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14 Best Movies of James Stewart: Legacy of the Extraordinary Everyman

Best Movies of James Stewart: Legacy of the Extraordinary Everyman

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of James Stewart

Watching the best movies of James Stewart is more than just having a really good time. It’s also about paying tribute to Hollywood’s extraordinary “everyman”.

He may have passed away, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, he will never be really gone. Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to witness his natural acting style, or hear that easily recognizable drawl in his voice (which has often been parodied to exaggerated effect), all you have to do, is sit back, relax, and enjoy one (or more) of his greatest films.

But which James Stewart movies should you watch?
Well, if that’s your question for the day, you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the very best of the films he ever made.

The Best Movies of James Stewart is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet James Stewart, Hollywood’s extraordinary “Everyman”

James Stewart, Hollywood’s extraordinary “Everyman”

James Stewart — or Jimmy Stewart, to many of his fans — was a film giant both literally (at more than six foot three) and figuratively. His long and illustrious career started in the golden age of Hollywood and spanned almost six glorious decades before slowing down with semi-retirement in the 1980s.

He was one of the most popular movie stars of his time, showing off his acting range in movies dramatic and comedic alike, including westerns and even thrillers.

But let’s go back to the beginnings.

Stewart started acting while at Princeton University and after graduating in 1932, he began his career as a stage actor on Broadway.

Work dried up for him as the Great Depression deepened, so he decided to follow his friend Henry Fonda to Hollywood. This is where things began to pick up.

His unpretentious engaging manner, led to quick acceptance by the moviegoing public and soon Stewart garnered his first of five Academy Award nominations.

He was natural and at ease in front of the camera and his co-stars found him easy to work with, as he was willing to improvise around any situation that arose while filming.

Stewart’s usual screen persona was that of an “everyman”, an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances. Audiences could identify with him, in contrast to other Hollywood leading men of the time, such as Cary Grant, who represented what the audience wanted to become.

Jimmy used an “inside-out” acting technique, preferring to represent the character without accents, makeup, and props. Additionally, he tended to act with his body, not just with his voice and face. He was also known for his “stammering pauses” which created an anxious space for the audience, leaving them in anticipation for what’s he building up to.

I am James Stewart playing James Stewart. I couldn’t mess around with the characterizations. I play variations on myself.

James Stewart

During World War II, he enlisted in the Army and went on to serve in the Air Force.  The army said that he was too valuable to be put on active service and wanted him to do propaganda films but Jimmy wanted none of it and demanded to be on the front line.

The roles he chose after returning from the war were generally darker and more morally ambiguous, most likely because he was hardened by combat. The various cowboys, cops, aviators, misfits, fathers, musicians and clowns he played in the later years of his career were often wracked by guilt, obsession, repressed emotions or self-doubt.

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to James Stewart, but we are here to concentrate on his Top 14 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, an actor is as good as his greatest performances. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Jimmy Stewart, is through watching his best films.

Ready? Buckle up then, cause you’re about to travel back in time all the way to the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond!


Presenting the 14 Best Films of James Stewart

Chronologically


You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Frank Capra, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Best James Stewart films
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic comedy film directed by Frank Capra and co-starring Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore.

Story: The son of a snobbish Wall Street banker becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family, not realizing that his father is trying to force her family from their home for a real estate development. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Co-star Ann Miller later said in an interview that every woman working on the film had a crush on James Stewart.

It’s predictably uplifting fare from Frank Capra, perhaps the most consciously uplifting of all great American directors — but thanks to immensely appealing performances and a nimble script, You Can’t Take It With You is hard not to love.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is You Can’t Take It with You among the best movies of James Stewart?
✓ A critical and commercial success, the film received two Academy Awards from seven nominations: Best Picture and Best Director.


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Frank Capra, Jean Arthur, Top movies of James Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Political comedy-drama film directed by Frank Capra and co-starring Jean Arthur.

Story: A naive youth leader is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. His idealistic plans promptly collide with corruption at home and subterfuge from his hero in Washington, but he tries to forge ahead despite attacks on his character. (IMDB)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — and returns with an uplifting ode to idealism that distills the strengths of its director and leading man.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Between Frames:
✪ The scenes where Stewart wanders around in amazement at the Washington monuments were “stolen”, since the US Parks Service had denied the studio permission to film near them.
✪ To make his voice hoarse for the filibuster scene, Jimmy dried out his throat with bicarbonate of soda.

Why is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington among the best films of James Stewart?
✓ The film was controversial when it was first released, but successful at the box office, and it made Stewart a major star.
✓ Considered to be one of the greatest films of all time and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch, Margaret Sullavan, Greatest movies of Jimmy Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic comedy film directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-starring Margaret Sullavan.

Story: Two employees at a gift shop can barely stand each other, without realizing that they are falling in love through the post as each other’s anonymous pen pal. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ James Stewart was at the top of Ernst Lubitsch’s list to play the simple Alfred Kralik because (according to Lubitsch) the actor was “the antithesis of the old-time matinee idol; he holds his public by his very lack of a handsome face or suave manner.”

Deftly directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a smart, funny script by Samson Raphaelson, The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy in the finest sense of the term.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Shop Around the Corner among the most popular movies of James Stewart?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Featured on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Passions list, and on Time’s All-Time 100 Movies list.


The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940), George Cukor, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Most famous movies of James Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic comedy film directed by George Cukor, co-starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

Story: When a rich woman’s ex-husband and a tabloid-type reporter turn up just before her planned remarriage, she begins to learn the truth about herself. (IMDB)

Offering a wonderfully witty script, spotless direction from George Cukor, and typically excellent lead performances, The Philadelphia Story is an unqualified classic.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Philadelphia Story among the best Jimmy Stewart movies?
✓ He earned the Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award with his performance in this movie.
✓ The film is included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Included among the American Film Institute’s lists of the Top 100 America’s Greatest Love Story Movies, Top 100 Greatest American Movies and Top 100 Funniest American Movies.


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Frank Capra, Donna Reed, Top films of Jimmy Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Christmas fantasy drama film directed by Frank Capra and co-starring Donna Reed.

Story: An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ During the filming, James Stewart was actively suffering from PTSD and depression due to his service in WWII.
✪ While filming the scene in which his character prays in the bar, he was so overcome that he began to sob.

The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is It’s a Wonderful Life among the best James Stewart films?
✓ Selected by the Vatican in the “values” category of its list of 45 “great films”, it is ncluded among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ The American Film Institute ranked this as the #1 Most Inspirational Movie of All Time and as the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Rope (1948)

Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock, John Dall, Farley Granger, Greatest films of James Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

American psychological crime thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, co-starring John Dall and Farley Granger.

Story: Two men attempt to prove they committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death. (IMDB)

As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Rope among the most famous films of Jimmy Stewart?
✓ It is included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ One of the most popular movies of the 1940s, today considered a classic thriller.


Winchester ’73 (1950)

Winchester ’73 (1950), Anthony Mann, Shelley Winters, Most popular films of James Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Western action drama film directed by Anthony Mann and co-starring Shelley Winters.

Story: A cowboy’s obsession with a stolen rifle leads to a bullet-ridden odyssey through the American West. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ James Stewart credited this film with saving and redefining his career after a series of postwar flops threatened to seriously damage it.
✪ He spent a lot of time practicing with the rifle so he would look like an authentic westerner.

Why is Winchester ’73 among the most famous James Stewart movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950), Henry Koster, Josephine Hull, Most popular Jimmy Stewart movies
Where to Watch?   More info

Comedy-drama film directed by Henry Koster and co-starring Josephine Hull.

Story: Due to his insistence that he has an invisible six foot-tall rabbit for a best friend, a whimsical middle-aged man is thought by his family to be insane – but he may be wiser than anyone knows. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ At the suggestion of James Stewart, the director changed many shots to make them wider so that “Harvey” would be in the frame.
✪ As a joke, the cast and crew would often set a chair for the title character at lunch and order him something to eat.

Why is Harvey among the most popular James Stewart films?
✓ 
Included among the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
✓ The movie received positive reviews from audiences and critics, who praised the film’s overall tone, Henry Koster’s direction and the acting performances of James Stewart and Josephine Hull.


Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Most famous James Stewart films
Where to Watch?   More info

Mystery thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Grace Kelly.

Story: A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. (IMDB)

Hitchcock exerted full potential of suspense in this masterpiece.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Rear Window among the greatest James Stewart movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, featured on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list and on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 American Movies list.
✓ Added to the United States National Film Registry in the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Alfred Hitchcock, Doris Day, Top James Stewart movies
Where to Watch?   More info

Suspense thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Doris Day.

Story: An American doctor and his wife, a former singing star, witness a murder while vacationing in Morocco, and are drawn into a twisting plot of international intrigue when their young son is kidnapped. (IMDB)

Remaking his own 1934 film, Hitchcock imbues The Man Who Knew Too Much with picturesque locales and international intrigue, and is helped by a brilliantly befuddled performance from James Stewart.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Man Who Knew Too Much among the greatest Jimmy Stewart films?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ One of the most popular and most successful movies of the 1950s.


Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Novak, Top James Stewart films
Where to Watch?   More info

Film noir psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Kim Novak.

Story: A former police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman. (IMDB)

An unpredictable scary thriller that doubles as a mournful meditation on love, loss, and human comfort.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Vertigo among the best movies of James Stewart?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Ranked #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the genre “Mystery” and voted #2 in Total Film’s 100 Greatest Movies Of All Time list.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Otto Preminger, Lee Remick, Best films of James Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Courtroom drama mystery crime film directed by Otto Preminger and co-starring Lee Remick.

Story: An upstate Michigan lawyer defends a soldier who claims he killed an innkeeper due to temporary insanity after the victim raped his wife. What is the truth, and will he win his case? (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ James Stewart’s father was so offended by the film, which he deemed “a dirty picture”, that he took out an ad in his local newspaper telling people not to see it.

One of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas, Anatomy of a Murder is tense, thought-provoking, and brilliantly acted, with great performances from James Stewart and George C. Scott.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Anatomy of a Murder among the best Jimmy Stewart movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Ford, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Best James Stewart films
Where to Watch?   More info

Western drama film directed by John Ford, co-starring John Wayne and Lee Marvin.

Story: A senator returns to a western town for the funeral of an old friend and tells the story of his origins. (IMDB)

Featuring a trio of classic leading men and a rich story captured by a director at the peak of his craft, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the finest Westerns ever filmed.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance among the top movies of James Stewart?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Robert Aldrich, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Greatest movies of Jimmy Stewart
Where to Watch?   More info

Survival drama film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, co-starring Richard Attenborough and Peter Finch.

Story: After a plane crash in the Sahara, one of the survivors says he’s an airplane designer and they can make a flyable plane from the wreckage. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ James Stewart, playing the pilot Frank Towns, was a highly experienced pilot in real life, having flown many missions in WWII, and was still officially in the United States Air Force Reserve when the film was made.

Why is The Flight of the Phoenix among the best movies of James Stewart?
✓ Although the movie didn’t perform too well in its time, it was well-received by critics, who praised Aldrich’s direction and the performances of its cast. Since then, it gained a large following, and now it is considered a true classic with a noteworthy influence on pop culture.


The end of James Stewart’s story

James Stewart old

I am sixty-eight years old and I feel every damn day of it.

James Stewart in 1976

Despite the criticism he took for looking too old (from Sir Alfred Hitchcock among others), he never had any cosmetic surgery, unlike his friends Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and John Wayne.

After brief ventures into television acting, Stewart semi-retired by the 1980s. He received many honorary awards, including an Academy Honorary Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During the next few years he suffered from many health problems including heart disease, skin cancer, deafness and senility.

James remained faithful to his wife Gloria throughout their marriage. While this may seem ordinary, it was rare in Hollywood for male stars to stay devoted to their wives. The marriage lasted until her death in 1994;

Stewart died of a pulmonary embolism three years later at age 89, surrounded by his children at his home in Beverly Hills.

I’m going to be with Gloria now.

James Stewart’s last words to his family

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of James Stewart, you may want to read his biography.


…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 14 Greatest Films of James Stewart

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

Best Movies of James Stewart
Legacy of Hollywood’s extraordinary “Everyman”
You Can’t Take It with You 1938
You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Shop Around the Corner 1940
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
The Philadelphia Story 1940
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
It’s a Wonderful Life 1946
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Rope 1948
Rope (1948)
Winchester ’73 1950
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Harvey 1950
Harvey (1950)
Rear Window 1954
Rear Window (1954)
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Vertigo 1958
Vertigo (1958)
Anatomy of a Murder 1959
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Flight of the Phoenix 1965
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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