Tag Archives: James Stewart

It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

Rear Window is an absurdly good time. It’s breathtakingly produced and the set is a marvel on its own, but it’s also an absurdly good time. You’ve got Thelma Ritter chastising James Stewart not just for peeping, she also chastises him for not being serious enough about Grace Kelly. How could it not be an absurdly good time.

So the film is simultaneously Hitchcock the popular filmmaker–enjoy these stars in these performances–it’s Hitchcock the technical filmmaker. The first half of the film, maybe even longer, is usually Hitchcock showing off what he, cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini, and uncredited(!) sound editor Howard Beals can do. What they do is transport the viewer into a New York apartment, staring out at the world, with Stewart around to play tour guide for a while. Rear Window isn’t just the story of Stewart healing from a broken leg or deciding whether or not to settle for Grace Kelly or even solving a murder–it’s all the little stories going on around. It’s the care screenwriter John Michael Hayes takes in how Stewart’s interpretation of these stories comes through. It’s delicate and deliberate and just part of that breathtaking production. Rear Window takes itself very seriously. You have to take yourself seriously if you’re going to have Jimmy Stewart complain Grace Kelly is just too perfect for him. You need Thelma Ritter there. With Rear Window, there can be no substitutions. Everything is just so.

After setting up the murder mystery–which brings Wendell Corey into the film and apartment as Stewart’s old war buddy now copper–Rear Window still takes its time. Hitchcock and Hayes play around with the mystery plot line, really changing up the pace of the film. It takes place over less than a week, with the initial nights really emphasized. The repetitive effect, with the occasional car horn and steady rainfall, brings the viewer in. Rear Window enthralls, quite intentionally. The last act is real time, neither the viewer nor the narrative able to handle much more. Hitchcock has a great sense for when he’s going too far, asking too much. He guides it beautifully.

All of the performances are great. Ritter’s hilarious, Kelly’s too perfect, Stewart’s–Stewart. Stewart is immobile, but always active. He’s simultaneously the viewer’s guide and de facto view finder and protagonist. He doesn’t get a lot of protagonist help from Hayes’s script after a while, just because there’s too much going on, but Stewart makes it happen. In fact, he’s almost good enough for it to be believable he’s closer in age to Kelly than he is to Ritter. The chemistry between the actors is just too good. Rear Window’s got a lot of dialogue and it has to be done just right, not only for exposition, but to cultivate that chemistry. Hitchcock knows without it, Rear Window would be too voyeuristic.

Wendell Corey’s a lot of fun too as the straight man. It’s a hard part because everyone wants there to be a crime, everyone wants there to be a mystery. Except Corey. He wants to go home, so the viewer’s inclined against him. Hitchcock and Corey play with that hostility. Because it’s a smart movie.

Rear Window’s all-around awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by George Tomasini; music by Franz Waxman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (L.B. Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Carol Fremont), Wendell Corey (Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle), Thelma Ritter (Stella), and Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald).


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Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)

Vertigo is a nightmare. It starts with James Stewart recovering from a nightmare only to find himself in another one. Kim Novak finds herself trapped in a similar nightmare. There’s a lot of beauty in the nightmare, but it’s still a nightmare. And nightmares get worse before anyone wakes up. In Vertigo, both Stewart and Novak are trying to wake up from nightmares, only things get so entwined, they can’t.

Hitchcock, composer Bernard Herrmann and photographer Robert Burks spend the first three-quarters of the film dragging the viewer through the nightmare. The screenplay, from Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, is beautifully dense when it comes to dialogue. There’s so much talking at the start between Stewart and unrequited love interest Barbara Bel Geddes, between Stewart and old friend Tom Helmore. The script hammers in certain facts, certain things to remember, certain things to watch out for. Bel Geddes and Helmore have somewhat thankless roles in the script, mostly serving to anchor Stewart in reality, before he tries to find his way into Novak’s nightmare. She’s Helmore’s troubled wife. Unbeknownst to her, Stewart’s her bodyguard.

As Stewart tries to rationalize Novak’s nightmare from afar, Herrmann’s score booms, full of lush emotion. Stewart’s voyeurism percolates, apparently at a safe temperature, until the nightmare becomes Stewart’s and then it boils over. The film has varying styles, whether it’s Herrmann’s score and San Francisco locations or Novak and Stewart’s tragic courtship, Hitchcock brings them back. The same locations, over and over; at the beginning, it’s to bring stability to Stewart through Bel Geddes, later on, it’s for him to flounder in desperation. Different locations, of course. Bel Geddes, who gives a great performance and does get a few decent moments to herself, isn’t part of the nightmare. She might not be the happiest person, but the nightmare is something different.

Technically, the film’s a marvel. Hitchcock has these wonderful setups for visually tying Stewart and Novak together. It’s not just the locations, it’s the sets. It’s not just the set decorations, it’s how Hitchcock positions them in space. He has this wonderful way of having Stewart and Novak share the same space in a scene, sitting by the same lamp, standing in front of the same mirror, but keeping them apart. They can see each other, but they aren’t together. Different nightmares. Even if they think they’re sharing the same one.

At a certain point, Stewart ceases to be the film’s protagonist. Hitchcock pretends for a little while longer, but eventually Stewart and Novak’s story roles reverse. He becomes antagonist to her protagonist. Both actors do phenomenal work throughout, but during that reversal is when their work gets even better. Novak’s stunning. Stewart’s terrifying. Vertigo is unpleasant. It’s beautiful and it’s unpleasant. Just like a nightmare ought to be.

The film ends hastily. The nightmare is over. The viewer is left to reflect with an uneasy sensation–it’s all too horrible to dwell on. Hitchcock, his screenwriters, Novak, Stewart, Burks, Herrmann, editor George Tomasini–they create this perfectly encapsulated thing. The narrative pacing is great, the way Hitchcock applies various intensities throughout. There’s not a comfortable moment in Vertigo. Visual repetition only signifies things getting worse.

Edith Head’s costumes for Novak are also essential. It fits into the whole visual repetition thing. Hitchcock confronts every idea he implies in Vertigo. He never takes the easy route, making it a troubling, ambitious but constrained experience. It’s wonderful.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by George Tomasini; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (John Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster) and Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel).


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Magic Town (1947, William A. Wellman)

Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.

Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.

Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.

Riskin’s wrong.

The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.

But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.

Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.

Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.

Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE WILLIAM WELLMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY LIZ OF NOW VOYAGING.


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