Tag Archives: James Stewart

Top 100 Films #7 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

 

mr-smith-goes-to-washington-stewart-arthur#7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold

Frank Capra’s inspirational Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a magical, patriotic, and incredibly progressive example of how much power films can hold while still being fun and humorous. The first time I saw Mr. Smith was during a sleepless night at film school – it was my very first exposure to Frank Capra, and one of the oldest films I had ever seen up to that point. The magic held by the film still hasn’t worn itself out, as evidenced by its position on my list. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of the wholesome young Jeff Smith (James Stewart) who is unexpectedly hand-picked to be the Senator of his home state of Washington. Once he arrives in D.C., he is taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who pushes the young man to keep busy by proposing his own bill. The ambitious but dearly naive young man is very quickly taken advantage of by the press, and by other Senators. Senator Paine and the sinister Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) plan on passing a dam-building bill through the Senate, and find Jeff Smith as their only form of opposition. With the help of his tough secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff will do whatever it takes to stop the dam from being built. When people bring up patriotism in movies being a negative, I often tell them about how effectively it is used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – perhaps one of the most patriotic and proud films about America ever made. It wears its patriotism and sentimentality on its sleeve, and yet manages to be full of compelling characters, situations, and heart. Frank Capra’s films were very often wholesome and playful in nature, with themes of identity and camaraderie often coming into play, and Mr. Smith is no different. While it may not be as sweeping and epic as something like It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith’s small scale story is personal enough to be every bit as effective as Capra’s holiday classic. Sidney Buchman’s script brings the classic fast-talking dialogue that Capra was so famous for, establishing a number of strong and smooth talking characters in Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders and Claude Rains’ Joseph Paine, both of whom talk circles around Stewart’s Jeff Smith at first. The young hand-picked Senator is quickly able to match their speed, ultimately leading to the film’s incredible filibuster scene – one of James Stewart’s finest moments as an actor. Stewart’s performance as Jeff Smith is phenomenal – he easily portrays the quintessential screen underdog, biting off far more than he can chew and doing battle with the most powerful men in America. Stewart brings his usual “aw, shucks” attitude and amplifies it for Smith’s naivety in the first act of the film, but the rose-colored glasses eventually come off and Jeff Smith’s romantic idea of America is crushed before his very eyes. Watching the evolution of Smith over the period of just two hours is one of the most profound experiences you’ll find in Hollywood history. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential Frank Capra film – it’s filled with broad humor, memorable characters, and some of the most iconic and inspirational moments in movie history. To read my full thoughts on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you can check out my full review here.

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Top 100 Films #13 – Rear Window (1954)

 

rearwindow1#13. Rear Window (1954)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes (based on It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich)
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendall Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Rear Window is the Master of Suspense’s single greatest achievement as a filmmaker, creating one of the most thrilling mysteries of all time – yet the entire film takes place in a single location. Rear Window follows L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer who has recently broken his leg in an accident. Confined to a wheelchair in his small apartment, and with a limited number of visitors (mainly his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and personal nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter)), boredom begins to set in for Jeff – he begins to watch his neighbours through the window. Since all of Greenwich Village is seemingly enduring an ongoing heat wave, the entire apartment complex is on display to Jeff, who begins to notice patterns in his neighbours and assign them nicknames. Eventually, Jeff observes some shady business across the way on a dark and rainy night – these events set him on an amateur investigation from the confines of his wheelchair. Alfred Hitchcock was one of the very first directors I became immediately attached to after being introduced to the magic of cinema. His films were darkly funny, intelligent, thrilling, and nearly all of them still felt modern and fast-paced when compared to modern Hollywood movies. Hitch’s love for the medium is obvious in every single one of his projects, good or bad. Seeing Rear Window for the first time absolutely floored me – years of seeing the story parodied and paid tribute to in pop culture somehow had not shaped my perception of the film. Hitchcock makes the most out of his single location setting, mapping out an entire apartment complex through the eyes of James Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, whose boredom and need for entertainment drives the first act of Rear Window. Every character introduced through Jeff’s eyes is humorous, interesting, or peculiar in only a way Hitchcock could accomplish – while not developed, these characters still serve their purpose as fodder for the film’s central mystery. After Jeff witnesses what he is convinced is a murder, Hitchcock makes the audience question whether they believe Jeff, or if maybe our protagonist is going a little stir crazy. As soon as the murder plot is introduced, Hitchcock begins to slowly raise the tension by almost completely changing the formerly carefree and fun tone into a much more sinister (while still playful) one. Rear Window’s themes of voyeurism are titillating and incredibly compelling – especially for a film from the mid-1950’s. These themes reveal a great deal about Alfred Hitchcock’s unique sensibilities, giving audiences a dirty little glimpse inside the mind of the Master of Suspense. Living out some of these titillating voyeuristic experiences is James Stewart as the easygoing L.B. Jeffries. Hitchcock and Stewart’s collaborations always made for fun pairings, and Rear Window is probably my favorite in their partnership.  Stewart’s “aw shucks” personality is for the most part non-existent in Rear Window, instead replaced by a still likable, but far more self-aware and relaxed performance.  Supporting Stewart is the always delightful Grace Kelly, who carries some of the film’s most intense moments – becoming a heavily-involved accomplice of Stewart’s. Grace Kelly’s Lisa leads directly into Rear Window’s thrilling climax, which may be one of the most intense scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography – he makes perfect use of Jeff’s small, dark apartment, as well as our main character’s broken leg. When the moment finally comes, the entire audience are on the edge of their seats. Rear Window holds up as one of the best mystery films of all-time, and more than six decades later is still talked about as one of the greats. It’s a great starting place for those not familiar with Alfred Hitchcock, and anybody looking to get into classic films.

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Top 100 Films #57 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

 

its_a_wonderful_life_-_h_-_1946#57. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (based on The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern)
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

After re-watching It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time this past year, I immediately regretted not placing this film higher – it’s a masterpiece that never fails to bring a tear to my eye.  Frank Capra has a way of putting an undying smile on your face like no others, his films usually feature a  combination of broad humor, wholesome nature, and touching moments that make them infectiously wonderful.  It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of his best, and maybe one of the great American movies in general. The film chronicles the life of George Bailey (James Stewart) as he grows up in the town of Bedford Falls.  George has aspirations to go to college and travel the world, but is forced to carry on the family business after his father dies of a stroke.  George never ends up going to college or travelling the world, but marries the love of his life in Mary Hatch (Donna Reed).  After a mounting series of unfortunate events, George’s guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is sent to earth to prevent his suicide. It’s a Wonderful Life has an affect on me like few others I’ve seen – even writing about it now I’m feeling rather weepy.  It’s just such a perfect example of everything I love in the movies – great performances, fantastic characters, quick witted writing, and wholesome to its core.  Frank Capra and writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do an admirable job of bringing the town of Bedford Falls to life, and even make the overarching subplot about George’s guardian angel believable and unsentimental. Watching George grow up before our eyes is incredible – we see him fall in love, develop far-reaching aspirations and subsequently abandon them, and act selflessly on countless occasions.  Without the film’s brilliant screenplay, none of this would be nearly as effective as it is.  James Stewart’s performance as George Bailey is very good as usual, playing up his “aw, shucks” nature throughout the film, but also believably (briefly) turning into a suicidal, selfish person who pushes Clarence to come save his life.  Donna Reed’s Mary is equally as good as Stewart, acting as the counterweight to her idealistic, sometimes depressive husband.  She’s charming and sweet throughout, always showing George how much she cares about him and their life together.  It’s a Wonderful Life is an absolute classic for a reason – it’s endlessly charming, infectiously positive, and incredibly well written, structured, and acted.  If it isn’t part of your yearly Christmas regiment, you should work it in.

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Top 100 Films #100 – Rope (1948)

 

image-w1280#100. Rope (1948)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Arthur Laurents (based on Rope by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson

The 1940’s were an incredible time for director Alfred Hitchcock who was still relatively new to Hollywood at the time.  This decade saw him solidify his status as “Master of Suspense” with films like Rebecca, Lifeboat, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, and Spellbound.  Rope is one of Hitchcock’s many unsung classics from this era – combining his trademark suspense elements with groundbreaking filmmaking to create a bonafide classic.  The film was shot to appear as if it is a single continuous shot (there are 10 very well-hidden cuts throughout), and takes place in real time.  Hitchcock continues to explore the idea of using a single location to create a sense of isolation and claustrophobia – a theme that would bring him even more success with 1954’s Rear Window.  Rope sees two young men (Farley Granger and John Dall) trying to cover up a murder during a dinner party – until their former school headmaster (James Stewart) starts to see the holes in their story.  Hitchcock uses the single location and limited cutting to great effect, creating one of his most suspenseful and engaging films of the 40’s.

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Noirvember II #4 – Call Northside 777 (1948)

call-northside-777Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Starring: James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, Betty Garde

Without a doubt my favorite thing about film noir as a genre is its versatility – with the exception of usually featuring a few trademark elements, the classics of the genre are all so different in scope and size.  Henry Hathaway’s 1948 film Call Northside 777 is a perfect example of this – blending common noir elements with the structure and pacing of a procedural crime investigation. Henry Hathaway directed numerous film noirs during his career, with Call Northside being the most successful of the bunch.  Hathaway is probably most notable for directing one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, the Oscar-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as his work with legendary tough man actor John Wayne, directing him in North to Alaska, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, and his Academy Award-winning performance in 1969’s True Grit.  The legendary director’s filmography consists of more than 60 feature films, featuring some of the greatest American actors to ever live, and spanning a wide variety of genres.

Call Northside 777 stars the always charming James Stewart as P.J. McNeal, an ambitious and brash reporter for the Chicago Times.  McNeal unexpectedly becomes involved with a ten year old murder case involving a young man named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving 99 years in prison for the alleged murder of a Chicago police officer.  Wiecek’s mother has put up a $5,000 reward for whoever can present information about the “true” killer’s of the officer, effectively proving her son to be innocent.  After learning of the reward, McNeal’s Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) quickly assigns P.J. to the case. Though McNeal believes Frank Wiecek to be guilty of the killing, the young reporter reluctantly accepts the job in order to prove himself as an investigative reporter.  Not wanting to be embarrassed or exposed by the investigation, Chicago police and state attorney’s become involved in the case – giving the skeptical McNeal more resistance than expected.  Will P.J. McNeal crack the case and prove young Frank Wiecek innocent, or will resistance from law officials prove too much for the young reporter?  Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777!

The addition of Call Northside 777 into this year’s Noirvember schedule was a last minute decision based entirely on two things – the film’s star, James Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the fact that I had never seen a Henry Hathaway film.  After finding out about the movie’s procedural and investigative nature, I knew that I had made the right decision.  Call Northside 777 is nowhere near as stylistic or suspenseful as other, more-revered classics of the genre, but Hathaway’s film is a highly intriguing and graceful effort.  Northside lacks most of the trademark elements that make film noir such a captivating genre, but makes up for it with solid, uncompromising film-making, and an intriguing true story adaptation.  The procedural style of storytelling (which I have an unabashed love for) works wonders for the film’s mystery, which is small in scope but grand in its implications.  It’s often said that Hathaway never had a distinct style as a director, being known rather as something of a journeyman filmmaker. His apparent lack of a “trademark” style ultimately works in Call Northside 777’s favor – with Hathaway delivering an intriguing, concise, uncomplicated, and grounded investigation in realistic, documentary-like fashion.  James Stewart turns in a typically solid performance as P.J. McNeal, who is incredibly easy to get behind as an investigative journalist.  McNeal remains skeptical for much of the film, completing the job mostly out of obligation to his editor.  Once he’s thrown up against the resistance given by the law, he begins to question his own morals and proves that he is unafraid to go over the heads of those above him. Stewart’s performance goes against his stereotyped “golly-gee” personality, with the veteran actor instead coming off as hardened and sardonic.  All in all, Call Northside 777 isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s certainly quite a good one.
call-northside-7772
What I Liked:

  • The opening minutes of the film are presented in an unflinching, documentary style that lays the groundwork for the film’s mystery.
  • James Stewart ventures slightly out of his comfort zone, giving a rock solid performance as P.J. McNeal.  
  • Henry Hathaway’s lack of a distinct style allows for the director to focus on what is most important about this film – the storytelling.
  • The pacing is slow, but deliberately so.  Stewart’s McNeal follows all possible leads, reports back to his superiors multiple times, and thwarts resistance efforts by Chicago law enforcement.  Not a minute feels wasted.
  • The scene in the final act with witness Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) adds some effective and much needed suspense to the story.

What I Didn’t:

  • Lee J. Cobb’s character feels undeveloped to a fault.  At times it feels like he has ulterior motives for assigning McNeal to the case, but this point is never really clearly presented or followed up on.
  • The film’s conclusion, while unique, feels a little too rushed and convenient for my liking.  
  • With the convenient conclusion comes an odd and out of place tonal shift from stark and cynical to suddenly much more hopeful.

With it being a last minute addition to this month’s lineup, I couldn’t have been more surprised with my experience with Call Northside 777.  It’s no doubt a flawed film – largely due to some of its overly-convenient writing – but Henry Hathaway’s focused direction and the attention and respect paid to procedure and investigation makes this a more than worthy film noir.  James Stewart brings a good performance to the film, serving as the perfect leading man in a performance-driven piece.  It won’t ever be considered to be one of the greats of the film noir genre, but it is a solid crime film with an incredibly intriguing mystery at its core.  Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 is recommended.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Smith_goesMr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey

I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Frank Capra’s remarkable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the big screen this afternoon, courtesy of Cineplex theaters’ Classic Film Series.  It was my second time seeing the incredibly important and very timely Mr. Smith, and it inspired me to do some impromptu writing on the film.  To my surprise, I was one of only three people in attendance for the screening, something that disappoints me greatly on the eve of Canada’s own Election Day.  I hope everybody reading this gets something out of it, and decides to both see this important film and vote in tomorrow’s Federal election.

Mr-Smith-Goes-To-Washington-mr-smith-goes-to-washington-36060907-1000-660

James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra, one of America’s greatest directors in the 1930’s and 1940’s (his modern-day equivalent would be somebody like Steven Spielberg), coupled with the handsome, charming, and legendary actor James Stewart (whom Tom Hanks is often compared to) created three terrific and influential films together, including holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Oscar-winner You Can’t Take it With You, and this film.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the incredible story of a hero to the youth of America taking on the might of big business and all those who fall under their power.  The film sees James Stewart’s wholesome Jefferson Smith be hand-picked to represent his state as a Senator in Washington, where he is quickly taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains).  Paine and his corrupt partner Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) look to take advantage of Smith’s lack of political knowledge and his wholesome image and attitude in order to quietly pass a dam-building scheme held within an important appropriations bill framed by the corrupt Taylor.  When nothing goes according to plan for the duo of Paine and Taylor, the two look to defame Jeff Smith’s image at any cost, having him kicked out of the Senate.  The titular Mr. Smith, with help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders (played wonderfully by the incomparable Jean Arthur) hold a filibuster in the Senate as a last-ditch effort to save the land in Smith’s home state, and protect the interests of American’s everywhere.  

otd-october-17-mr-smith-goes-to-washington-jpg

James Stewart pictured in the film’s famous filibuster scene, one of the greatest in American film history.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a remarkably written film, never slowing down for a minute and never going out of its way to pander to the audience.  Though the film may be seen as overly sentimental or patriotic by cynical audience members, Mr. Smith is a relentlessly romantic and passionate film about the importance of freedom and the absence of corruption in the political process.  It perfects the classic David and Goliath story that has been told time and time again, and yet still feels fresh, inventive, and meaningful.  Screenwriter Sidney Buchman puts his heart and soul into this film, and it can be felt on-screen by Frank Capra’s impeccable direction and the terrific acting from the entire cast.  James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith is a revelation, and perhaps one of the greatest performances of the era, if not of all-time.  The filibuster scene – the real showcase for Stewart’s abilities – brought tears to my eyes, as did some of Jeff Smith’s passionate speeches given throughout the movie.  Backing up Jimmy Stewart are the incredibly talented Claude Rains (known most famously for his performance in Casablanca three years later), Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey, all of whom put in very good performances, with Rains and Carey both being nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances.  Jean Arthur’s performance is almost on-par with Stewart’s in that she’s an incredibly strong woman, something that was rare for Hollywood at the time.  Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders never sinks to just being the romantic interest of our lead character, but instead coaches Smith into being a powerhouse of a politician, supporting him from behind the scenes.  The writing, direction, and acting resulted in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington being nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and a film nearly 80-years old still holding up to this very day.

I can’t stress how important Capra’s Mr. Smith is, especially at this point in time.  It’s a film about the little man standing up to the bullies, liars, and cowards in big business and in politics, and standing up for everything he believes in.  No matter what odds are stacked against him, he never gives up, and most importantly never gives in to the corruption going on all around him.  We could all learn a lot from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I hope that a film such as this can still inspire the masses to persevere no matter how bad things can look sometimes.  It is a film so full of hope and passion in a time where we need it the most.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a masterpiece of American cinema, and one of my all-time favorite films.  I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough.  Highest recommendation.

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