Sunday, 22 May 2016

Top 10 Favorite James Stewart Films of the 1930s

I never rank my favorite things, mostly because I change my mind faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But since I have recently watched all the films James Stewart made in the 1930s, I thought I would try and organize them in a top 10. This is what I came up with. Do not ask me to do this again tomorrow, because my choices will most likely be completely different.

#10: Navy Blue and Gold (1937)
Directed by Sam Wood | Co-starring Robert Young, Tom Brown, Florence Rice and Lionel Barrymore | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

John «Truck» Cross: I usually get second best, I guess. I'm not so lucky.

Robert Montgomery, Tom Brown and James Stewart
In this sports/military drama, Jimmy played John «Truck« Cross, a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy determined to defend the sullied reputation of his father, a former captain who was court-martialed and dismissed from the service after being unfairly accused of a breach of duty. Robert Young and Tom Brown co-star as Jimmy's roomates and fellow varsity football players, Florence Rice as his love interest and Lionel Barrymore as the academy's former football coach. 

Although Navy Blue and Gold was popular at the box-office, it received only mixed reviews from critics. Much of the praise was directed at Jimmy, with the New York Herald Tribune commenting, «If Navy Blue and Gold is not the most beguiling service-college picture yet filmed, it is not Mr. Stewart's fault. It is due to his expert rendition of a rather preposterous part that a rather preposterous show becomes generally exciting.» 

Navy Blue and Gold is a long way away from being the best film Jimmy ever made, but it still offers 94 very enjoyable minutes. Jimmy's heartfelt performance is almost a preview of the genuine, down-to-earth all-American characters he would become forever identified with. It was also this film that led Frank Capra to cast him in You Can't Take It With You (1938). «He had a minor part. He wasn't the star,» Capra later recalled. «He did a little something defending a fellow naval student [it was actually his father]. When I saw him I thought, 'Oh, my land, there's a guy.'»

#9: Made For Each Other (1939)
Directed by John Cromwell | Co-starring Carole Lombard and Charles Coburn | United Artists

John Mason: Between roast beef and Higgins against Higgins, how can we lose?

James Stewart and Carole Lombard
Borrowed from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in this film, Jimmy played John Mason, a young Manhattan lawyer who goes against his mother's wishes and, instead of pursuing the wealthy boss's daughter, marries the beautiful Jane (Carole Lombard) for love. With finances tightened by the Great Depression, the newlywed couple struggles to pay the bills and the arrival of a baby further complicates things.

Made For Each Other was conceived by producer David O. Selznick as a vehicle for Carole Lombard, who was desperate to showcase her rarely-explored dramatic side. Jimmy and Carole got along wonderfully during filming. He said that she was «the only girl I've ever known who could let out a stream of four-letter words and not embarrass you,» while she thought his «talent is perfect in itself.» In a particularly exceptional year for Hollywood, Made For Each Other was regarded by contemporary critics as one of the best films of 1939, with Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times calling it «thoroughly delightful, richly human, comic, sentimental and poignant by turns [...] The story of almost every young couple that ever was or will be.» Despite the good press, the film failed to make a profit at the box-office, which devastated both stars.

#8: Next Time We Love (1936)
Directed by Edward H. Griffith | Co-starring Margaret Sullavan and Ray Milland | Universal Pictures

Christopher Tyler: You're all I'll ever want of women in the world. 

Based on Ursula Parrott's 1935 serialized novel Say Goodbye Again, Next Time We Love tells the story of Cicely Hunt (Margaret Sullavan), an aspiring stage actress who decides to leave college to marry the ambitious young newsman Christopher Tyler (James Stewart). Their life together is interrupted, however, when Chris is assigned overseas as a foreign correspondent. Cicely choses to stay in New York to pursue a theatrical career and, months later, gives birth to their child. As Chris becomes a noted journalist and Cicely an acclaimed Broadway actress, the couple struggles to balance their romance and their burgeoning careers. Making a noteworthy appearance in the film is a young Ray Milland as Tommy Abbott, Chris's wealthy friend who is secretly in love with Cicely.

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan
Sullavan was not particularly enthusiastic about starring in Next Time We Love, but she agreed to make the picture on the condition that Universal borrow James Stewart from MGM to be her leading man, in what became his third film role. Margaret and Jimmy had been close friends since the early 1930s, when they were both members of the University Players, a summer stock company founded by Joshua Logan in 1928. This was the first time Jimmy was playing the male lead and Sullavan made sure to rehearse with him every day to help him develop his acting skills, encouraging him to turn his off-screen awkwardness into an on-screen asset. Jimmy and Margaret later co-starred in The Shopworn Angel (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940).

Although Next Time We Love was poorly received by critics, TIME magazine gave Jimmy one of his first good film reviews, rating him «natural, spontaneous, and altogether excellent.»

#7: It's a Wonderful World (1939)
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke | With Claudette Colbert and Guy Kibbee | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Guy Johnson: I need you about as much as I need a giraffe.

James Stewart and Claudette Colbert
In this screwball comedy, Jimmy appears as a private detective named Guy Johnson who, by harboring a client wrongly accused of murder, has become a suspect himself. Armed with the single clue to solve the case, Guy escapes the train bound to Sing Sing, kidnaps the freelance poetess Edwina Corday (Claudette Colbert) and hijacks her car to get away from the police. Seeing that this is a screwball comedy, you can already guess how the film plays out.

Truth be told, It's a Wonderful World is somewhat implausible, but the action moves so swiftly and the complications pile up so quickly that we get caught up in the plot without questioning its logic. Although neither Jimmy nor Colbert would consider It's a Wonderful World a career highlight, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable affair. We all know that Claudette Colbert was an expert comedienne and she is the clear star of this picture. But Jimmy was a delightful comedian as well and he held his own opposite Colbert beautifully.

#6: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown | With Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dave: Don't look for trouble where there isn't any, because if you don't find it, you'll make it.

The film tells the story of magazine publisher Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) and his wife Linda (Myrna Loy), who are celebrating their third wedding anniversary. They are very much in love, but Van's meddling mother (May Robson) creates turmoil in their marriage by intimating that her son is having an affair with his beautiful young secretary, Helen «Whitey» Wilson (Jean Harlow). Jimmy plays Whitey's boyfriend, Dave, who is very uncomfortable about her close relationship with her boss and is crushed when she refuses his marriage proposal. Fret not, they make up in the end.

James Stewart and Jean Harlow
Despite being billed sixth in the cast, Jimmy has the most screen time aside from the three leads. He appears mainly romantic sequences with Harlow, including the final scene and dialogue in the film. Jimmy shares only one kissing scene with the «Blonde Bombshell,» but it was a thoroughly enlightening experience for him. He later recalled, «Clarence Brown, the director, wasn't too pleased by the way I did the smooching. He made us repeat the scene about half a dozen times [...] I botched it up on purpose. That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser. I realized that until then I had never been really kissed.» Reportedly, Jimmy and Jean enjoyed a brief fling together around that time. What eventually put him off dating her was the discovery that her stepfather, Marino Bello, was a gangster from Chicago. 

Wife vs. Secretary was a massive hit upon release. The London Observer was particularly enthusiastic about Jimmy's performance in the film, declaring that «he acts Gable and Harlow off the screen» and makes you realize «that good actors don't stop with their own generation — they keep right along coming.» Personally, I really like Wife vs. Secretary. I think it is the most beautiful Jean Harlow has ever been on screen and she and Jimmy had great chemistry. I wish MGM had paired them in more films; I think they would have made a wonderful screen team.

#5: You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Directed by Frank Capra | With Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold | Columbia Pictures

Tony Kirby: You know, everytime I think about how lucky I am, I feel like screaming.

Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur
and Edward Arnold
An adaptation of the popular George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart stage farce, You Can't Take It With You features Jimmy in the role of Tony Kirby, the young vice-president of his family's company. He has fallen in love with stenographer Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) and wants to marry her, but the incompatibility of their respective families presents a major problem in doing so. Tony's father (Edward Arnold) is a ruthless businessman and his mother (Mary Forbes) is a pretentious snob — and both of them strongly disapprove of their son's choice for marriage. In contrast, Alice's family are an eccentric, free-spirited bunch, starting with her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), who dismisses «silly things» like money, the government and the IRS. When both families finally come together, hilarious chaos ensues.

You Can't Take It With You marked the emergence of James Stewart as the quintessential Frank Capra hero, in the first of three films he would make for the director. Jimmy trusted and admired Capra immensely, describing him as «a classic example of a what a motion picture director should be.» For his part, Capra called Jimmy «the easiest man to direct I've ever seen [and] probably the best actor who's ever hit the screen.» You Can't Take It With You was a huge box-office success and received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Variety, for instance, described it as «fine audience material and over the heads of no one. The comedy is wholly American, wholesome, homespun, human, appealing, and touching in turn.» At the 11th Academy Awards held in February 1939 at the Biltmore Hotel, the film received a total of seven nominations, winning the coveted Oscar for Best Picture and giving Capra the statuette for Best Director, his third in just five years.

#4: Small Town Girl (1936)
Directed by William A. Wellman | With Janet Gaynor, Robert Taylor and Binnie Barnes | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Elmer Clampett: How are you? You're keeping your chin up? 

James Stewart and Janet Gaynor
This delighful comedy tells the story of a small town girl named Kay Brannan (Janet Gaynor), whose life is just too dull and repetitious to bear. One night, she meets Robert «Bob» Dakin (Robert Taylor), a handsome young doctor who invites her for a fun night out on the town. When a drunken Bob insists that they should get married, Kay barely hesistates before accepting. Once sober, Bob regrets his hasty decision, but his strict parents (Lewis Stone and Nella Walker) suggest that they pretend to he happily married for six months before divorcing, so as to avoid scandal. Soon afterwards, Bob and Kay go on a «honeymoon» aboard the Dakin family yacht, where they inevitably begin to fall in love. Jimmy's role in the film is very small — he plays Elmer Clampett, Kay's prospective suitor.

Small Town Girl was the fourth of eight pictures Jimmy made that year. Besides Next Time We Love, Wife vs. Secretary and Born to Dance, there was Rose Marie (1936), with Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy; Speed (1936), a low-budget «B» movie that gave him his first starring role, opposite Wendy Barrie; The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), with Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor; and After the Thin Man (1936), with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

#3: Born to Dance (1936)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth | With Eleanor Powell, Virginia Bruce, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers and Buddy Ebsen | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Ted Barker: Think you can be true to the Navy?

Eleanor Powell and James Stewart
In this lavish musical, Jimmy played Ted Barker, a young sailor who instantly falls in love with an aspiring dancer named Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) after meeting her at the New York Lonely Hearts Club. Their romance is soon thwarted, however, when he gets tangled up with Lucy James (Virginia Bruce), a famous Broadway star whose agent (Alan Dineheart) devises an affair between her and Ted to generate publicity for her new show.

Born to Dance was Jimmy's first assigment as an MGM leading man; in fact, he was personally chosen for the part by Cole Porter, who composed the film's score. This was also his first musical, one that gave him the opportunity to actually perform three songs: «Rolling Home,» «Hey, Babe, Hey» and the iconic ballad «Easy to Love.» Because Jimmy had no previous musical experience, the studio wanted to hire a professional singer to dub his voice, but Porter thankfully convinced them against it, saying, «Stewart got a squeaky kind of singing voice, but it goes with his squeaky kind of speaking voice [...] and those long, lanky legs.»

I absolutely love Born to Dance. It is such a cute and fun little film and it never fails to put a smile on my face. The cast is excellent — the wonderful Una Merkel and Sid Silvers are an added bonus — and the musical numbers are fantastic. Jimmy is obviously not the best singer in the world, but trust me when I say that his rendition of «Easy to Love» will warm the coldest of hearts.

#2: Vivacious Lady (1938)
Directed by George Stevens | With Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn and Beulah Bondi | RKO

Peter Morgan Jr.: I always try to be a strong man in a sort of conservative way.

In this wonderful light comedy, Jimmy played Peter Morgan Jr., a small-town botany professor who goes to New York City and impetuously weds a beautiful night club singer named Francy (Ginger Rogers). He then brings her home to meet his family, but is unable to tell his stern, domineering college dean father (Charles Coburn) about the marriage. While Peter struggles to decide how to approach his father with the news, a series of humorous situations take place, including repeatedly frustrated attempts by the young couple to find a moment alone with each other.

James Stewart and Ginger Rogers
Ginger personally chose Jimmy to be her co-star in Vivacious Lady. At the time, Jimmy was not yet the major star he would very soon become, but he and Ginger had dated a couple of years before and she thought he could provide both the shyness and the romantic spark that his role required. Director George Stevens was very pleased with Jimmy's performance, saying, «He is an instinctual rather than a trained actor, but he has a wonderful knack for paradox and surprise and character transformation, and in Vivacious Lady he rang all the changes.»

Vivacious Lady was well-received by critics upon its premiere and eventually became one of RKO's strongest releases of the decade. The reviewer for The New Yorker described the film as «a good-natured, unpretentious entertaining comedy,» while Variety deemed it «entertainment of the highest order and broadest appeal.» According to The New York Times, Jimmy was «a priceless bit of casting.» At the 11th Academy Awards in February 1939, the film garnered nominations for Best Sound Recording and Best Cinematography.

Fun fact: Vivacious Lady marked the first of five times that Beulah Bondi portrayed Jimmy's mother on screen. The others were Of Human Hearts (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and once in his short-lived TV series, The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971).

#1: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by Frank Capra | With Jean Arthur, Claude Rains and Edward Arnold | Columbi Pictures

Jefferson Smith: Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes.

James Stewart as Jefferson Smith
The film revolves around Jefferson «Jeff» Smith (James Stewart), an idealistic Boy Ranger leader chosen as an «honorary stooge» to fill a desk in the United States Senate, while corrupt political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnolds) and senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) sneak their dam construction project through as part of the deficiency bill. Jeff naïvely chooses the dam site as the location for this pet project, a Boy's Camp, which leads to his being accused of secretly buying up the lands for his own profit. With the help of his cynical secretary, Miss Saunders (Jean Arthur), and reporter «Diz» Moore (Thomas Mitchell) Jeff challenges «the political machine» and the Senate itself in the form of an impassioned 23-hour filibuster, the ultimate attempt to clear his name.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington received rave reviews and won Jimmy his best personal notices so far. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, his first of five nominations in the same category, but ost to Robert Donat for his performance in Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). When Jimmy did win the following year for The Philadelphia Story (1940), many people thought that the Academy was making up for not giving him the award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The front-runner that year was Jimmy's best friend, Henry Fonda, nominated for The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Forget It's a Wonderful Life; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential James Stewart film. You can see in his performance that this role meant the world to him and he dedicated himself completely to it — to the point of enerving Jean Arthur with his revential approach to the part. Frank Capra said that Jimmy was Jefferson Smith; I could not agree more.

And that is it. Out of the 21 films James Stewart did between his debut in 1935 and 1939, these are my favorites. What about you? What are your top 10 favorite James Stewart films of the 1930s?

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (University Press of Mississippi, 2011)
Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)
Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, 2007)
Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013)
TCM's article on Navy Blue and Gold by Felicia Feaster
TCM's article on Vivacious Lady by Brian Cady 
Variety review for You Can't Take It With You 

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