Starting this Friday, the Stanford will run a six-week series of James Stewart movies. A lot of very good films, and a few masterpieces, are on the schedule.
At this point, I’m supposed to tell you why James Stewart deserves a series. But if you like movies enough to read this blog, you probably know already.
Oh, all right. James Steward was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the mid-twentieth century, thanks to his all-American guy-next-door, aw-shucks persona. He worked his way up to major star in the 1930s, then left Hollywood to fight in World War II. After the war, he found a darker side of himself working with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.
Here are a few titles in the series that I can tell you about. Most of the films are in double bills.
A+ Rear Window & A- The Man Who Knew Too Much, May 24 – 26
Rear Window: Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best! Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. With Grace Kelly as his girlfriend and Thelma Ritter as his nurse. Read my A+ Appreciation.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock’s only remake throws an ordinary American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) into international espionage when foreign spies kidnap their son. Thrilling and fun in that Hitchcock-patented way.
A Winchester ’73, June 7 – 9
Stewart, in the role that helped him find his dark side, plays a man bent on revenge. In this Anthony Mann western, he wins an exceptionally good rifle in a marksman contest, but it’s soon stolen. The rifle changes hands several times, while Stewart and his sidekick (Millard Mitchell) search for the villain who committed that crime and has done much, much worse. Shelley Winters is wonderful as a woman far more courageous than her fiancé would ever be. On a double bill with another very good Mann western, Bend of the River, which I saw a very long time ago.
B Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, June 14 – 16
Corrupt political bosses appoint as senator a naive, young idealist because they think he’s stupid (Stewart). They’re wrong. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creaks a bit with patriotic corniness, and has political views that seem almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has its moments. Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in schoolbooks” can still bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic American – red or blue. Besides, it’s just plain entertaining. On a double bill with Destry Rides Again, which I saw ages ago and liked.
A+ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, June 28 – 30
As much as any other artist, John Ford defined and deepened the myth of the American West. But in his last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford tears that myth down, reminding us that a myth is, when you come right down to it, a lie. Avoiding beautiful scenery and even color (a black and white western was a risky investment in 1962), Ford strips this story down to the essentials, and splits the classic Western hero into two: the man of principle (Stewart) and the man of action (John Wayne). Read my A+ report. It’s double-billed with The Far Country, which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen.
Here are some movies on the schedule that I haven’t seen in a long time, but remember fondly:
- Anatomy of a Murder, May 29 – 30. This is the only film in the series that isn’t part of a double bill.
- The Philadelphia Story & After the Thin Man, May 31-June 2. Stewart has only a supporting role in After the Thin Man, and you can tell that his onscreen persona hadn’t yet jelled.
- You Can’t Take It with You, June 5 – 6. His first collaboration with director Frank Capra. On a double bill with Bell, Book and Candle, which I’ve never seen.
- The Naked Spur & The Man from Laramie, June 21 – 23. Another two Anthony Mann westerns. Again, I’ve seen them too long ago to write about them now. I can say that Laramie has one of the most shocking scenes in a mid-century film.
The Man from Laramie
I’ve never seen The Mortal Storm (June 26 and 27), but I’ve wanted to see it for years. It’s one of the very few anti-Nazi Hollywood movies made before Pearl Harbor. As I understand it, MGM – the most conservative studio of the time – took a very courageous step to make it, although they weren’t courageous enough to use the word Jew. It plays with Next Time We Love, which I also haven’t seen.
A lot of great James Stewart movies should be in this series but aren’t, including
- It’s a Wonderful Life (my A+ appreciation)
- Vertigo (I don’t like it much but everybody else does)
- The Spirit of St. Louis
- Broken Arrow (the 1950 film with that name)