I don’t want to get into top tens again and all that. A league table of great Western actors. What’s the point? But it is undeniable that if you did draw up such a list, James Stewart would appear on it, and pretty high too.
Before the Second World War no one would have thought so. Jimmy Stewart was a hugely popular movie star but he was Mr. Smith, bumbling away in Washington. The furthest West he got was Shinbone, when he was a comic deputy cleaning up Marlene Dietrich’s town with no guns. Hardly the stuff great Western stars are made of, is it. He wasn’t exactly John Wayne.
And then, after a “good” war, he was George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Everyone knew by now that James Stewart was amusing, naïf, slightly gauche, folksy and with loads of charm.
But James Stewart had other ideas. He longed for tougher roles and planned systematically to get them.
And under Delmer Daves’s direction in 1950 and under Anthony Mann’s from 1950 to 1955, he did it. He burst onto the prairie with all the Western grit and gutsy determination you could want. He carried Colts and Winchesters and shot to kill. He was driven, at times almost manic. He was superb.
And if nothing later quite matched those early 50s Westerns, they were enough to elevate Stewart into the ranks of the very best Western leads.
We can divide the Western career of James Stewart into five phases:
First, in the pre-War period 1936 – 39, came Rose-Marie (1936) and Of Human Hearts (1938) and his first real Western, the 1939 Destry Rides Again. We can actually discount the first two. Rose-Marie was a turgid Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta set in Montreal about a Mountie getting his woman and Of Human Hearts was a slushy family drama in which Stewart is a doctor in the Civil War who meets Abraham Lincoln. Neither was a Western. So before the 50s it really comes down to Destry.
Then in Phase 2 (1950 – 57) we have the post-War films: the excellent Broken Arrow (Fox, 1950), directed by Delmer Daves, actually shot before Winchester ’73, though it came out after, and then the series of Westerns Stewart did with Anthony Mann that we have recently reviewed. They were: Winchester’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie. This phase ends with Night Passage, the movie he was to have made with Mann but did not and which turned out, perhaps consequently, to be rather poor.
3 Early 60s
Then, after an understandable no-Western pause in his career, we can imagine a Phase 3, 1961 – 64, with the work Stewart did with John Ford: Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn. As we have seen, this was late and, sadly, rather weak Ford and Stewart was competent but really these are not great films. Sandwiched in here was the giant turkey How the West Was Won (Ford directed part of that too but not Stewart’s segment) in which Jimmy was laughably miscast as a romancing trapper.
4The late 60s
Then in what I am calling Phase 4 of Stewart's Western career in the late 1960s he did four Westerns of low-to-middling quality: Shenandoah, a grandiose Civil War family saga in which he played the patriarch; the quite dreadful The Rare Breed, the worst Western he ever made; Firecreek, one of the only two Westerns he made with his pal Henry Fonda, and Bandolero! which has an exclamation point in the title and so, as regular readers of this blog will know, beware.
5 The final reel
Stewart’s Western career ended in the 1970s with the other picture he co-starred with Fonda in, The Cheyenne Social Club, and his wonderful Western adieu, in which however he did not lead (indeed, his part was quite small), The Shootist. You might want to count in this final phase the voicing of Wylie Burp he did in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991 but I don't really.
Discounting those first two late 30s non-Westerns and the 1990s cartoon, we thus have 18 pictures to consider.
Click the live links to read more about each one!