, he’s the most selfless person of all time. George does it all. The film starts with him saving his brother from drowning in his youth, and follows him till he’s much older and contemplating the ultimate sacrifice in order to secure his family’s financial stability.

Once he attempts suicide, an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), comes to him and shows him how much worse off all the people he cares about would’ve been if they’d never known him. The movie is a heartwarming story about the power of human connection.

Its A Wonderful Life Note

This was Stewart’s first film role after returning from his military service in World War II. He was suffering from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder and he considered not returning to acting at all. The profession now seemed frivolous to him after seeing combat. Stewart reluctantly took on the role of George Bailey. In the end, he delivered one of the best performances of his career and later, described the role as his favorite. He clearly drew a lot from his personal life to portray George Bailey, and ultimately, this film captured what a lot of people were feeling in the wake of World War II. After all, George Bailey is essentially almost driven mad by his attempts to save his loved ones.

I’ve included this movie second because if you didn’t already absolutely adore Stewart after Mr. Smith, there will be no helping you after you see this movie. Just like the residents of Bedford Falls, we too are better off for having known George Bailey.

These two movies, in addition to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) are the best of Jimmy’s moral compass films.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story is a phenomenal movie. It stars James Stewart, so you know it’s going to be great, but get this: the movie’s also got Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Stewart won his only Academy Award for this performance. While the cast alone should be enough to spark anyone’s interest in this gem of a movie, the film also has one truly special thing that I cannot stress enough how much everyone needs in their lives: a drunk James Stewart.

The Philadelphia Story tells the tale of Tracy Lord (Hepburn). She divorced her first husband, C.K Dexter Haven (Grant), and is now getting remarried to George Kitteridge (John Howard). Reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) is there to cover the wedding.  A comedic trip ensues as Tracy explores her feelings for all three men before ultimately deciding if she’ll go through with the marriage.

Like I said before, there are around 20 minutes in this movie where Stewart’s Macaulay gets very, very drunk, and let me tell you, it is glorious. He leaves Tracy’s rehearsal dinner (where she is getting drunk as well) and goes to Dexter’s house to discuss his feelings for Tracy.  After a quick chat with Dexter, he heads to her place. There, the two spend the night talking, dancing, singing, and drinking. When done right, drunk acting is truly one of the greatest things to watch and I’ve rarely seen anyone master the craft as perfectly as Stewart does in this film.

I recommend this movie as the third Stewart film anyone new to the actor should watch because the film introduces viewers to the lighter side of things. You’ll get to have a good laugh with your new found friend. The Philadelphia Story also gives Stewart a chance to be a bit more devious, as he’s obviously strayed a bit from his usual wholesome act. He pulls it off excellently.

Also, it’s worth noting that Stewart, in my opinion, outshines Grant in this film, which is no easy feat. You’ll find yourself hoping that Macaulay and Tracy end up together.

Vertigo (1958)

Next, I want to skip ahead a bit to 1958. Vertigo is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The film will feel like quite a jump from the other three Stewart movies, but a very welcome one.

In the film, Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a policeman who’s been forced into retirement because of his vertigo. When an acquaintance asks him to trail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), Scottie agrees. As Scottie begins to investigate the mysterious woman, a disorienting tale of romance, obsession, and deceit is in store.

This film is much darker than the other three and undoubtedly the most thrilling. In his turn as Scottie Ferguson, Stewart gets the chance to play a character who is much more unhinged than roles he’d previously been given the chance to explore. At times, he’s even frightening. Though, ultimately, he usually has good intentions. Don’t worry, the movie won’t make you dislike the man I have forced you to become obsessed with and whom you now love. You’ll just admire his talent more.

Stewart gives such an intensely passionate performance as a man driven to extreme lengths due to an all-consuming obsession that it will almost be difficult to reconcile that you’re watching the same person who once played a naive boy scout turned senator. That’s the brilliance of Stewart’s many collaborations with Hitchcock, though. These roles gave the actor the chance to explore new kinds of characters. He excelled at it.

Harvey (1950)

I found Vertigo quite disarming on my first viewing. That’s why I would then return to something more light-hearted for a subsequent Jimmy feature. Harvey is like Donnie Darko if Donnie Darko wasn’t insanely creepy and confusing. The film tells the story of Elwood (Stewart) a wealthy man with, how do I put this, an imaginary friend in the form of a giant rabbit named Harvey. This causes everyone around Elwood to worry about him, but Elwood is quite content to simply spend his time enjoying his dear friend’s company.

Now, for anyone out there who’s seen Donnie Darko, you’re probably frightened to hear this premise. Don’t be. Harvey is a much more cheerful entry to the “I’m having visions of a giant bunny” cinematic universe.

As always, Stewart is impeccable. Harvey is another great comedic turn for the actor. He also ends up making us really care about an imaginary rabbit who we never even get to actually see –all scenes with Harvey simply entail Stewart turning to his side and speaking into thin air. Somehow it works. Only Stewart could leave you wishing that you had a giant imaginary bunny best friend.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window James Stewart
Paramount Pictures

Finally, I leave you with Rear Window. Legendary director-actor pairs only come along every so often.  A few that spring to mind are Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst, and, I know they’ve only done one movie together, but I’m gonna go ahead and say Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, too, because I have high hopes for the future. Anyway, I want to end with another Hitchcock-Stewart picture.

In Rear Window, Stewart plays L.B Jeffries, a photographer with a broken leg. Much to his chagrin, he is confined to his apartment in a wheelchair while he heals. Without much else to do, he becomes obsessed with spying on his neighbors, and one day, he witnesses something sinister.

The great thing about this performance, as well as Stewart’s other collaborations with Hitchcock, is the depths that these roles allowed Stewart to go to. His early everyman days with Capra and the like were what initially reeled us in and are still perfect. But Stewart also shined in these darker roles where he played characters that were flawed and who even explored their repressed desires. George Bailey, for example, would never spy on his neighbors. This doesn’t mean that Jeffries is a bad person, he tries to do the right thing, but there is definitely something menacing about his voyeuristic habit.

The entire film takes place in the confines of Jeffries’ apartment so get ready to spend some quality time with Stewart. Trust me, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

When you’re done with these six films, don’t fret, there are around 80 more Jimmy Stewart movies out there for you to check out! Some next steps: The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance (1962), Anatomy of A Murder (1959), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). 

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Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.