5 James Stewart Movies That Made Him a Star

3. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in the general shop Matuschek and Co, in Budapest. Nestled away in its own little corner of the world, we are introduced to its hectic employees. Alfred Kralic (James Stewart) is the shop’s most experienced salesman, and he has a pen pal whom he wants to propose to. He has never met her and yet he is totally enamoured by her mind. One morning, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) arrives at the shop and enquires about a salesperson job. After landing the position, tensions erupt between Klara and Alfred. The twist, Klara is his pen pal.

Lubitsch’s little gem was a remarkable project, shot in 28 days with a relatively small budget. Despite being known for his luxurious touch, the director decided to take a new direction, stripping the film of any glamour. His decision to avoid the politics of war allowed for the focus to fall on the film’s poetic romance. Lubitsch was so set on attaching Stewart and Sullavan to the project that he delayed proceedings until they were ready. Stewart’s lifelong unrequited love for Sullavan haunted him; his longing transcended from the screen, fluttering to beat gently beside your heart. It made for a timelessly sweet story, and it has since been ranked 28th in the American Film Institute’s “100 years… 100 Passions” list.

The Shop Around the Corner was a career-defining moment for Stewart; the carving of his image was complete and dazzling. He was encrusted with the divine gems of emotion, and he became the embodiment of a true gentlemen. As Alfred, he gives us much more than a loved-up admirer; he is a dedicated employee and a strong leader, with a sensitive, fine-tuned intellect. Much like in Vivacious Lady, his connection to Klara knocks this to rubble. Although they initially clash, Alfred’s discovery of Klara’s identity causes him to fall at her feet. He worships her, despite her knack for sending ‘poetry and meanness’ his way. Stewart truly channelled his love for Sullavan in his performance; he got so flustered around her that one scene took him 48 takes. Cinemagoers sipped from the tonic of their chemistry like it was the headiest of wines and, thus, Stewart’s stardom emerged like a burning beacon.

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4. The Mortal Storm (1940)

Directed by Frank Borazge, The Mortal Storm is one of few anti-Nazi films to be released before the US’ entry into World War II. Set in a university village in the German Alps, it follows the lives of the Roth family. As Professor Roth (played by Frank Morgan) is celebrating his 60th birthday, it is announced that Hitler has become Germany’s chancellor. This quickly causes a divide within the family over their ideologies, as Professor Roth and his son Rudi are ‘non-Aryan.’ The Professor’s step-sons are ecstatic, but Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) and the Roth’s family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart) are troubled by the news. The Nazis’ increasingly tight grip soon causes catastrophic consequences for Martin and the Roth family.

The Mortal Storm was one of the most important films of Stewart’s career as it wasn’t just a movie, it was a rebellion. Called ‘the most powerful anti-Nazi picture yet produced’ by Harrison’s Reports, it was a picture with a purpose; it projected its proudful voice with the gravest of tones. The brutal portrayal of the Nazi regime’s effects on a family, relationships and morals was made to enrage, to sicken, to make you weep. Its power can be recognised further, as it was the catalyst for Hitler’s banning of all MGM movies in Germany. Stewart’s movie proved that cinema was much more than a joyful day out – it was enough to move unshakeable mountains.

As Martin, James Stewart shed his love-struck eyes for something colder, hardened. He possesses a pervasive sense of bitter injustice and of protest. We see his world crumbling before his weary brow. The fearful, chaos-wrought voices of cinemagoers around the world fell silent with the Roth family table. For an American audience, The Mortal Storm showed Stewart as something of a hero. As countries were ensnared by the tendrils of conflict, his character stood as a symbol of hope and defiance. His character was outspoken; never once does he stand and salute, instead sitting stoically on his principles. It proved that change doesn’t solely lie on a battlefield’s hollow ground – it lives and dies by our voices and our actions.

5. Come Live with Me (1941)

Come Live With Me, directed by Clarence Brown, is a somewhat unconventional romance-comedy. Hedy Lamarr is Johnny, a Viennese refugee staying illegally in New York. She is seeing Barton Kendrick (Ian Hunter), a married man. A visit from the Department of Immigration leads her to confront reality: that she can only stay in the country if she marries a US citizen. Not wanting to marry Barton until he leaves his wife, she bumps into Bill Smith (James Stewart), a struggling writer. She goes back to his house and suggests that they enter a marriage of convenience; she will visit him and give him money weekly if they are married in name only. But, as time passes, Bill realises he is developing feelings for his wife.

This is a movie that has seemingly flown under the radar in passing years. For Stewart, it signalled the denouement of his rom-com stardom. Around time of the film’s release in 1941, he was to enlist in the air forces as the US had entered the war. Upon his return, he undertook very serious roles that were darker in tone, under the hand of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. Although Come Live With Me marked the end of an era, it became one of the last thriving examples of his excellence in the rom-com genre. And, although he left his role of the stammering poet behind, it left his career standing on the strongest of foundations.

His performance as Bill epitomized all that James Stewart had come to be – the average Joe whose life becomes extraordinary at the merest touch of love. We see him roaming the streets of New York like a character from a noir film; his silhouette is sharp and lonesome, his words are romantically melancholic. At first, he is stubborn and proud, not willing to accept money from Johnny. But, as he plays his tunes on the typewriter, a secret sensitivity glows like silver in his veins. He begins to cling to Johnny’s every visit, as dearly as a writer to their words. And, the last twenty minutes are a particularly fitting last hurrah to his run as romance’s leading man; he lies in bed reciting Christopher Marlowe’s poem, “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love” , by the glow of fireflies.

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What James Stewart did, for cinema and for a nation, was remarkable. He helped usher in a whole new wave of film that would change it forever. He helped to remind and empower a nation to stay strong, to stand up for what you know to be right. These five films helped him become a star as they showed his versatility, his acting prowess and his heart. He was unafraid to show vulnerability in his every mannerism and he softened the gazes of moviegoers around the world. Even to this day, his legacy burns as bright as starlight. James Stewart truly was Hollywood’s Golden Boy, America’s Sweetheart, cinema’s guiding light; a name that will never be forgotten.

Written by Bella Madge

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