Jimmy Stewart only played villains four times in his career and this was the first one. He was John Flower, Jeanette MacDonald’s no-good, mountie-murdering brother being pursued by Nelson Eddy and just a “Wanted” poster for the first 2/3rds of the film. “I didn’t have too many scenes but everyone talks about this character and at the end of the film I get my big scene”, Jimmy recalled.
It was director Woody Van Dyke who described Jimmy as “unusually usual” and he got to know Stewart very well. They roomed together on location for this picture and Woody kept asking Jimmy to play the accordion so he could get to sleep! They would make 2 more pictures together….”After The Thin Man” later that year and “It’s a Wonderful World” in 1939.
The film premiered in Washington , DC before an audience well-peppered with Congressmen who didn’t take it lightly at all. They wanted the film scrapped and tried several times to do just that. Critics on the other hand, loved the film. Over in France , during a face-off with their Nazi invaders who gave theater owners 30 days to convert their playbills to German-made films, the film played the entire month!
Note: That filibuster scene proved exhausting for the entire crew. Jimmy had his throat coated by a doctor to further enhance the hoarseness he needed. The set itself, a perfect replica of the U. S. Senate chamber was the most expensive and elaborate set ever built up to that time.
Now Jimmy was the perfect George Bailey and Donna Reed the perfect Mary but somehow Henry Travers as Clarence was icing on the cake. Lionel Barrymore was his caustic self as Mr. Potter. Truth be told, it is more popular today than when it was released to critics’ dismissal as just another piece of “Capra-cornia”. What a difference a day makes! No, really? Has it really been 59 years?
The All-American boy played the role of a Hungarian shop clerk so flawlessly that it took some time to recognize it as one of Stewart’s finest performances to date. It also clearly defined what was usually alluded to as the “Lubitsch touch”. The film was shot almost entirely on one set and looked seamless.
The chemistry between Jimmy and Sullavan still was apparent and left little doubt that intense feelings were there off screen as well. Frank Morgan played the cuckolded shop owner with sensitivity and humor while Joseph Schildkraut was great in the role of the shop clerk who turned out to be the wife’s lover. Felix Bressart as the senior shop clerk is at his best.
This was Jimmy’s first Western….but it was satire pure and simple. And it was proposed by producer Joe Pasternak to showcase Marlene Dietrich. Westerns were usually B features with action but no quality in the 1930s until some top directors like Mann, Ford and Curtiz began to polish the genre.
Pasternak was infatuated with Dietrich but the heat on the set was being generated between Dietrich and Jimmy. She even lured him into her dressing room with a life size replica of…Flash Gordon! From then on, they were a red-hot item!
Note: In the barroom brawl scene, the studio wanted to use a stunt double for Dietrich but she insisted on doing her own “fighting”. She really got into it and Jimmy had to duck fast several times.
Jimmy was now getting more comfortable in comedy scenes. It helped when he was playing opposite a genius at comedy timing, Cary Grant. They even got together and improvised the hiccups in the champagne scene.
Note: Cary donated his entire fee for this film to the British War Relief Fund.
This film was done on one big set….thirty apartments all viewed from one across the court by the man in the chair! And, without moving out of that chair, James Stewart gave one of the greatest performances of his career. The most suspenseful moment occurred when the killer (Raymond Burr) surprises Grace Kelly in his apartment and all Jimmy could do was watch helplessly from across the courtyard.
Kelly, Burr, Wendell Corey and especially Thelma Ritter as the nurse gave great performances as well.
Stewart plays a cop, whose attacks of paralyzing fear of heights (acrophobia) and dizziness when more than a few feet above terra firma, causes the death of a fellow officer and costs him his job. Then his obsession with a decoy in a murder almost destroys him.
Note: Hitch got even by delaying the filming long enough to get Cary Grant for the part he promised to Jimmy….the lead in “North by Northwest”!
This was not the same old Capra-esque James Stewart. Both Mann and Jimmy wanted a hero…with flaws! A tough, driven, angry and edgy James Stewart that would breathe new energy into the suffocating Western genre. The two would team together for 8 films and all but 2 were Westerns.
It took over two months just to find the right hat! But Jimmy wear that same hat in all their westerns together and beyond. He also found a horse to ride called Pie. The gal who owned him warned Jimmy he would probably get thrown but horse and actor struck up a fast friendship and Pie was Jimmy’s choice in every western he made.
Note: Look for Tony Curtis as a young cavalry soldier and Rock Hudson as an Indian!
As in all of Mann’s Westerns, it was location, location. He always followed the storyline and resisted old, tired landscapes. This took Jimmy to the bleak part of the New Mexico wilderness to enhance a character bent on vengeance.
The film is violent and far more brutal than other American films of the period. Jimmy wanted to do one scene without a stunt double but Mann was against it. It was the famous scene where he had ropes tied to his hands and he is dragged through sand and fire. Jimmy finally got his way and they did the scene in one take. He came through it without a scratch!
This was the last film he would do with Tony Mann.
This movie came along when Jimmy was feeling his lowest. He had been completely devastated by the suicide death of Margaret Sullavan a few months before.
Ford wanted John Wayne for this picture but the Duke was busy elsewhere. The story dealt with a storyline not unlike “The Searchers” but put more emphasis on the prejudice accorded women who were rescued from the Indians often with children they bore their captors. Jimmy was just right for the part of the marshal hired to do the tracking. But Ford complained about everything….including Jimmy’s old worn out hat! Jimmy never warmed up to Ford but had a lot of fun with co-star Richard Widmark.
Widmark always talked about how all three were hard of hearing and conversations were always prefaced with “What?…What?… What?”
He was Buttons, the clown with the little dog and the secret past. After a spectacular train crash, Buttons saved the day but lost both his little dog and his freedom.
It is one of my favorite movies!