Friday, June 18, 2010

Captivating Close-Up: James Stewart

This Captivating Close-Up is brought to you by this week's Cin-Ob Supreme, Adam, from The Blue Meanies Are Coming. Enjoy!

Here's my chance to write a Captivating Close-Up for Angie and Chantale, and in my opinion, there's no-one more captivating in films than my favourite actor of all-time - James Maitland Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on 25th May 1908, and first came to my attention in the 1946 festive classic It's a Wonderful Life. In it he plays George Bailey, whose life is changed when an angel shows him what his hometown of Bedford Falls would've been like had he never been born.

Following his father's death, George is nominated to run Bedford Falls' Building and Loan with his uncle Billy. The greedy Henry Potter sees an opportunity to get George out of the way, when Billy misplaces a large sum of money, which Potter finds and keeps for himself. George decides that he must face the consequences in Billy's place, and his despair drives him to contemplate suicide by jumping into a river, on a cold and snowy Christmas Eve night.

A wingless angel called Clarence is able to save George, by jumping into the icy-cold river himself. George goes in after him, and it's soon after this that Clarence shows him the Bedford Falls that could've been.

His wife Mary has become a spinster, his own mother takes him for a stranger, and Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, a town that looks something along the lines of what Hill Valley looked like in Back to the Future II's alternate 1985. George decides he wants to live again, and it's only then that everything goes back to normal. His wife and mother know him once more, and Pottersville becomes Bedford Falls again.

Through his portrayal of George Bailey, Jimmy makes acting look very easy, despite apparently never having had any formal acting lessons. George has to show a lot of emotion throughout the film, from being the average family man to wanting to end it all, and Jimmy does an excellent job of convincing the audience how George is feeling in every scene.

Stewart almost never played the iconic role, having contemplated retiring from acting after World War II, in which he'd served in the US Air Force. Co-star Lionel Barrymore who plays Potter, convinced him to take the role, having previously starred alongside him in the 1938 film You Cant Take It With You. Disappointingly, neither Jimmy nor director Frank Capra received an Oscar for It's a Wonderful Life, and the film only began to get attention when it played on TV. It's now a classic which seems to get re-released on DVD every December, and is a must-see in the run up to Christmas.

Jimmy also appeared in many Westerns, with my favourite being The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which he co-stars with John Wayne. When Wayne came to film his last-ever movie The Shootist released in 1976, he requested that Stewart be cast as Dr. Hostetler. Jimmy's only DVD commentary appears on the 1950 Western Winchester '73, and was recorded for it's laserdisc release. It's a very interesting listen, and is basically an interview with Jimmy about the film and his career.

He also starred in four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, although it should've been five. Cary Grant was due to be cast as Rupert Cadell in Rope (1948), but Hitch cast Jimmy instead. He then went on to be cast in Rear Window (1954), Hitch's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Surprisingly, Vertigo was a financial failure, and Hitchcock blamed this on Stewart's performance. He was the original choice to play Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959) and very much wanted the role, but Hitch decided to cast Cary Grant, citing Stewart as looking too old to still attract audiences. This was rubbish, as Cary Grant was four years older than Jimmy.

After a long and successful career, Stewart went into semi-retirement in 1978, when The Magic of Lassie flopped. His final film role however was the voice of Sherriff Wylie Burp in the 1991 animated film An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. He died aged 89 on 2nd July 1997, after not only a wonderful career, but also a wonderful life. I've only touched on a few of his films in this profile, and hope you enjoy seeking out and watching many more.


The Mike said...

Great look at pretty much my favorite person ever. Good work!

KeLLy aNN said...

I adore Jimmy Stewart.
He was just classy.
I have Its a Wonderful Life on dvd thanks to The Chuck Man {who went to every frickin store in our city looking for the dvd apparently the ONE year they didn't release it on dvd! he did find the very last copy and bought it for}

Rear Window was just wonderful with a very surprised Me when I realized who the "bad" guy was...Raymond Burr.

Excellent choice of actor

Sammy V said...

Great read.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comments. It was a fun post to write!

There's loads of other films I could've included too, but I'm sure Angie, Chantale and everyone else wouldn't have wanted to read a complete autobiography!!!