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Top 11 Jimmy Stewart Performances

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James Stewart leaning against a railing at Old Buckenham airbase. | 2AD Digital Archive

In honour of the 111st birthday of the 2nd Air Division’s own James Stewart, here’s a list of my eleven favourite performances by the legendary actor.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

1) David Graham in After the Thin Man (1936) – In this sequel to the hit film The Thin Man (1934), Stewart had his first noteworthy role, a seemingly nice guy with a dark secret.

2) Sen. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – Director Frank Capra helped establish Stewart’s iconic persona as small-town Americana in juxtaposition to big city cynicism.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

3) Macauley “Mike” Connor in The Philadelphia Story (1940) – Stewart won his only Oscar for partaking in this love rectangle with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Ruth Hussey.

4) George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – In his first film after returning from the war, Stewart reunited with Capra for their quintessential collaboration.

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NBC Universal

5) Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950) – As the first film that I saw starring Stewart, this story about a man whose best friend is a giant invisible rabbit holds a special place in my heart.

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Warner Bros. Entertainment

6) Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur (1953) – For the first time since After the Thin Man, Stewart really embraces his nasty side as a greedy bounty hunter.

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NBC Universal

7) Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) – While I’m not generally a fan of biopics, Stewart’s turn as the legendary trombonist is a highpoint for the genre.

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NBC Universal

8 and 9) L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries in Rear Window (1954) and Det. John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo (1958) – Across these two collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart showed his malleability as an actor and hinted at the darkness and weakness that lay beneath his soft-spoken persona.

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Sony Pictures & Shows

10) Paul Biegler in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Once again, Stewart complicates the small-town persona he had honed under Capra, now portraying a self-described “humble country lawyer” who is anything but.

11) Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – As the intellectual Yankee to John Wayne’s swaggering cowboy, Stewart along with director John Ford deconstruct the Western myths these three men had helped create.

What do you think of this list? Are there any I’ve left out? What are your favourite Jimmy Stewart performances?

If you want to learn more about Jimmy Stewart, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film (Roy Pickard, 1993)
  • Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot (Starr Smith, 2006)
  • Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend (Michael Munn, 2013)
  • Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Robert Matzen, 2016)

-Francis

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Filed under American Culture, Uncategorized

FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Go for Broke! (1951)

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Public Domain

In the 1950s, Hollywood sought to repent for its treatment of the Japanese during the preceding decade. Usually, this came in the form of narratives about American soldiers falling in love with Japanese war widows, most famously in Sayonara (1957). Produced by Dore Schary, Go for Broke! (1951) stands out from its contemporaries and successors. First, it explicitly features Japanese Americans, with the emphasis squarely placed on the American part. Second, the film is about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, specifically “the heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.” Through their exemplary heroism and sacrifice, the audience is supposed to learn that these Japanese Americans are truly American first.

The film follows Lt. Michael Grayson (Van Johnson), a new platoon leader in the 442nd. He acts as the audience surrogate, with the assumption that the typical audience member was also white and holding onto racial resentment against Japanese Americans. Both this character and the viewers are told in no uncertain terms that these solider are loyal Americans and that their bigotry is unfounded. They are also both taught specific terms to use in place of slurs and generalisations.

For this role, Johnson employs a hammy and overly cinematic acting style typical of the time. In doing so, his racism is presented more as an awkward uncertainty rather than outright hatred. It’s supposed to be funny when he struggles to pronounce his men’s names or when he is uncertain about how to interact with them. This performance stands in stark contrast with those playing the soldiers.

As the opening titles boast, the majority of the soldiers were played by actual veterans of the 442nd rather than professional actors. This film was their first time acting in front of a camera, and they perform accordingly. There is a lot of flat mumbling. Yet – especially when compared to Johnson – their acting styles start to broach on the sort of naturalism that would dominate the industry two decades later. The scenes featuring just these soldiers casually interacting with each other are when the film is its most successful.

They fall into the standard archetypes found in war films. The audience is supposed to recognise these troupes and therefore recognise that these Japanese American soldiers are not so different from white ones. An opening quote from President Franklin D. confirms this messaging:

The Proposal of the War Department to organize a combat team consisting of loyal American citizens of Japanese descent has my full approval. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.

Yet, because Grayson is the point-of-view character, the soldiers of the 442nd are positioned as having to win his – and therefore the audience’s – respect. It is not enough to be like the characters in other war movies, these soldiers need to be exemplary. For the film and the assumed viewer, their American-ness needs to be earned.

If you want to learn more about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, be sure to check out Just Americans – How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad (Robert Asahina, 2006) from the 2AD Memorial Library. The film Go for Broke! is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive:

-Francis

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

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Paramount Pictures

Not many people remember the name Preston Sturges. But, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, he held the distinction of being one of filmmakers permitted to write, direct, and produce his own movies. The other was Charlie Chaplin. Despite having such power and influence when he was alive, Sturges and his films are now virtually forgotten. Perhaps this is because of his preference for using the same set of non-celebrity actors in an age defined by movie stars. After all, his most well-remember – Sullivan’s Travels (1941) – is more known as a Veronica Lake vehicle than as a Preston Sturges film. Nevertheless, Sturges made a name for himself with some genuine comedic masterpieces in the 1930s and 1940s. For me, though, his best work was Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), a WWII satire of blind hero worship and small-town politics.

Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) has been prevented from enlisting because of his chronic hay fever. Rather than disappoint his mother, he pretends to have been deployed oversea. One day, a group of marines hear of his plight and offer to help him perpetuate the ruse. Matters escalate from there. I hesitate to reveal more, as part of the joy of this film is seeing how things spiral out of control. But know that the result is a unique balance of cynicism and earnestness. It’s funny but not cruel, never invalidating the feelings of the characters. Woodrow genuinely loves his mother and doesn’t want to hurt her. The marines have experienced loss, and the film does not make light of it. At the same time, Hail the Conquering Hero avoids lionizes its subjects – including both the deceptive marines and the patriotic townspeople. It is a welcome respite from the typically rosy and uncritical portraits of these subjects from the era. It’s genuinely surprising to envision this film being released during WWII and not decades afterward.

The depiction of the marines is particularly noteworthy. At the beginning of the film, Woodrow has settled on spending the remainder of the war drinking in a tavern. It’s the marines who push him to return home wearing one of their uniforms and a few of their medals on a “medical discharge.” It was a wise decision having the marines be the ones who hoist this plot upon the hapless protagonist. Doing so helped mitigate the less savoury elements – the stolen valour and whatnot – of the farce. At the same time, even though these men are shown capable of all sorts of shenanigans, the film treats the marines with respect and solemnity. They may instigate chaos, but they are not clowns.

Through this mixture of farce and authenticity, the film delivers a final message to the viewer. Be sceptical of heroes, and do not idolise someone just because they tell you what you want to hear. Woodrow wasn’t a coward because he didn’t fight overseas but because he passively went along with what others – both the marines and later the townspeople – wanted. The ultimate act of courage – the one given the approval of the marines – is to tell the truth, even though it wasn’t something people want to hear.

If you want to learn more about the marines during World War II, be sure to check out the following books from the 2AD Memorial Library:

  • Fighting Techniques of a US Marine, 1941-1945: Training, Techniques, and Weapons (Leo J. Daugherty, 2000)
  • USMC: A Complete History (Jon T. Hoffman, 2002)
  • The First Black United States Marines: The Men of Montford Point, 1942-1946 (Ronald K. Culp, 2007)

-Francis

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Normandy’s Legacy

I was fortunate enough last week to visit the D-Day landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches. Growing up reading about, hearing about, and seeing movies which portray the landings which occurred did not prepare me for the vast weight of history you can feel on a metaphorical pilgrimage to these places. Looking out across the immense, flat beach (far longer from low-tide to the seawall than I ever imagined) it is hard to imagine the courage and tenacity of the brave men who fought and died there that day and throughout the rest of Normandy during the campaign.

Walking up the bluffs and through the ruins of the German positions, seeing their vantage and the scars left from the shelling by naval forces, it is hard to picture how any soldier left the beach alive on either side. In one case I saw a piece of reinforced concrete roughly the size of an SUV which had been launched several hundred feet out onto the beach from where it had begun. Likewise, the 12 foot deep craters which still, almost 75 years later, pock the ground of Pointe du Hoc give silent testament to the unbelievable destructive forces which played across the Normandy region.

However, the most important sites visited, to my mind, were the cemeteries created for the servicemen who died on D-Day and through the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Most of these young men would never leave Normandy, even after death, though a small few were sent home for funeral rites. Most striking though, even over the weight of the tens of thousands of dead, was the stark difference between that cemetery dedicated and filled with young American soldiers and that occupied by the German soldiers.

The American cemetery is done in white marble, with a sweeping vista and beautiful statuary which calls to the heroism of those interred there. Broad arches and manicured greens pay honor to the soldiers there and enhance their sacrifices through memorials and services meant to bring remembrance and awe to visitors. It truly is one of the most beautiful and touching sites in Normandy.

What surprised me, however, is the solemnity and quiet despair which lies over the graveyard for the young German soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign. In this cemetery over 20,000 German soldiers are interred, most two to a grave, and with a mass grave situated in a mound at the center. Where the American cemetery is done in shining white marble and set on the bluffs overlooking Normandy in witness to their deeds, the German cemetery is done in rough granite and sits next to a highway. Where the American cemetery is full of visitors, veterans, and school trips, the German cemetery was empty but for my family. And, where the white marble statues and arches call to the nobility in the American cemetery, the rough stone statues which occupy the center of the German graveyard call simply to the sorrow of mothers and fathers whose sons would never return home.

Both cemeteries are full of young men who, with varying levels of willingness, were doing their duty as best they could. Looking at the differences it is easy to say the truth in history being written by the victors, but also it is easy to note in the ages and stories of those who are buried the thought shared by many soldiers that under different circumstances these men could have been friends rather than mortal foes. I feel it is important to remember all who fought and died, whose sacrifices are memorialized in Normandy, as regardless of their nationality they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

 

Thank you for reading and remembering with me.

 

-Mike

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Filed under American History, Uncategorized, World War 2