Jimmy Stewart was the greatest actor and human being to ever grace the earth. There, I’ve said it. Regular readers will have no doubt guessed that to be my opinion, given that he always seems to make an appearance in any top 10 list, even ones that don’t have any bearing on his work at all.
So with today (May 20th 2016) being Jimmy’s birthday (he would have been 108!), we decided it was as pertinent a time as any to recount his most iconic performances. And boy was he ever iconic!
Quick honourable mention to The Glenn Miller Story, which should have made the list, but was edged out at the last minute. Sorry.
Yeah I know, Glenn Miller was more of an iconic role than this, but I’m also biased towards anything resembling the Wild West. Sue me. Jimmy plays Linus Rawlings, a drifter making his way over the land and stumbling on the love of his life. Sounds too cheesy? Well he also takes on a bunch of total villains and smacks the living snot out of them. Great work if you can get it.
Probably the least well known film on the list, but one that allows Jimmy’s comedy chops to come through in full flow (and features a great supporting turn from a young Jack Lemmon). He’s a helpless romantic, caught under the spell of a witch who owns a shop under his apartment. This was a second romantic pairing for Jimmy and Kim Novak (Vertigo), and was also Jimmy’s last ever chance to play the romantic lead: he’d been told he was too old to woo young beauties any more. Yeah right!
Jimmy is by-the-book attorney Ransom Stoddard, a man full of ideals who wants to change the ways of the villainous American West with words and laws rather than guns. It’s this very nature that is at odds with John Wayne’s Doniphon, a cow-puncher who thinks the opposite. The conflict comes when the titular Valance starts roughing up the town of Shinbone, and both Doniphon and Stoddard must find a way to end his reign of terror.
The first (and not the last) Hitchcock film on this list. Stewart plays a professor who’s students commit murder as if to pay some sort of tribute to his teachings. They want to be seen as using murder to create art, and so hide the body in plain sight, within a wooden chest in the centre of a party. But Jimmy is wise and inquisitive, and it seems he is destined to find out the gruesome truth. A true edge-of-the-seat film that’s as fun as it is stressful to watch.
In the hands of Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart gave different performances than with any other filmmaker. There was a sense of urgency about his roles for Hitch, something brewing under the skin of his characters that smacked of anxiety in a thoroughly enjoyable way. His performance in Rear Window is a great example of this, where Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, trapped in his flat on a boiling hot day as terror strikes in a neighbouring apartment, is awash with fear and nervous tension. He’s chewing his hand, rubbing his neck, eyes popping from his skull. He is the audience. He is us. And that long lens he uses for spying – one sheet poster gold.
Lin McAdam (Stewart) is a gunman; a pro-shooter who rides into town to win the titular gun in a shooting contest. But he doesn’t bank on a shadow from his past turning up at the same time; sparking off a sprawling series of events that leads to the death of hundreds as the two men fight for the gun, and Lin fights for justice against the man who killed his father. This made number three on my Top 20 Westerns list, and is the perfect example of a Jimmy Stewart cowboy: tough and just.
Films and performances don’t come much more iconic than this (though there are three more entries yet to come so clearly they do!). In a wide, critical sense, Vertigo is the most lauded Hitchcock film, casting Jimmy Stewart in a totally new light by making him an obsessed stalker. It’s a role that was unlike anything he’d ever done, and still stands out amidst his back catalogue. He’s got the nice-guy routine going, but it is enveloped by paranoia and extreme feelings of lust. He is under Kim Novak’s spell (as in number 9 on this list), but she doesn’t need supernatural powers this time, just a bewitching demeanour. She had him good and proper.
Whilst this wouldn’t quite make number 3 on a list of best films starring Jimmy Stewart, in terms of the central performance alone it’s an all timer. That filibuster. Need I really say anything else? I should? Oh ok. Jimmy was such a physical performer with a massive presence, and by the time he’s finished berating and pleading with the senate house, you feel like he looks: like ten rounds with a prize-fighter. Stewart gave this performance everything he had and you can really see it in every frame.
From the extreme to the laid back. In Harvey Jimmy plays loveable misfit Elwood P. Dowd, a man with a sunny outlook on life, who also happens to be friends with a giant rabbit only he can see. It’s a beautiful film with Stewart playing a role I always hoped was close to the real Jimmy Stewart. He’s friendly to everyone despite their derision, and though his actions lead to a complete comedy farce, he’s endearing all the way. I promise if you watch Harvey you’ll be a better person afterwards, if only for a few hours.
George Bailey is Jimmy Stewart’s legacy to all of mankind. It’s that simple. Wonderful Life is the greatest Christmas film ever made, but it’s also most likely my favourite film ever made. For if films and characters are meant to reflect life and teach us something about our time on this earth, then George Bailey teaches us the most important lesson of all: To live. Even if you have to face your brightest hopes and dreams falling into ruin. To live is what matters, and to live in the company of those who matter most.
You’ll never know how many lives you’re making that little bit brighter. That’s what I learned from Jimmy Stewart. That’s why he’s my favourite.