Continued from Part one
When James Stewart returned to Hollywood after World War II, he faced his golden decade: Stewart returned as an independent actor, with no ties to any studio: a rarity in those days. Stewart’s first film in his new independence was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): the film revived the partnership between Stewart and director Frank Capra. Today, the film is a Christmas classic. At the time, however, the film was anything but a success: it passed as a flop. For a long time, Stewart called It’s a Wonderful Life his favorite movie – but explained that the timing of the film shortly after World War II was probably wrong.
Although the film “contains comic aspects, it was basically serious,” Stewart said.
After It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart decided to return to Broadway for some time: He stepped in to replace Frank Fay in the comedy Harvey. Initially, Bing Crosby was chosen for the role of Elwood P. Dowd, who has an invisible rabbit named Harvey as a friend. However, the latter decided not to play the part – thus the part was offered to James Stewart. Stewart played the role for two summers on Broadway, in a movie, later again on stage and even on television in the seventies. Stewart’s enthusiasm for the play Harvey culminated in the film adaptation of the Broadway play in 1950: the role was a challenge for James Stewart, which initiated his transformation into a character actor.
The collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart spanned ten years: during the shooting of the film Rope (1948), there was no harmony between them. Initially, Hitchcock wanted to cast Cary Grant in the role of Professor Rupert Cadell – but in the end Stewart took the part. Stewart reportedly felt somewhat misplaced during the filming of Rope – nevertheless, the film is still one of the most famous works of the Hitchcock-Stewart cooperation.
It was six years before the two worked together again: In Rear Window (1954), James Stewart starred alongside Grace Kelly. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the collaboration continued, and with Vertigo (1958), the ten-year cooperation came to an end. In Rope and Rear Window, Hitchcock dared to do something that hardly any other director has managed: both films were shot in only one room – there were almost no changes of location. But this in no way affects the tension of the plot: On the contrary, the viewer concentrates more on the dialogues and less on locations. It was thanks to James Stewart that complex dialogues were worth more than changing locations and film effects.
How the West Was Won
It’s because of one genre that James Stewart is famous until today: The Western. In films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) or How the West Was Won (1962), Stewart proved that he was one of the most skilled actors of the 20th century. The movie How the West Was Won fascinates to this day. The Western was shot in the Cinerama format: this means that three rolls of film were glued together to create a kind of panoramic image. The plot was inspired by a series of articles in Life magazine.
The film tells the story of the Wild West based on the family history of the Prescotts: the episodic plot covers the years 1840 to 1890 in American history.
Three directors directed the film: John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. The film’s cast was a gathering of Hollywood’s most famous names: thanks to the participation of Carroll Baker, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Richard Widmark and Spencer Tracy, the film became a box office hit. Debbie Reynolds immortalised herself with her performance of A Home In The Meadow.
James Stewart plays the role of a trapper who returns to civilization for trading furs and then marries into the Prescott family.
Stewart also played a trapper who wants to make peace between Indians and whites in Broken Arrow (1950).
The end of a career
By the end of the 1960s, James Stewart had passed his zenith as an actor: with the role of the idealistic lawyer Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), he took part in one of the last westerns to be filmed in black and white. In the last years of his career as an actor, James Stewart played almost exclusively in westerns.
James Stewart appeared in 78 motion pictures between 1935 and 1980.
In 1985, on his 50th anniversary as an actor, he was presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar – his friend Cary Grant presented him with this Oscar.
On July 2, 1997, James Stewart died at his home in Beverly Hills. The film genre of the Western is hardly imaginable without James Stewart: he often played the role of the mediator, who rarely resorted to arms. But not only the Western genre benefited from his acting: biopics like the Glenn Miller Story remain unsurpassed to this day.
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Dewey, Donald: “James Stewart – Ein Leben für den Film [German version, original title: “James Stewart. A Biography”]”, 1997 Henschel Publishing and Coe, Jonathan: “Jimmy Stewart – A Wonderful Life”, 1994 Arcade Publishing
Cover picture: James Stewart as L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window (1954), Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons