Who is the greatest actor from classical Hollywood? The correct answer is Cary Grant. But, if you said Jimmy Stewart, I wouldn’t pick a fight. Stewart had an acting range nearly unparalleled in any era of cinema history. He was a creature of the West in the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann, a neurotic city dweller in the world of Alfred Hitchcock, and the loveable common man in the movies of Frank Capra.
From George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (1958), Stewart played some of the most memorable characters in cinema history. To get to know him and the characters he played, here is a video essay guide that will help you get there.
“It’s a Wonderful Face”
During the 1980s, many classic Hollywood films were colorized because, you know, corporate greed. One of those was Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1987, Ginger Rogers testified before the US Senate, which was investigating legal issues associated with colorization. As part of her testimony, Rogers read a letter from Jimmy Stewart.
Hannah Frank, in a truly wonderful video essay called “It’s a Wonderful Face,” takes a still frame from the movie and manipulates the color and deforms the image to explore the ethics of colorization. Her video essay ends with Stewart’s testimony, a strong rebuke of colorization. Thus, we get to know not only Stewart the actor but the man himself. If only we had him out advocating for movies today.
“Rear Window Time Lapse”
One of Stewart’s best performances comes as L.B. Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). He plays a photographer with a broken leg who passes time by watching his neighbors through the rear window of his apartment. The film is one of Hitchcock’s most subjective — what Stewart sees throughout the courtyard is indicative of his own subconscious fears and desires. For those more curious about the director, check out my video essay guide to Alfred Hitchcock here.
In “Rear Window Time Lapse,” one of the most-viewed video essays on Vimeo, Jeff Desom uses footage from the film to create a time-lapse and reconstruct Stewart’s view of the goings-on outside his apartment. Thus, we are able to see and feel what Stewart sees and feels in a new and different way.
“Pass the Salt”
Jimmy Stewart delivers one of the best performances of his career in Otto Preminger’s masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959). He plays Paul Biegler, an attorney who is asked to defend a man accused of killing the man who raped his wife.
The first part of the film includes Biegler struggling over whether to take the case — can he defend a man he believes is morally reprehensible? This video essay by Christian Keathley (a former professor of mine) explores Biegler’s dilemma by examining a scene in which he and a lawyer friend eat hard boiled eggs as they discuss the legal system. His friend points out that a fair legal system demands that all people, regardless of their moral compass, be provided with a defense attorney able to make their case.
At the end of their exchange, Jimmy Stewart asks his friend to “pass the salt.” Keathley takes that moment and playfully relates it to the ways in which Anatomy of a Murder questions the machinery of the legal system. There is a big payoff at the end, so just watch.
“The Vertigo of Anagnorisis”
If you want evidence of the influence of Jimmy Stewart’s characters, one need look no further than this essay by Catherine Grant, which juxtaposes Scottie Ferguson from Vertigo with Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Check out my video essay guide to Vertigo here.
The essay begins with a definition of anagnorisis: the moment in the plot at which a character realizes something about their own identity or situation. Grant then ties this idea to that of falling and how it relates to the idea of trauma. Works like Grant’s are a great reminder that at the heart of films such as Star Wars is their creator’s love for the movies of classical Hollywood. Did George Lucas have Scottie in mind when dreaming up this scene? Who knows? Who cares? Let’s just say probably and call it a day.
“It’s a Wonderful Hitchcock”
This video essay guide would not be complete without at least one video comparing two of Jimmy Stewart’s characters. In “It’s Wonderful Hitchcock,” Phillip Brubaker recuts moments from It’s a Wonderful Life and juxtaposes them with Bernard Hermann’s score from Vertigo.
Brubaker’s use of Hermann’s score allows us to see and feel some of the key psychological elements in Capra’s film, including, “tension, anxiety, and anguish.” Perhaps the most striking moment comes at the video’s end when we realize that both films end with the ring of a bell. In comparing the two, Brubaker has us questioning all that we had ever thought about the film.