To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.
1) James Stewart
When I started this list a while back (see above), I came up with a hilariously long list of qualifiers for what would put someone on this list and where exactly s/he ought to land. The most important qualifier, in my view, was one that I understood then and now to be cutesy: “How essential are this actor’s performances to telling the story of American film?” In the end, despite a couple hiccups along the way, it came down to Jimmy Stewart. No other actor is so often at the center of the films that are vital to defining American cinema regardless of genre. (In the end, this is what pushed Jimmy Stewart to the top spot over Bette Davis. The movies he was in are, on the whole, better than hers.) No other actor is so marvelous at depicting Americans in moments of great resolution and hope, biting disappointment and anguish, frustrating ambivalence and vice. Stewart is believable as an everyman, or at least someone recognizably nearer the mortals than a Rock Hudson, Sylvester Stallone, or John Wayne. You could believe him as a pilot, as in The Flight of the Phoenix. A newspaperman, as in Call Northside 777. A ballplayer, as in The Stratton Story. A farmer, as in Shenandoah. Stewart was an attractive guy, but his friend and sometime roommate Henry Fonda was more beautiful. Stewart had the voice that resembles no one else’s voice, only just deep enough to avoid a persistent wheedling that might have stranded him forever as a comic figure. There was the gangling height which would have made him slightly perfect for Lincoln, a president he never played, and the thinness that came fairly close to keeping him out of World War II. He exemplified the charisma that you’ve seen people display at parties backed with some Dutch courage, but which doesn’t often come about in sober folks. He was not like us, and yet the best characters of his career are the people who we see in the us that wears movie makeup and sweats in the bright lights. Mark Cousins describes Hollywood cinema as “the bauble,” an ornament adorning a tree. Who better to hang that glitzy and imperfect bauble than George Bailey, singing a very earnest and very off-key “Auld Lang Syne,” rejoicing in the twin miracles of his salvation and his own life on Christmas?
The universality of Jimmy Stewart, his presence in all number of American favorites as well as in consensus GOAT film Vertigo, sneakily makes him one of the most errantly read stars this side of John Wayne. It’s convenient to find two Stewarts in his career, although I think it’s a segregation that comes well short of bisecting him. Stewart the believing idealist and Stewart the broken idealist shade into one another, and the roles in which Stewart played some basically comic part (peaking in his Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story, or maybe in the earwax-flavored jelly bean of American movies, Harvey) are sublimated in number and effect to his dramatic roles. What people are really doing here is splitting Stewart into Capra and Hitchcock eras, although doing so reduces him to a handful of pictures. Yet he made as many movies with Andrew McLaglen as he made with Alfred Hitchcock; there are as many John Ford movies as Frank Capra movies in his oeuvre. Truly, the director who we ought to associate with Stewart most is Anthony Mann, who helmed eight of Stewart’s pictures in five fecund years. Long story short, there are complications and twists in Stewart’s career that defy even an AFI TV special’s version of his career. He would be one of America’s greatest stars even if he were just going from D.C.’s handsome, idealistic Jeff Smith to San Francisco’s gray and gaunt Scottie Ferguson, but he was America’s greatest star, and there’s more to the star image than a single exit from a cheerful interstate.
Look no further to find a complication of the ’30s hero that still signifies Stewart to so many than his characters from John Ford. In Cheyenne Autumn, Stewart plays Wyatt Earp in a slightly bizarre humorous interlude in the midst of an otherwise deadly serious drama. The last time that Ford directed an actor playing Wyatt Earp, he was making My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda. Fonda’s Earp is of the same lineage as the young Abe Lincoln or Tom Joad, a relentlessly moral figure. Stewart’s Earp is kind of a goofball, a card player and free drinker who delights in screwing with the talking varmints populating the bars. In his previous film with Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart plays Ranse Stoddard, a senator of a newish western state who has a pristine record for such a man of the west: a lawyer, an orator, the killer of a notorious brigand in the streets of Shinbone. The propensity for taking a physical beating that Stewart displayed in earlier movies, such as The Man from Laramie, comes back again here. Stoddard loses a number of physical battles in this picture, from shooting contests to awkward services at a restaurant. In the end, it’s revealed that this punching bag—less of a man than Tom Doniphon, the John Wayne charater who is the envy of the area and the hope of Vera Miles—has been put forward as a politico by his state because Doniphon, the actual killer of Liberty Valance, is wrong for a more civilized West. Stoddard is a fake, a great man whose mansion is built on sand; Stewart is playing a hero as admirable as Jefferson Smith but whose was gifted the greatness another man won.
A little ironically, one of the most unironic stories of heroism in the Stewart oeuvre is in a role that he felt a deep personal connection to, but which he was definitely too old to play in color. The Spirit of St. Louis is one of the most out-of-character Billy Wilder movies, not just because it’s not terribly funny but because it relies heavily on an awkward flashback structure. The film casts Stewart as Charles Lindbergh when he was almost twice the age Lindbergh had attained when he flew the Atlantic. The young Stewart idolized Lindbergh, a man not so much older than himself, and Stewart had flown his share of combat missions in B-24s during World War II. It’s with that level of hero worship that we see Stewart portray Lindbergh, a man whose greatest character flaw in The Spirit of St. Louis is his anxiety the night before a transatlantic flight. Absolutely exhausted, he falls asleep a couple times on his solo journey, and wakes up only by the grace of the sun shining on his eyes and a fly landing on his face. Otherwise, the man is a saint of perseverance and bravery. Even as other men die in the attempt to make the transatlantic flight, Lindbergh is absolutely hellbent on doing everything he can to ensure that his custom-built aircraft, funded with newspaper money and made by a little firm in California, will take him where he needs to go. There aren’t many Stewart films which keep us locked in on him for so long, and that’s on purpose; about half the film takes place while Lindbergh is making his flight, and thus for long periods the camera is fixed on a seated Lindbergh while we hear the man’s thoughts rushing through his head at great speed. None of this makes The Spirit of St. Louis a great movie, but it’s about as pure a statement of that unironic Stewart hero. Lindbergh the highly questionable man is excised from the telling; Lindbergh the man who made it to the top by being a talented try-hard is the true hero.
If there is a way in which Stewart fits neatly into the image we’re used to professing for him, it’s as a lover. There aren’t that many purely romantic movies in his oeuvre; even in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Broken Arrow, where a romantic subplot is important and memorable, it’s rarely the key to the plot. One of the rare, beautiful exceptions is The Shop Around the Corner, the only time Stewart worked with Ernst Lubitsch. Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, who is a decent man, interested in his literary and artistic self-improvement, but who is also arrogant and a little bit too impressed with himself for someone who is only a salesman at a little shop in Budapest. It’s not a typical Stewart performance. Certitude is not unbecoming to the man, but it’s a little shocking to watch him play someone as headstrong and healthy as Kralik. (Headstrong he is too in a movie like Rear Window, but at least then he’s playing an older, more established man who is also cooped up indoors with a broken leg.) Kralik takes some liberties in stern speech and condescending attitude with the spunky new salesgirl, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan, a longtime crush of Stewart’s), and once he gets the drop on her romantically he is not all that kind. He discovers before Klara that their secret pen pals are, in fact, each other, and instead of telling her about the mix-up he proceeds to let her twist in the wind a little while about new letters from the man she thinks she may marry. Even Stewart’s incredible personal charm cannot quite cover up all the meanness or smallness in Kralik, and this is purposeful. Neither Kralik nor Klara is a perfect lover; she is too capricious, and he too easily wounded. But there is no more perfect lover than Stewart at the end of this film, for the gesture he makes, one of the quintessential Lubitsch touches, is as romantic as any other single gesture ever committed to celluloid. He reveals in a whisper, by way of revealing some information only the letter-writer would know, that he has been the other half of the correspondence. There is shock on Klara’s face, and then a cut to Stewart from the sternum up. His face is nervous, hesitant, shy, like a boy at the sixth-grade dance screwing up the courage to ask the pretty girl from fifth period to dance with him. And then, he places a carnation in his lapel, the flower he was supposed to wear to his first date with his letter-writer. It’s a beautiful moment, from the brain of Lubitsch and writer Samson Raphaelson, but the execution matters so much. There has been so much dissembling and misdirection on Kralik’s part, and to see the vulnerable honesty on Stewart’s face as he time travels back for a second chance at Klara is ineffable stuff.
The question of where Stewart first discovers the darkness in his acting persona is keenly debated, and it’s not such a terrible question. Even if it’s less linear or balanced than it’s depicted in shorthand, that transition is certainly evident over the course of a couple decades. Normies will point to the Hitchcock films of the 1950s (Rear Window, Vertigo), or even a little earlier, when he played an edgelord intellectual in Rope who never dreamed that his subversive methods might be the seed of a terrible crime. Western enthusiasts will point to the Mann pictures of the 1950s, starting with Winchester ’73 and peaking with The Naked Spur. (Contrarian that I am, I’d point to The Man from Laramie as a more essential Stewart picture and The Far Country as the superior movie of the five.) Everyone agrees that there’s a shift between Stewart’s persona before and after World War II, but not enough people identify the first film in his postwar oeuvre, the first as Colonel James Stewart, as a key text in this new grim persona. Then again, deciding that Stewart’s heart of bleakness has its roots in number 1 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers list is a little counterintuitive. It’s a Wonderful Life has the gorgeous, ludicrous sequence at the end where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed stand with their kids behind a hillock of cash, saved despite Uncle Billy’s foolishness and Mr. Potter’s skulduggery. Without that scene, though, this movie is absolutely brutal, and it’s brutal because of how much punishment is administered to the town’s most reliable citizen.
What comfort George can point to in his life is cold indeed, no matter how good his friends are or how perfect his wife. A dreamer with starry eyes and a reasonable command of geography is kept at home after the premature death of his father. (Bedford Falls, New York is not so unlike Indiana, Pennsylvania, and the Building and Loan not so unlike the family hardware store that Stewart believed he’d inherit.) The nest egg for his honeymoon and beyond is spent to keep the Building and Loan open during a bank run. The military turns his brother into a hero while he must stay at home, 4F. Carnal and professional temptations crop up, both of which might be life-changing in their own rights. Yet George stays the course until a lonely Yuletide when he thinks he has nothing more to hope for than a resting place in a half-frozen river. The stages of George Bailey are masterfully expressed by Stewart. The young George, lighthearted and a little doofy, not insensible to opportunity. “This is a very interesting situation!” he crows as he holds Mary’s robe and Mary has ducked into the bushes to hide herself. The George gritting his teeth to take on responsibility, again and again. The George whose honeymoon turns out to be a leaky old ghost house with Rube Goldberg rotisserie and Ernie and Bert serenading in the rain. He’ll slam down that broken piece of staircase, he’ll get sharper and noisier with each aggravation his children shoot his way. When that ragged man leans over the bar and prays to God for help and gets a punch in the jaw for his trouble, you can see the defeat in every particle of his body. It’s a Wonderful Life has to end happily. If it didn’t, people would throw themselves from the theater balconies. I love those caterwauls towards the end of the movie, once George has run back into Bedford Falls (not Pottersville!) and seen the world restored to its rightful, frustrating place. That uninhibited “YAAAAAY” which he lets out upon seeing the town, maybe cut a little too close to his most recent yell, is so funny, and so heartfelt, and so pure. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy Stewart as this man redeemed, a decent man who makes people ask God why good things don’t happen to good people sooner. But to weigh the end of the picture too much is to lose the performance of a man who looks the Devil in the eye (sort of—he really sinks into that chair) over a cigar and an offer of a $20,000 yearly salary, and who has to shake his head no and yell “Doggone it!” to remind himself who his soul belongs to. That’s a darkness right there. Jeff Smith is more persistent and more idealistic than George, a man who has been made more by his circumstances than his beliefs. Tom Destry, Jr. is more like Smith, yielding his values only when his life is at stake; Tony Kirby always had a streak of Sycamore oddball in him that actually meeting the Sycamore family brings out. George’s goodness has at its basis a watching eye over his shoulder, a responsibility that he wants to shake and never quite gets out of. Top it off with the suicide attempt heard up to heaven and you discover a dark night of the soul that would be repeated throughout the Mann westerns and Hitchcock thrillers alike.
Rear Window makes a voyeur out of Stewart. Vertigo makes a necrophiliac of him. But there’s something even more wretched and frank about Paul Biegler of Anatomy of a Murder, the ex-district attorney who has been reduced to defending “Manny” Manion in a murder case where Manion can’t pretend he didn’t do it. In the beginning of the film, Biegler (who desperately needs whatever money he can get) quietly coaches Manion on how best to approach the case. What they come up with together is “irresistible impulse,” a type of temporary insanity in which Manion, who is otherwise quite sane and quite bad-tempered, would have been unable to prevent himself from shooting the late Barney Quill because Quill had raped his wife, Laura. The details of the case get murkier, as they often do over the course of such pictures—we are not meant to believe that Laura, a notorious flirt who almost gets it on with Biegler, actually protested Barney’s affections—and there are plenty of other lawyers against whom we might fling our dislike. Biegler does as much of the muddying up of the courtroom as anyone else, turning a pretty open-and-shut murder case into a circus, getting himself up to the very limit of the judge’s patience in protesting the case, objecting to the prosecution at every step and generally going to war with lead prosecutor Claude Dancer (an equally spectacular George C. Scott). Stewart had a number of other movies yet to make, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and he was only two years removed from The Spirit of St. Louis, but he looks old in this black-and-white movie. He looks tired, weary, burned out. It’s something of a miracle that he can rouse himself up to fight as hard as he does in this particular case given how moribund he seems in the early going. It’s a triumph for Biegler when he lets Dancer hang himself with his own rope, a misstep that buries the prosecution’s case because the prosecution now looks stupid in the eyes of the jury. Yet we cannot forget: all this to get a murderer with a short fuse off so he can continue to beat his cheating wife in some other benighted trailer park on the Upper Peninsula. There’s great humor in the part and some genuine emotional feeling; Anatomy of a Murder is a landmark in the “old guy’s still got it” genre. But there’s a sliminess, an ugliness that is revealed as an intimate secret that’s meant to be just between us and Jimmy Stewart.