James Stewart: We recommend pleasant

The great Jimmy Stewart was born 100 years ago this month.

One of that extreme minority of great stars, those who were not even the best of their type but actually defined their own type, he gave dozens of great performances in five decades of stardom, and seemed to embody a certain set of values and standards that endeared him to audiences the world over.

Here are my five favourite moments of Stewart on screen.

1. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Only Capra could pull this sort of thing off, and great as Cooper is as Mr Deeds and John Doe, it’s questionable if even Capra could have put this one over without Stewart’s immense likeability in the central role. Actually, as with a lot of Capra’s later work, the first half is a touch too leisurely, the second too rushed. But this is quibbling compared to the stunning effect of the final scenes in which Jimmy, hoarse, exhausted but unbroken, continues to make his stand for what he calls “a little looking out for the other fella”. Stewart's honest everyman persona was never put to a sterner test, but the outcome remains inevitable.

2. Rope (1948)
For me, Stewart’s finest dramatic performance. The first half sees him as a wisecracking Nietzschean nihilist, quipping about the advisability of ‘cut a throat day’ and the right of superior individuals to dominate the masses. By the end, when he realises that his attitudes have helped influence a sickening and pointless murder, committed by two arrogant thrillseekers in his thrall, his horror and shame erupt into compelling, magnificent rage: “It’s not what I’m going to do, Brandon, it’s what society’s going to do. I don’t know what that’ll be, but I can guess, and I can help. You’re gonna die, Brandon! Both of you! You’re gonna die…”

3. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
A slightly unusual performance, as well as a great and deservedly award-winning one, with Jimmy in a supporting role as a journalist grudgingly hired to write an expose of a high society wedding for a scandal magazine. His is the character that most develops throughout the film, from his early radicalism (“This is the voice of doom!”) to a position of acceptance and understanding, via a beautifully played scene at the public library, in which Hepburn's spoiled socialite discovers his talent for poetry, and he discovers her capacity for appreciating it. It's a quiet little scene, rarely recalled but subtle and charming.

4. Destry Rides Again (1939)
My favourite Stewart movie. Every scene is a classic, virtually every line telling and quotable. If I had to pick one moment above all others, I suppose it would have to be the incredibly moving one in which he comforts Charles Winninger’s endearing but largely ineffectual sheriff as he lays dying. Stewart’s father had been a great lawman whom Winninger had hero-worshipped, and when he curses his stupidity for allowing himself to be shot in the back, Stewart is able to reply, quietly, “That’s how they shot my father. They didn’t dare face him, either.”

5. Harvey (1950)
Harvey is a good film rather than a great one: Stewart himself realised he was just a little too young to play Elwood Dowd, the central character who imagines he has a six-foot invisible rabbit for a friend (“He’s a pooka”). There is also frivolousness about mental illness and its treatment that reflects its times but now seems rather shocking.
The film does, however, contain my favourite line of Stewart dialogue, that seems to speak not just for the character but the actor himself:
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.”