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The AFI Top 100 Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (#11)

Entertainment 150It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay) and Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an indelible movie is its inextricable tie to Christmas and the mood we all wish to be in during that holiday. We want to see the best in mankind, we want to believe that a community can come together to take care of one of its own when they’re in trouble, we want to believe that things turn out all right in the end. It’s a Wonderful Life indulges that desire in spades, giving us a bittersweet fable of small-town, picture-postcard America that’s at turns heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s quite an interesting film, actually, when you think about it beyond its sentimentality.

James Stewart is George Bailey, a young man from the small town of Bedford Falls with a dream of traveling around the world. His family serves a vital function of the community; allowing the working poor to receive loans to start businesses and buy homes for themselves. Their nemesis is an old Wall St. type named Henry Potter (Barrymore), an exploitative slum lord who represents the ideal of the free market, I suppose. The only thing that stands in the way of his complete capitalist tyranny is the little Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George’s father has a stroke right when his brother graduates high school, which means he’s the only one who can run it — his brother isn’t ready and his father and uncle are both unfit now. He puts off his dream to sort out the mess, and his brother goes to college instead. When his brother returns, it’s with an enormous job offer that George knows he can’t turn down. He kills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls for the betterment of his brother, taking on the burden of running the Building and Loan by himself.

The pressure from Potter intensifies, especially after the market crash of 1929. George gives up more and more of his life, sacrificing the nest egg he had squirreled away for his honeymoon to prevent a run on the association. Meanwhile, his brother enlists during World War II, becomes a fighter pilot ace, travels the world and comes home to a hero’s welcome. On the day of the parade, George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s money. Without that deposit, the Building and Loan is sunk and Potter wins.

Distraught, George berates his children and one of their teachers, yells at his wife, crashes his car and nearly commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Here is the part of the story everyone knows — his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him a dystopian Bedford Falls where he had never been born to show him the difference he’s made in people’s lives. Filled with joy at knowing the effect of his good works, George races through the streets of Bedford Falls towards his home, just in time for a Christmas miracle of the community’s own making. It really is one of the finest, most touching endings in cinematic history. I’m not ashamed to admit it makes me cry, every time.

What makes the ending so effective is what makes the rest of the movie so interesting and surprisingly complex. A lot of people ding this movie for its sentimentality, claiming that it gives easy answers that wouldn’t quite fly in the real world, and I disagree. What makes George Bailey such an extraordinary hero isn’t just that he tries so hard to do the right thing — it’s that sometimes he actually fails to. He’s not a saint; it’s clear that he resents his family and his community because of the choices he feels he has to make, and he doesn’t take care to find an outlet for it. The final straw simply uncovers what was already there — a man who feels trapped by responsibilities that may or may not be his, by the burden of being the difference between people’s happiness and their oppression.

It’s completely understandable that George would feel this way; he’s regularly sacrificed his happiness for other people, and he never seems to get a break. The rest of the community shows their appreciation at times, but they’re also just people — subject to mob mentality, panic and petty thoughts. Most people don’t have the emotional fortitude that Bailey possesses, and it’s rather difficult to be fair-minded about people you’ve stuck out your neck for but end up taking the easy way far too often.

This is the problem of the idealist; the world really doesn’t mold itself to your ideals all that often. And that disappointment can lead to a sort of desperation, the attachment that something good must come of your beliefs and deeds. As that disappointment continues, it poisons into resentment.

What It’s a Wonderful Life does is remind us that we do make a difference with our actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If we put goodness out into the world, it really does help. Life in Bedford Falls isn’t perfect, especially for George; his Building and Loan may be saved by the end of the movie, but it’s still stressed. He still has unfulfilled dreams that he’ll likely never be able to return to. He’s still surrounded by people who are prone to panic, small-mindedness and failing their own ideals. Nothing’s changed but his perception, and a newfound appreciation for the things that have gone right.

Capra has become known for his “perfect” Americana pieces, but I think this movie doesn’t quite get its due because of it. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the worth of the transformative mindset, what happens when we let go of the expectation that good things will happen to us because we do good things. Karmic feedback rarely takes the form that we’re looking for, and success can take on a wide variety of definitions. George struggles, but he succeeds because his community does; they never would have been able to help him when he needed it most without his life lived helping them.

What makes me so enamored with that lesson is the idea that a life well-lived matters in ways we never see, but it also cautions us to take care of our own desires. Or at least, how we deal with them when they’re unfulfilled. We must pay attention to ourselves every once in a while if we’re to continue living our ideals.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie. For those of us who are community-minded, it’s a gem that justifies our beliefs and reminds us of the worth of the individual. There’s a lot going on underneath the candy-coated exterior of Bedford Falls, but isn’t that always the way of a small town?

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#29)

Entertainment 150Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains
Written by Sidney Buchman (screenplay) and Lewis R. Foster (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

The big surprise with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is how relevant it seems today. This is a movie that’s nearly 75 years old, and it’s talking about government corruption, graft, and how far politicians are willing to go to discredit and punish whistle-blowers. It’s a little shocking to see how deeply ingrained corruption was in our political process even back then, and it definitely puts our current crop of representatives in perspective. The machinery of Washington has been more firmly entrenched than most of us realize.

But I’ll try not to delve too deeply into the politics of this deeply-political movie. Instead, I’ll talk about its merits. James Stewart gives an incredible performance as Jefferson Smith, a small-town leader of a local Boy Scout analog. He’s appointed as the junior senator of his state by the governor on a whim, more-or-less. The governor (Guy Kibbee) is pushed into a minor act of rebellion against the shadowy businessman really pulling the strings — Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold).

Though Taylor isn’t particularly pleased by this wrench thrown into his plans, he expects them to go forward regardless. Basically, he wants the government to buy land he purchased cheaply for a works project. That would make him a ton of money while bringing in a flood of business to the state. This same patch of land, as luck would have it, is targeted by Jefferson Smith as a nature preserve for kids to appreciate the splendor of the American wilderness.

Once Jefferson finds out what the land has been earmarked for and just how the process has worked so far, he vows to fight Taylor’s corrupting influence. The resulting stand-off leaves Jefferson’s childhood hero (and senior senator of his state) Joseph Paine in the middle, along with his secretary, the hard-boiled Clarissa Saunders (Arthur). They have to look at the system they’ve been a part of for most of their lives, and decide whether or not it’s something they still believe in.

This movie marks something of a transition for its star and famous director. Capra is best known for It’s A Wonderful Life, of course, but later on started making pictures that looked towards America with a slightly more cynical eye. Stewart, on the other hand, still maintains the wide-eyed small-town innocence that he was known for at the time. He manages to carry a weight with him, though, that we don’t see until later. It’s interesting to note the beginnings of the seriousness he had during his work with Hitchcock, on display right here.

The supporting cast is actually pretty wonderful, too. Edward Arnold is fantastic as the villainous Jim Taylor, the no-nonsense businessman who has an incredible amount of power and knows how to wield it. He tries to charm his way into getting what he wants first, but is pretty quick with the overt threat when he senses that someone won’t be glad-handed into rolling over. Claude Rains has just the right amount of troubled conscience etched across his face as Joseph Paine; he knows that what’s happening here isn’t right, that he’s made compromises he shouldn’t have, but you can also see why he would make them and why he might continue to make them. Washington is a place that seduces you away from idealism quite well, it turns out.

Capra does a great job creating the mood of the nation’s capital as both a shrine to the ideals of what our nation can be and the echo chamber of back-room deals that it really is. Jefferson’s enthusiasm and awe is infectious when he first arrives, and you get a real sense of patriotism during the scenes where he immediately goes out on a tour of national landmarks. It makes the slow realization of how far we’ve come from those ideals surprisingly bleak; you feel the disillusionment he does when he sees how the Senate really works. Capra doesn’t distract from the point he’s making by mentioning the party system once; he makes the corruption that runs rampant a human issue rather than a political one.

Yet, politics really is only the way we agree to act towards ourselves as a group of people. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I also believe it’s true. If we let the people with a thirst for power create a system that rewards the “might at all cost” mentality, this is what we get. And that’s as true now as it was in 1940. I love that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington offers us a glimpse of this truth filtered through the lens of pre-war America. It tells us that some of our country’s faults — as well as our strengths — are things that we need to be constantly in mind of.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Rear Window (#42)

Entertainment 150Rear Window (1954)
Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Cornell Woolrich (short story)

There is so much that impressed me about this movie that it’s difficult to know where to begin. This was the second of four collaborations between director Alfred Hitchcock and star James Stewart, and if they’re all this good I definitely can’t wait to see the others. Hitchcock directs the movie with a wonderfully deft hand, effortlessly gliding between the inner lives of photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and the half-dozen subplots woven amongst the neighbors that Jeffries is spying on. The main plot that intersects Jeffries, Lisa and one of the neighbors is tense in all the right places, and shows off a great skill in building tension, subverting expectations and keeping the audience guessing. Still, while it’s technically impressive from a storytelling standpoint, emotionally it’s actually the least engrossing.

Jeffries is a globe-trotting news reporter who’s been confined to his apartment with an injury sustained from one of his assignments. Hitchcock spends the first minute or so of the film pausing at significant portions of his apartment, giving us a quick and efficient character study in seconds. The pictures that are lingered on tell us who Jeffries is and how he got the injury; then we see that he has a girlfriend, a high-society girl that he met on a photo shoot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie get to the heart of its main characters so quickly; it’s simply masterful.

To pass the time while he’s nursing his broken leg, Jeffries spies on his neighbors with one of his cameras. He has names for just about all of them — there’s Miss Torso, a dancer who entertains a few men in her apartment every night; Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman whose solitude radiates through her entire apartment; Miss Hearing Aid, an older woman whose meddling in the affairs of others is often thwarted by her inability to hear. There’s a newlywed couple, a songwriter prone to fits of depression, a strange couple obviously comfortable with each other who sleeps out on the fire escape. The people who gains most of Jeffries’ attention is a man and his invalid wife — they’re clearly unhappy, and it’s quite possible that the husband is involved in an affair.

A few friends visit to break up these bouts of spying. There’s Lisa, who brings him dinner and argues with him about their very different lifestyles. There’s Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), a good friend of Jeffries who provides him with affectionate, breezily mean banter. And there’s Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, a wisely crude woman who provides him advice whether he wants it or not. Jeffries’ relationship and conversations with each of these people are remarkably distinct, bringing out different aspects of his personality and demanding different tones in his mood. The character work here is exquisite, each exchange revealing something significant about their moods, their reaction to the plot, the way they think or feel about each other.

The story of the husband and his invalid wife takes a turn after the basic premise is establish, and Hitchcock manages to juggle five or six different subplots while letting that take up the bulk of the time. At just under two hours, the film has a lot to do in a short amount of time, and both John Hayes (the writer) and Hitchcock keep things moving along without sacrificing space to let moments breathe when they need to.

The set is just as impressive, and vital to making the whole thing work. The entire movie is shot within the confines of Jeffries’ apartment, so all of the subplots and moving pieces we see through the course of the film have to be seen from a rather limited view. Hitchcock works well within these confines, having his actors use those windows and the spaces between them to tell their stories as efficiently as possible. He uses the voyeur’s angle to ratchet up wonderfully thick tension, like when something huge goes down in the apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts and the unfaithful husband at the same time. And he gets a wonderfully creepy effect out of simply having the adulterer turn off the light and smoke a cigar alone in the dark.

Stewart, Kelly, the main supporting actors and all of the neighbors do quite well. Raymond Burr plays the adulterer in a role that flies right in the face of our image of him, and Ross Bagdasarian (the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) does surprisingly well as our bipolar songwriter. The scenes run like clockwork, all guided by the hand of a master watchmaker.

The character arcs mostly intersect through the main story, and a brief epilogue touches on what’s happening to the residents of the apartment complex once order is restored. A lot of things have changed, so many things remain the same, and in many cases it’s a genuine surprise what’s stuck and what hasn’t. When we last see Jeffries and Lisa, they’ve come to a much better understanding of each other and have grown closer as a result, but of course there’s still just enough tension in the relationship to keep things interesting.

Rear Window is a simply great movie. If you’re a fan of great character studies, superbly efficient use of space and time, and a mystery that may keep you guessing for a little bit, you simply can’t miss it.

Rating: 4.5/5

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Philadelphia Story (#51)

Entertainment 150The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay) and Phillip Barry (original play)

In the very first scene of The Philadelphia Story, we see wealthy socialite CK Dexter Haven (Grant) packing his bags into his trunk angrily. His wife Tracy Lord (Hepburn) follows him out, carrying his golf clubs. She rips out his driver and breaks it over her knee. In retaliation, he puts his hand on her face and shoves her right back through the doorway. It’s shocking, but the chemistry and comic timing of Grant and Hepburn are so good that it comes off funny instead of violent. And it wonderfully sets the tone for the relationship of the divorced couple as well as the movie based around them.

Two years later, Lord is preparing to marry an ambitious businessman (John Howard) even though not everyone’s sure it’s such a good match. Haven has his doubts about it, so he hires two journalists to cover the event — and hopefully ruin the wedding. Just to make things even more awkward, he arrives as a third unannounced guest. What follows is a carefully structured unraveling of the nuptials and everyone’s relationships, so that by the end of the movie even though some things are completely destroyed you have the feeling that everything’s been set right.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. So many things could have gone wrong here. Lord is a severe woman who could have easily come off as cold and mean if not for the wonderfully manic energy, warmth and vulnerability Hepburn brings to the role. Grant plays ‘old money’ down to a T, and even though he spends most of the movie sniping with Hepburn he comes across as affable and smooth. Stewart is the biggest risk here, as one of the hired journalists. I’ve only seen him in noble, nice-guy roles and here he plays someone who can only be described as a jaded asshole. Totally different dressing, but he wears it well.

All of the characters have deep flaws that aren’t only exposed for all to see, but dissected in detail. Hepburn’s socialite Lord gets the worst of it, and it’s no small feat that she comes away as well-regarded as she does. Despite the sniping and constant jockeying for social position, there’s a clear love that shines through between the characters, and I’d like to think this is because of the easy camaraderie between the principal actors. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart apparently never needed another take of their scenes, despite ad-libbing quite a bit. That’s even more impressive to think about when you watch the middle of the film, the alcohol-soaked party and after-party in which the flinty shells everyone’s wearing starts to dissolve. The revelation of character and the easy, organic comedy that’s given equal measure is truly a sight to behold.

The energy ramps down towards the end, once Lord has learned her lesson and the villain (as much as there is one) is dispatched. People start pairing off happily, and I have to say this is the weakest part of the movie. Lord’s character arc is strongest here, and it wraps up well enough, but there’s not much left for the other characters to suggest they’ve made the movements they need to take towards the film’s resolution. So a lot of the emotional notes ring false right when they’re supposed to be truest, which is a bit of a let-down considering how great things were chugging along before.

Even still, Lord’s arc is a really good one. In order to love someone properly, you must be aware of and accepting of their flaws. She wasn’t even aware of how harsh she could be until it was brought to her attention (granted, in a really terrible way by her absentee father) and she learned how to face the consequences of a terrible mistake she never actually made. Having someone leading her by the hand to show her a bit of grace was the very thing she needed to learn how to be graceful herself.

I tend to have a hot-and-cold relationship with the screwball comedies of old; sometimes the frenzied energy just leaves me behind and I simply can’t connect with anything on the screen. The Philadelphia Story is certainly quick, but it slows down to breathe when it needs to and some of the best scenes are when two people take a break to really get to know each other’s point of view. Everyone involved really knows what they’re about, and for the most part it gives the movie a breezy, effortless energy that carries it through quite well. Any fan of Hepburn, Grant or Stewart should definitely give this a look.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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