Jimmy Stewart, number 3 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 male movie stars of all time, was born 100 years ago today in Indiana, Pennsylvania. The Oscar he won for The Philadelphia Story was on display at his father’s hardware store there for 25 years. While he did not always play the good guy, he is best remembered for the way he exemplified the American ideal of decency, integrity, and unpretentious authenticity. And he was a genuine hero, enlisting in the Air Force (the skinny actor had to gain five pounds to meet the minimum weight requirement) and serving on active duty. He became a colonel and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars. In 1959, serving in the Air Force Reserve, he became a brigadier general.
It is easy to underestimate his skill as an actor because he made each performance look effortless. But if you watch these classics carefully you will see the brilliant subtlety of his steady gaze. These films show the range of his work, from light comedy to romantic drama, from all-American guy-you-wish-lived-next-door to menace and obsession. Every one of them is well worth watching and re-watching. Happy birthday, Jimmy!
1. The Philadelphia Story Since I was in high school, this incomparable romantic comedy with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant has been my all-time favorite movie. Stewart’s performance as cynical reporter Mike Connor won him his only Oscar.
2. You Can’t Take it With You This Best Picture Oscar-winner about the delightfully nutty Sycamore family stars Stewart as the boss’s son. Watch for the scene in the restaurant.
3. Harvey In this gentle comedy Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, who explains his philosophy of life: “Years ago my mother used to say to me… She’d say ‘In this world Elwood, you must be oh-so smart or oh-so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart…. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” Dowd has an invisible friend, an enormous rabbit-looking creature named Harvey, and Stewart’s interactions with Harvey (who is never shown) are so charming and convincing you may think you see him, too. You will certainly want to.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life Stewart’s favorite of his own films (and also the favorite of director Frank Capra) is this Christmas classic about a man who thinks he has nothing until he finds out what the world would have been like if he had never existed.
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Stewart and Capra again — this time Stewart plays an idealistic young man who is appointed to fill out a term in the U.S. Senate by corrupt politicians.
6. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation Not as well remembered as some of Stewart’s classics, but this is one of my own favorites because it is the quintessential story of a multi-generational family vacation at the beach. Impossible relatives, sulky teenagers, and an even sulkier hot water heater in the rental house, this is an affectionate salute to the American family at play.
7. Anatomy of a Murder This fact-based murder trial has Stewart as a former prosecutor turned defense attorney, defending a solider who killed a man for allegedly raping his wife. Brilliant performances by the whole cast, including Ben Gazarra, Lee Remick, Eve Arden, and Arthur O’Connell, but especially real-life American hero Joseph Welch as the canny judge. Fans of “Law and Order” will love this one.
8. Bell, Book and Candle The other Stewart pairing with Kim Novak, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” may be better remembered, but I think Stewart’s performance in this romantic comedy is often overlooked. Stewart is a publisher who falls for a sultry witch. Watch his eyes when he drinks the potion to break the love spell.
9. The Shop Around the Corner“You’ve Got Mail” was based on this charming romantic comedy about co-workers who think they are enemies because they do not realize that they have fallen in love with each other by letter.
10. Destry Rides AgainStewart plays a young deputy sheriff who does everything he can to avoid using a gun in this classic Western.
Other great Stewart classics: “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Spirit of St. Louis,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Magic Town,” “Call Northside 777,” “Next Time We Love,” and many, many more.