A folksy defense lawyer. A naive Senator. A voyeuristic photographer. A lovable drunk. A vengeful cowboy. The small-town banker who dreamed of bigger things. Jimmy Stewart played them all in his long, accomplished career. Here are nine of his finest classic movies.
Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this romantic comedy marked the beginning of Stewart’s magical collaboration with director Frank Capra. Jimmy plays the son of a millionaire real estate tycoon who falls in love with his secretary (Jean Arthur). Comedic tensions escalate when her kooky, free-spirited family threatens to interfere with dad’s development plans. Check out Jimmy’s charming and surprisingly proficient Big Apple, an urban dance popular at the time this picture was released.
In his second teaming with Capra, Stewart turned in his best performance to date and cemented his star status for all time. He plays Jefferson Smith, the principled and idealistic young Senator who single-handedly wages war against political corruption. Barely 30 when he was cast, Stewart edged out the older but more established Gary Cooper for the role. His inspiring performance culminates in the famous filibuster scene, for which Stewart swabbed his throat with mercury to simulate hoarseness.
Given its current status as a perennial classic, you may be surprised that this Capra tear-jerker met with poor box office and lackluster public response upon its initial release. Stewart perfectly embodies George Bailey, the small-town family man who finds himself on the brink of despair on Christmas Eve. With the help of his guardian angel Clarence, George successfully navigates a spiritual crisis, and comes to understand the richness of his life. After seeing the film, President Truman famously gushed, “If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.”
Stewart earned his 4th Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd, the gentle eccentric who pals around with an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Believed to be deranged by his social-climbing sister, she attempts to have him committed—but not before hilarity ensues. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this whimsical comedy is among Stewart’s personal favorites.
A venerated rifle is the centerpiece for this tale of patricidal vengeance, set in the Old West. Stewart’s first collaboration with director Anthony Mann was also his best, and a turning point in Stewart’s career. After this ferocious performance, Jimmy became more commonly referred to as “James.” Shelley Winters and a very young Rock Hudson co-star.
Confined to his New York City apartment with a broken leg, a photographer (Stewart) passes time by peering out his window, and develops an obsessive interest in his neighbors’ lives. This suspenseful thriller unfolds in classic Hitchcock fashion: what begins as an innocuous series of events gradually turns irrevocably sinister. A still-single Grace Kelly, who plays Stewart’s doting girlfriend, admitted to being quite smitten with her married co-star during filming, calling Stewart “one of the most masculinely attractive men” she’d ever known.
Hitchcock’s haunting masterpiece features one of Stewart’s most complex and nuanced performances. He plays Detective Scottie Ferguson, forcibly retired after an on-duty incident leaves him with an acute fear of heights. As a favor to an old friend, he takes a job tailing a beautiful and mysterious woman who seems to be possessed by a spirit from the past. Scottie soon finds himself caught up in a web of obsession, deceit, and immutable destiny. The shocker ending will leave you breathless.
Nominated for seven Oscars and considered the apex of courtroom drama pictures, Otto Preminger’s legal nail-biter is based on a novel written by a Michigan Supreme Court Justice. Stewart plays a small-town lawyer defending a military officer (Ben Gazarra) charged with murdering the man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). The frank vernacular used to discuss the rape was controversial for the time. With a fantastic jazz score and cameo by Duke Ellington.
Stewart plays a veteran Senator who returns to the western town of Shinbone-- where he launched his political career years earlier-- to attend the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne). Through flashbacks, we learn the truth about the murder of the titular town bully (Lee Marvin). Though it opened to harsh reviews, John Ford’s film found a loyal cult following in years to come, and is considered a harmonious combination of three powerhouse talents. Stewart voluntarily relinquished top billing to Wayne, a gesture the only slightly older actor very much appreciated.