It’s August, which means it’s Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars programming all month long. Each day is devoted to a different star, with that actor or actress’ films showing all day long. This Saturday, August 13th, is James Stewart day.
TCM will be showing 13 of Jimmy’s films. There are five on the schedule I haven’t seen, either due to the fact that I just haven’t watched them, or to them being unavailable on DVD. Those are (all times Eastern):
The Last Gangster (6:00 A.M.)
Wife vs. Secretary (11:15 A.M.)
No Highway In the Sky (10:15 P.M.)
Anatomy of a Murder (12:00 A.M. on the 14th)
The Stratton Story (4:00 A.M.)
I’ll take you briefly through the day’s other offerings:
The Shopworn Angel (7:30 A.M.)
This 1938 film is the second pairing of Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The two had come up through the theater ranks together with Henry Fonda, and Sullavan was instrumental in lobbying for Stewart as a leading man when the studios were somewhat baffled about what to do with him. Stewart plays a young WWI soldier about to ship out who falls for Sullavan’s Broadway chorus girl. She feels sorry for him and accepts his marriage proposal, knowing he probably won’t come back alive. This is one of the first films that shows Stewart in his early career element playing a sweet and honest small-town boy, and his and Sullavan’s chemistry carries the film. But it is nothing compared to their next film together, The Shop Around the Corner.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (9:00 A.M.)
I see this film as the pinnacle of Jimmy’s early career (well, I love The Philadelphia Story also…). Frank Capra directs this classic about a small-town Boy Ranger who is sent to Washington D.C. to serve as a political pawn in the schemes of the state’s corrupt senator. Paired with the lovely Jean Arthur, Stewart battles greed and graft while staying true to his values. It’s a film that explores themes which are still relevant today. I love this film because in my opinion it is one of the best examples of Capra’s American idealism. This is a powerhouse performance from Stewart, capped by the filibuster scene at the end of the film, one which many believe should have won him the Best Actor Oscar. Some say his win in The Philadelphia Story the following year was perhaps a compromise for this performance.
Stewart plays a professor’s son who impulsively leaves his fiancée and marries a nightclub performer (Ginger Rogers). Opting to find the right moment to break the news to his parents and former girlfriend, this screwball comedy has plenty of laughs. It’s definately worth catching for a fun and light watch.
The Shop Around the Corner (2:30 P.M.)
This is a classic from director Ernst Lubitsch, and is the third pairing of Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. They play bickering Budapest shop workers who are both in love with a pen pal. It’s been said that Stewart held a torch for Sullavan for years, and their chemistry on screen is something magical-Stewart the tall, stammering gentleman and Sullavan the petite, fiery girl with the whispery voice. It’s a Christmas romance with darker overtones, but a wonderful, can’t-miss film. It was also the basis for You’ve Got Mail decades later. I think this movie gets passed over for other Stewart favorites, but it’s one that should never be overlooked.
Bell, Book and Candle (4:15 P.M.)
The second film Stewart made in 1958, part of the exchange with Columbia for the use of Kim Novak in Vertigo that same year. Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a witch living in New York City who puts a spell on hapless publisher Shep Henderson (Stewart). Shep is engaged to an old roommate of Gillian’s, and she takes the opportunity to exact revenge. But she doesn’t bargain on actually falling for Shep. Ernie Kovacs and Jack Lemmon round out the cast of this comedy.
This is, in my opinion, the best of the five westerns Stewart did with director Anthony Mann, although they are all good. After Stewart came back from WWII, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get by on the kinds of roles he had perfected before leaving to serve. The darker undertones in the Stewart persona which Capra first explored in It’s A Wonderful Life are developed through the 1950s in his work with Mann and Hitchcock. In the Mann westerns, Stewart often plays an anti-hero, a man with a shady past with motivations of revenge or an obsessive passion for justice to be served. In The Naked Spur, that man is Howard Kemp, a rancher who returns home after serving in the Civil War to find his land has been sold out from under him. In order to earn the money to buy it back, Kemp is chasing a reward on the head of Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Along the way he meets a man in search of gold, and a Union soldier. With their help, Kemp is able to capture Vandergroat, who is traveling with a young woman, Lina (Janet Leigh). Once the other two learn of the reward for Vandergroat, they insist on turning him in and splitting the reward. Understanding the mistrust and paranoia present between the three men, Vandergroat sets about turning them against each other to earn his freedom.
Filmed in color in the southern mountains of Colorado, this film is a visual treat as well. It’s a fantastic western with a lot of depth, and reflects a lot of the themes you might see in a noir. Look for Stewart’s chestnut stallion, Pie. He rode the horse in nearly every western from Winchester ’73 on.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (8:00 P.M.)
Being Saturday, this film serves as The Essentials pick of the week. This is a late John Ford western, and deals with the meeting of the Old West with the New. Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, an idealistic lawyer who is beaten and left for dead near the town of Shinbone by the brutal outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the town’s accomplished gunman. Nursed back to health by a local restaurant owner and his wife, Stoddard believes Valance should be brought to justice by the law, not by more violence. Stoddard also begins to formerly educate the town’s children, and Hallie (Vera Miles), the daughter of the restaurant owners and Doniphon’s girlfriend. Doniphon knows Liberty Valance will only be stopped by another’s gun, and eventually Stoddard accepts this as reality as well. Even though Hallie is falling for Stoddard, Doniphon tries to prepare him for the showdown. Set behind all of this is the territory’s move towards statehood, and the civilization of the West. While Stewart and Wayne are both too old to be portraying roles that are supposed to be young men, it is great to see them on screen together. This is a great role for Wayne as well, and I think he is fantastic here. While the screen presence of John Wayne was enough to outshine many an actor, Stewart holds his own.
The Murder Man (2:45 A.M.)
I won’t speak too much about this film. It’s Stewart’s feature film debut, and he’s in here maybe 10-15 minutes. Basically a B-picture, Spencer Tracy plays a newspaper reporter who specializes in homicide reporting. It’s not bad, but I thought the movie’s plot was slightly contrived and I didn’t really have much of a reaction either way after seeing it.
It’s a pretty great lineup, and touches on all corners of Jimmy’s career. The big glaring hole here is a Hitchcock film, so that was a little bit of a surprise, but there are some really fantastic films here. If you’re discovering classic film for the first time, or filling in some holes like I am, tomorrow should be a great day of movie watching.