(On DVD, June 2018) The great things about digging deeper and deeper in a hobby is that the digging eventually produces its own rewards. In my case, I’ve been watching older and older movies, and discovering new favourite actors. To have The Philadelphia Story pop up on my pile of films to watch at this point is a gift: A movie starring Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and Cary Grant? What have I done to get such a treat? Even better: it’s a screwball comedy, fast establishing itself as one of my favourite bygone genres. I was primed for a good time and got exactly what I wanted: A fast, witty, fun romantic comedy featuring Hepburn at her most alluring, Stewart as his usual sympathetic self and Grant in a plum comic role. The script provides witty lines, great characters and a savvy understanding of the mechanics of the genre, while director George Cukor keeps things moving even as the film multiplies small subplots on the way to a satisfying conclusion. Among supporting players, Ruth Hussey is surprisingly fun as a no-nonsense photographer, while Virginia Weidler is a discovery as a sassy young sister. Still, this is a picture that belongs to Hepburn, perfectly cast as a woman struggling with goddess-hood. Both Stewart and Grant also play to their strengths, helping to make The Philadelphia Story a definitive statement about three screen legends. It still plays exceptionally well today.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) It’s practically impossible to be an American political junkie and not know about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, given the film’s stature as a statement about the American political system and its iconic representation of James Stewart as a filibusterer. Curiously enough, though, I had never seen the film. Not so curiously enough, I had seen enough of James Stewart to be an unqualified fan of the actor even before watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That may explain why I spent most of the film in a buoyant joy, watching one of my all-time favourite actor in a film that, perhaps now more than ever, still resonates as an eloquent paean to the ideals of American-style democracy despite the messiness of its practice. It wasn’t necessarily perceived as such, though—If I believe the contemporary snippets quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page, the film was initially condemned for its cynical take on the corruption of the system, and the idealistic nature of its protagonist’s struggles. But while such an approach may have shocked well-meaning commentators then, it may strike contemporary viewers as healthy informed idealism today. Corruption is a natural enemy of governance at all times (now more than ever, considering a current presidential administration that spins off a new scandal every three days) but a healthy government has ways to fight back, and it sometimes takes just one person with the right ideals to make things happen. I still think that the film ends without a satisfying coda, that Stewart’s character is initially presented as too much of a simpleton, and that we don’t see nearly enough of Jean Arthur. On the other hand, Frank Capra’s film remains just as sharp and compelling today as it was—even the climactic filibuster sequence, with its near-real-time popular manipulation and reaction, still plays exceptionally well in this age of constant news cycle. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an acknowledged classic for a reason, and you don’t have to be a political junkie nor a James Stewart devotee to understand why.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Despite James Stewart’s considerable charm (and here he has the chance to play as pure a young romantic lead as he ever got), it took me a while to warm up to You Can’t Take it with You. Despite an eccentric cast of characters, it takes a long time for the comedy to truly take off. Fortunately, this happens midway through, as an explosive sequence is followed up by a rather amusing courtroom sequence. That’s when director Frank Capra feels freest to truly unleash the madness of his characters, and what it means for the plot. Less successful is the film’s last act, which focuses on more manners moral lessons (it’s right there in the title), lessening the film’s laugh quotient but ensuring that it would present an easy moral lesson fit for the film to win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This being said, the film is not a chore to watch even today. James Stewart is always good, of course, while Lionel Barrymore is unusually sympathetic as the patriarch of an oddball family and 15-year-old Ann Miller makes an impression as the family’s dance-crazy daughter. The film’s mid-point highlight is good for a few laughs, and even easy moral lessons can work well in wrapping up a satisfying viewing experience. As a checkmark for best Picture completists, it’s an odd but not a bothersome entry.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Even fifty-five years later, How the West was Won remains a singular viewing experience. One of the few narrative movies developed for the three-projector surround “Cinemax” process, it’s a western with an ambitious narrative scope (follow the development of the American west through four stories spanning generations of a family) and an impressive technical polish. From the first few moments spent flying over mountainous landscapes, the quality of the picture is breathtaking (especially given the 2012 digital restoration of the film)—on a modern HD display, the flattened widescreen film looks crisp and colourful like few others of the period. Moments later, as we get away from the landscapes and nearer to characters, we get to see the flip side of the film’s technical imitations when presented on a dingle screen: Almost all of the action is centred in the middle third and the camera never gets closer to the characters than waist-up middle shots. Any lateral movement makes the fisheye lensing of the film blatant, and the impact is jarring enough to remind us that we are, after all, watching a technical novelty. Fortunately, the film is suited well to mid-size fragmented viewing: Each of the four narratives runs between 30 and 45 minutes, allowing for breaks. Thematically, the film does have a few hurdles to overcome: The opening narration mentions “taking back the land from nature and primitive people,” setting up both the film’s very American manifest destiny narrative and a repellent treatment of native-American characters. Fortunately, the film avoids some of the worst excesses of the genre: while “the Indians” are treated as the enemy in one of the film’s signature action sequences, Native American are treated more kindly in other segments featuring white character willing to deal fairly with them (and the terrible consequences of breaking those promises). Each segment is generally enjoyable, all building up to a closing action sequences. The first, “The Rivers,” features an older James Stewart as a likable river runner encountering settlers and features a satisfying revenge arc. “The Plains” culminates in an attack on a settlers’ convoy. “The Civil War” is just about what you expect, while “The Railroad” builds to an astonishing stampede and “The Outlaws” features a wide-screen train robbery sequence. Not everything is likable, though. For a film that features a middle segment set on a Civil War battleground, nothing is said of slavery. Manifest Destiny is taken as holy writ, all the way to 1962’s highways. But for a piece of white-American propaganda, How the West Was Won is perhaps more nuanced that it could have been. The treatment of Native Americans isn’t as one-sided as it could have been, and the film seldom shies away from the harsh conditions that settlers endured, from bandit attacks to meaningless war conscription to children seeing their parents die in a buffalo stampede. Still, I suspect that most viewers won’t remember the details of the plot as much as the flattened Cinerama experience. I never thought I’d say it, but here goes: If you have one of those otherwise-useless curved TV screen, How the West Was Won seems like the one movie taking advantage of that format.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It took a surprisingly long time for me to warm up to Harvey, especially considering that it stars James Stewart and remains a minor classic of film fantasy. I think that much of this initial reluctance has to do with not quite knowing which way the movie was leaning at first—is Stewart’s protagonist delusional or simple-minded? What are we watching here—gentle fantasy or sad realism? Mental illness is no joking matter, and yet Harvey does spend quite a bit of time in a Todorovian twilight zone where this may be the solution. Fortunately, Harvey never quits and soon become passable, then acceptable, then quite charming right in time for the end. The first big breakthrough happens when Stewart blandly states, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Then there’s the romance between Charles Drake and the superb Peggy Dow, or again a bland statement “Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” Finally, there’s the confirmation that the film is whimsical fantasy. Harvey hinges on a few very delicate strings, and it’s almost an achievement to find them so finely balanced. Stewart being Stewart, it’s difficult not to like the film, but it does earn its likability along the way.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There is a surprising maturity to Anatomy of a Murder that still resonates today, even as Hollywood has long grown out of the restrictions of the Hays Code and proved willing to depict crime in sordid details. To see this black-and-white late-fifties crime film frankly discuss murder, rape and the corruption of the legal process is a bit of a shock, and to see it headlined by James Stewart is even more interesting. Going through all the steps of a trial, this courtroom drama still works well because it’s brutally honest. The protagonist is a disillusioned cynic, the ending is unsettling and some of the frank language still feels daring considering the time at which Anatomy of a Murder was produced. There are plenty of other smaller reasons to like the film: Saul Bass’s title sequence; Duke Ellington’s music; Stewart’s darker performance; and the numerous references of interest to Northwestern Ontarians (just the other side of Michigan where the film takes place). As a legal thriller, it’s still absorbing like a good novel—despite the sometimes-unnecessary length of the film. Director Otto Preminger’s work is straightforward, but what’s often forgotten now is how ground-breaking his movie could be in simply portraying the truth of a complex murder inspired by real-life events. Anatomy of a Murder definitely holds up, especially for fans of legal fiction.
(On TV, December 2017) I’ve always liked James Stewart, but after the one-two combination of The Shop around the Corner and It’s a Wonderful Life, he has now ascended even higher in my own pantheon of actors. It’s hard to resist the charms of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, as central as he is to the film’s success. After all, on paper it sounds like a snore: A man being shown (by an angel, no less) the impact of his life? Not promising. And yet, after a rough start that goes all-in on divine intervention, the magic starts happening as we follow Stewart’s character as he ages and develops. Writer/director Frank Capra was a veteran at the time of the film’s production and his skill is evident throughout. It’s a Wonderful Life has that elusive scene-to-scene watchability, as we can’t resist wanting to know what will happen next, even though we can certainly guess the outline of the plot before it happens. Much has been said about the film’s inspirational quality, and despite my skepticism the film does deliver on these promises—so much so that, midway through the movie, I paused it and made a difficult (but important) phone call that I’d been putting off for a while. All part of trying to measure up to James Stewart’s character. While I have issues with many of the film’s more maudlin moments (and suspect that I’m opposed to a few of its major themes), I’m rather pleased to report that It’s a Wonderful Life worked as well on me as it worked on several generations so far. Far from aging, it has become quite an amazing time capsule. Plus, hey, James Stewart.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It takes a long time, indeed a very long time for The Shop Around the Corner to come alive. Set in Budapest (perhaps daringly, given the way World War II was going on at the time), mostly in a downtown shop, this is a film about the timeless concept of differences between inner and outer selves, as a salesman falls for the written words of a pen-pal who turns out to be his insufferable co-worker. (If this is familiar, consider that the film was very loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail in 1998.) Margaret Sullavan plays the pen-pal, but it’s James Stewart, in all of his youthful likability, who steals the show as the salesman. Stewart’s character is terrific, and only he could manage to make audiences fall for his mixture of competence, arrogance and good intentions. But it takes a while for the film to come around to its romantic climax—first, we have to learn far more than we’d ever imagined about the inner workings of a Hungarian shop before getting to the dramatic engines of the film. It builds steadily, however, and hits the right notes right on time for the Christmas Eve climax. Definitely a film of its time, and yet still accessible today, The Shop Around the Corner warrants a look, especially as a Christmas movie.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I distinctly remember the cymbal climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much from boyhood memories, so technically this would be a second viewing … but given that I only remembered that, let’s not pretend that I’m revisiting it. After all, watching it today I’m more interested in seeing another Alfred Hitchcock movie starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The result is in line with expectations, although I’ll note that overall, and compared to other Hitchcock movies of the same era, The Man Who Knew Too Much feels more average than it should. It’s overlong, with some sequences milking the same emotions to diminishing return. It takes much longer than it should to get started, and the “Que Sera, Sera” climax, while effective, is extended far too long after the cymbal moment to be as satisfying as it could be. Even Stewart, as good as he is, seems to be coasting on an average performance in an average film. Some of the plot curlicues are suspiciously convenient (such as having Day’s character being a retired yet still famous singer) but that’s to be expected. Still, for all of what’s not so good about The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s still a Hitchcock film from the director’s competent period, with likable smart leads in Stewart and not-so-icy blonde Day. The suspense is well handled and if the film feels lacking today, it’s largely because it has set the standard through which modern thrillers are examined. As an entry through Hitchcock’s filmography, it’s a painless enough viewing.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My understanding of James Stewart and John Wayne’s screen persona is still incomplete (especially when it comes to Stewart’s latter-day westerns), but as of now, “James Stewart and John Wayne in a Western” tells me nearly all I needed to know about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s plot. The clash between Stewart’s urbane gentility and Wayne’s tough-guy gruffness isn’t just casting: it’s the crux of the film’s nuanced look at the end of the Western period. The film’s classic set-up (an eastern-trained lawyer comes to town, becomes an enemy of the local villain) becomes an examination of Western tropes when the easy fatal solution is rejected by the protagonist as being against his values. When John Ford’s character steps in as a necessary conduit for violence, this deceptively simple film becomes a thought-piece questioning an entire genre. I surprisingly liked it upon watching (save for an extended sequences in which American democracy is slowly explained) and liked it even more upon further thought. Stewart is terrific in a role that harkens back to his more youthful idealist persona, while Ford is impeccable as a somewhat repellent but ultimately heroic figure. (I find it significant that my three favourite Wayne movies so far, along with The Searchers and The Shootist, have him willing to play roles that are critical of his usual persona.) Under John Ford’s experienced direction, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance acts as an epilogue to the Western and a hopeful examination of American values that emerged from the period.
(On DVD, January 2008) Even sixty years later, James Stewart is still The Man: As the lead in this semi-documentary drama about a journalist working to free a man unjustly accused of murder, he’s the mesmerizing rock upon which everything else depends. His impassioned speech at the end of the film evokes memories of other great Stewart performances, but it also stands on its own. Six decades later, it’s easy to be amused by the dramatic devices in what must have felt like a techno-thriller back then: The lie detector, the photographic processes, the remote transmission process: yeah technology! But the film itself is solid: Even if the film shows its age, the characters are interesting, the rhythm compares well to other films of the time and the look at then-Chicago has its own charm. But most of all: James Stewart. The guy isn’t one of the greats for nothing.