best film:   Vertigo. There are four James Stewart masterpiece films to choose from including It’s a Wonderful Life, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is one of the top ten films of all-time, so this is obviously a category of considerable strength for Stewart. The real story with Stewart though may not be the four masterpieces (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands in for Liberty Valance as far as performances go when making a Mount Rushmore) – it may in fact be the sheer volume of high quality films (and his performances to pair) that are very close to masterpiece status – that next tier down – the must-see films. Stewart is even more loaded here with another six (6) films. These films include the previously mentioned Mr. Smith, The Philadelphia Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Rope, Winchester 73’, and Anatomy of a Murder. This gives Stewart ten (10) films that in that top two tiers. And the only one of those ten (10) where he is not lead or co-lead is Rope.


James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson in Vertigo – the best performance in the best film from the director currently rated as the best director


best performance:  Vertigo. This is a very tight two horse race between Vertigo and It’s a Wonderful Life. If there are those who are dubious of Stewart’s lofty place on this list, ask them to pit any actor’s best one-two punch against Stewart’s here. Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson starts out rather harmless, like the many of Stewart’s characters and certainly his on-screen “oh shucks” identity, but he takes an obscure, twisted turn when it comes to his obsession with Kim Novak’s Judy Barton. It is that monomaniacal – rather alarming, edge that his previous work never had with the exception of his string of psychological westerns with Anthony Mann in the 1950s. His George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is justifiably iconic, has scenes of darkness as well. This would be the easy choice winner for this category for just about any other actor.


Stewart in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life – Stewart’s two big roles make a compelling case for best male acting performance of the 1940s and 1950s.


stylistic innovations/traits:   James Stewart’s achievements and resume may outweigh his talent (Marlon Brando, for one, is undisputedly more talented) but Stewart has earned the second slot here for basically outworking Brando (and most other actors) and there is absolutely no debate as to whose filmography would be more desirable to have stranded alone on a desert island. Stewart is in thirty-four (34) archiveable films (with a six (6) year gap during World War II). He is lead in at least twenty-five (25) films. Stewart’s reputation and the persona (that trademark voice) he is largely known for now is based on his work with Frank Capra with the squeaky-clean boy scout image in Mr. Smith and large chunks of It’s a Wonderful Life (though the bleak surreal stretches of that film go far beyond boy scout) and even the “I won’t use a gun, I’ll use the law” side of his dueling lead with John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. However, Stewart worked with Hitchcock more than Capra and worked with Anthony Mann even more than Hitchcock.  These Anthony Mann westerns (five of the seven are westerns) were a new breed of western – gloomy, complex. Stewart plays a bastard or a possessed fanatic in nearly every one of them and they give his filmography incredible depth and heft.


Stewart as L.B. Jeffries in 1954’s Rear Window. This is the second of four collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.


directors worked with: Anthony Mann (7), Alfred Hitchcock (4), Frank Capra (3), Henry Hathaway (2), George Stevens (1), Frank Borzage (1), George Cukor (1), Ernst Lubitsch (1), Cecil B. DeMille (1), Otto Preminger (1), John Ford (1), Robert Aldrich (1), Don Siegel (1)


not his debut, but 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the first time the gifted Stewart reached down to give something more than the vast majority of his contemporaries were capable of


top ten performances:

  1. Vertigo
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life
  3. Rear Window
  4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  5. Anatomy of a Murder
  6. The Shop Around the Corner
  7. Winchester 73’
  8. Naked Spur
  9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  10. The Philadelphia Story


twenty years after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart delivers with one of his strongest performances in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – unquestionably one of cinema’s finest courtroom dramas.



archiveable films

1936- Wife vs. Secretary
1937- The Last Gangster
1938- Vivacious Lady
1938- You Can’t Take It with You
1939- Destry Rides Again
1939- It’s a Wonderful World
1939- Made For Each Other
1939- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1940- The Mortal Storm
1940- The Philadelphia Story
1940- The Shop Around the Corner
1946- It’s a Wonderful Life
1948- Call Northside 777
1948- Rope
1950- Broken Arrow
1950- Harvey
1950- Winchester ‘73
1952- Bend of the River
1952- The Greatest Show on Earth
1953- The Naked Spur
1953- Thunder Bay
1954- Rear Window
1954- The Glenn Miller Story
1955- The Far Country
1955- The Man from Laramie
1956- The Man Who Knew Too Much
1958- Vertigo
1959- Anatomy of a Murder
1959- The FBI Story
1962- How the West Was Won
1962- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1965- Flight of the Phoenix
1968- Firecreek
1976- The Shootist