There are Hollywood icons, and then there’s James Stewart. He was the guy who told Donna Reed he’d “throw a lasso around the moon” and bring it to her. He convinced more than a few people that a 6-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey was a living, breathing friend. And he was the guy who told the U.S. Congress that “standing up for the little fellow” was something worth fighting for. Everyone knew him as Jimmy, and few had a negative word to say about him.
But between all those aw-shucks performances, Stewart was capable of portraying an astounding range of characters, and a large part of that was due to his service in World War II. From 1940 to 1945, Stewart flew combat missions over Germany for the Army Air Corp, 20 in all, advancing in rank from private to colonel. While other actors were hocking bonds and maintaining the front at home, Stewart went to war.
And though he could and would continue to play light comedy throughout his career, a new darkness began to seep into Stewart’s characters and the projects he picked. That’s most evident in the cycle of films he made with director Anthony Mann, eight in all, each featuring varying shades of psychological trauma, cruelty and the recognition that not even Hollywood can always produce a happy ending. And starting May 1, you can stream them on The Criterion Channel in the new program, Anthony Mann Directs James Stewart.
Mann was an exceptional director for Stewart to partner with. Born in San Diego and educated in New York, Mann made his bones crafting down-and-dirty noirs befitting his urban background. The four he made with ace cinematographer John Alton are some of the best from the movement. But in 1950, Mann left the asphalt jungle for the so-called “frontier” and took to the West with aplomb. That year alone, he made three Westerns, including Winchester ’73, his first with Stewart and arguably one of the best American movies ever made.
Winchester ’73 is about a gun — a rare rifle that’ll shoot true every time. Everyone knows about the legend of the Winchester, and everyone wants it. But death comes to those who hold the rifle, and the Winchester passes from hand to hand like a pox. Lin McAdams (Stewart) tracks the weapon, encountering skirmishes here and bad blood there, all while hunting down Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), himself hungry for the gun.
Winchester ’73 is fascinating as a movie and an entry in Stewart’s career. Prior to Winchester, the only Western he made was 1939’s Destry Rides Again, with Stewart playing a sheriff who purposely doesn’t wear a gun, choosing to solve his problems with comedic rhetoric rather than a fast draw on Main Street. But that was in 1939 when the U.S. was still taking an isolationist stance on the war in Europe. Eleven years later, Stewart and the movies had a different opinion of things.
You could easily say Stewart was among the best American actors of his or any generation, but you’d be missing the mark. Stewart is America, and tracing his career through the decades functions like a skeleton key for the art and politics of the time. He worked with a lot of great filmmakers in his day, but these eight films with Mann show Stewart at the top of his game, crackling with intensity — sometimes heroic (The Man From Laramie), sometimes manic (The Naked Spur) and sometimes downright romantic (The Glenn Miller Story). For that one, Mann and Stewart came out to Boulder to film scenes on CU’s campus.
ON SCREEN: Anthony Mann Directs James Stewart, streaming on The Criterion Channel starting May 1.