Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939 Based on the unpublished story “The Gentleman From Montana” by Lewis R. Foster, loosely based on the life of Montana U.S. Senator Burton Wheeler who had a similar experience investigating the Harding administration. Directed by Frank Capra. When a recently deceased senator has to be replaced, Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper (Guy Kibbee) flips a coin and ends up with Jefferson Smith, head of The Boy Rangers. Assumption is that the naïve young man will be easily manipulated. Instead, the party finds itself saddled with a staunch idealist.
Smith is shepherded through his appointment by his secretly crooked, late father’s friend Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and Paine’s cynical, dismissive secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur). To keep him busy/distracted, they suggest the young man organize a bill which he doesn’t realize is part of a larger graft scheme. When he comes too close to the truth, the state political machine smears Smith. The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy filibuster. A satisfying if not realistic ending. Raise that flag high.
This one made a star of Jimmy Stewart and placed him in public affection as our preferred “everyman.” (Tom Hanks has assumed the mantle.) Capra said of Stewart: “I knew he would make a hell of a Mr. Smith … He looked like the country kid, the idealist.” Initially the Hays Office (which set industry moral guidelines) objected to the unflattering portrait of the government – it eventually came around. (They look like pikers now.) Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Shop Around the Corner 1940 Based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) owns an upscale ladies emporium in Budapest. Employees are: the timid Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Shildkraut) a womanizer who currently has saleswoman Ilona Novotny (Inez Courtney) in his net, clerk, Flora Kaczek (Sara Haden), ambitious dogsbody/delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy), and top salesman-angling-for-manager, Matuschek’s favorite, Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart). Alfred is romantically corresponding with a cultured woman he’s never met.
Tensions seem to be unaccountably rising between Mr. Matuschek and his salesman. The latest riff is about his order of musical cigarette boxes Alfred says will never sell. When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes looking for a job and manages to dispose of one as a candy box, she’s hired, inadvertently creating animosity between herself and Alfred. Little do they know they’re pen pals. Charming.
In 1949, the film was “remade” as the musical In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it inspired the Broadway show She Loves Me by Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, and Joe Masterhoff, and in 1998, it was the basis for You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Rent all films on Amazon Prime.
The Philadelphia Story 1940 Based on the play by Philip Barry. Directed by George Cukor. Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) assumes she’s going to have a quiet second wedding to stolid George Kittredge (John Howard). The day before, however, ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) waltzes in with Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) and Macaulay “Mike” Connor (Jimmy Stewart), ostensibly friends of her absent brother – in truth journalists from Spy Magazine. Dexter has traded coverage in exchange for the tabloid’s not running a story about Tracy’s father and a showgirl.
The bride gets wind of the situation, launches into exaggerated behavior she thinks the press expects, then introduces Uncle Willy (Roland Young) as her father so there’s no hint of a family riff. Then Seth Lord himself (John Halliday) appears. Dexter’s still in love with Tracy and she unknowingly with him, but the situation’s impossible as long as she’s judgmental and unforgiving about everyone else’s shortcomings. Meanwhile Mike falls for her. Stewart is completely credible- besotted and perplexed. On screen champagne. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The film became an effervescent musical with 1956’s High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm. Rent on Amazon Prime.
It’s a Wonderful Life 1946 Based on the Philip Van Doren Stern short story “The Greatest Gift.” A treasured American Christmas classic. Directed by Frank Capra. I can’t imagine you haven’t seen this one innumerable times. In short, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve when rescued by angel-in-training Clarence Odbody (pitch perfect Henry Travers) who shows him what the town would’ve been like had George not existed.
Measurement of success radically changes as the self-sacrificing young man learns how much he affected Bedford Falls and its citizenry. With Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond… Priceless. Relations between Capra and a succession of screenwriters sounds like The War of the Roses. Nor was the film initially a success. Both Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed came from small towns. Free with Amazon Prime.
Rope 1948 Based on the play by Patrick Hamilton inspired by the real-life murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by Leopold and Loeb. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Two self-styled members of the intelligentsia, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), commit what they think is the perfect murder as proof of superiority. They then give a dinner party using a chest containing the body as a buffet table. Guests are almost all related to the victim: his father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), his fiancée Janet Walker (Joan Chandler).
Also present is publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), once the boys’ housemaster and the source of their knowledge about Thomas De Quincy’s satirical “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” which inspired the killing. Both murder as a general subject and David’s absence are openly discussed. Clues are dropped, questions arise. The more the murderers drink, the more they tempt fate. Eventually…The “rope” was the murder weapon.
Each shot ran continuously for up to ten minutes (the camera’s film capacity) without interruption. Stewart railed, “The really important thing being rehearsed here is the camera, not the actors!” He didn’t think it worked. Both the public and critics disagreed. Preceding Rope, Hitchcock used the format with Lifeboat. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Harvey 1950 Based on the play by Mary Chase. Directed by Henry Koster. Harvey is a “pooka,” the Celtic name for a benign, but mischievous shape-changing animal – in this case, a 6’3” invisible rabbit “particularly drawn to outcasts.” Said outcast is happy-go-lucky eccentric Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart). The middle-aged man lives with his proper, but sympathetic sister, Veta Louise Dowd Simmons (Josephine Hull), and outraged niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), both of whom are embarrassed by his public attention to Harvey. When they’re not home or taking a walk, Elwood and Harvey hang out at the local bar where camaraderie extends to both.
Veta is concerned, Myrtle Mae humilliated. Whether the cause is alcohol or madness, they want him placed in a sanatorium. After commitment mishaps to which Elwood is completely oblivious, Dr. Sanderson (Cecil Kellaway), head of the institution, also begins to see Harvey. Beguiling. “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Such films as The Invisible Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Shawshank Redemption, Donnie Darko and Field of Dreams all make reference to Harvey. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Rear Window 1954 Based on the Cornel Woolrich story “It Had To Be Murder.” Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Having broken his leg on the job, professional photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Jeff spends a great deal of time at a window overlooking the courtyard, curious about his neighbors and trying to alleviate summer heat. He’s regularly visited by socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) who nudges him to settle down.
One night, Jeff hears a woman scream, “Don’t!” and then the sound of breaking glass which seems to come from the apartment of Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a traveling jewelry salesman with a bedridden wife. He then watches Lars make repeated trips out with a suitcase and clean a knife. Suspicious, Jeff asks friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), a NYC Police Detective, to check out the situation. Doyle finds nothing unusual. He’s told Mrs. Thorwald is upstate. Everything seems like a clue. Jeff gets Lisa involved with baiting Lars and spying. One thing leads to another, until…
Verisimilitude was extreme. An enormous indoor set that replicated a Greenwich Village courtyard even included a massive drainage system to accommodate the rain sequence. Attention was also paid to natural sound, including music that would drift across the courtyard and into Jeff’s apartment. A taut thriller. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Glenn Miller Story 1954 Directed by Anthony Mann. The story of Glenn Miller (1904–1944), prominently featuring Miller’s (Jimmy Stewart) courtship and marriage to Helen Burger (June Allyson). Turning points: early jazz work, Broadway pit experience, the ups and downs of his namesake band and orchestra, developing “The Miller Sound,” working with others who also achieved fame/success, international touring. Though discrepancies are present, overall trajectory and character are accurate and gently appealing.
Great care was taken with the music. Glenn Miller Orchestra pianist John “Chummy” MacGregor was a technical advisor on the movie. Appearing as themselves: Louis Armstrong, Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Gene Krupa, Arvel Shaw, The Modernaires, Frances Langford. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956 Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The American McKennas – Dr. Benjamin “Ben” McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) vocalist wife Josephine “Jo”Conway McKenna (Doris Day) and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen) – are vacationing in French Morocco. In transit, they meet Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) of whom Jo grows suspicious. In quick succession, they’re approached by an unsavory stranger, ignored by the otherwise friendly Bernard in a restaurant and given information for the police when he’s murdered on the street.
The family gets deeply entangled in plots about which they know nothing. Efforts by Ben to unravel and perhaps help prove missteps. Hank is kidnapped. How the McKennas free their son is the highpoint of the increasingly tense film. Rent on Amazon Prime.
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