Inside Film

It’s a wonderful life? The darker side of James Stewart’s screen persona

With the 75th anniversary of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and the re-release of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ next month, Geoffrey Macnab looks back at the career of one of Hollywood’s best-loved stars, whose characters’ warped and vulnerable sides were often overlooked

Friday 05 November 2021 06:29
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<p>James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ in 1958 </p>

James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ in 1958

Who is that crazy alcoholic talking to the 6ft 3in rabbit? What is eating away at that man whose face is contorted in hatred and anger as he drags the corpse of a dead enemy over the rocks? Shouldn’t that nervous and sexually neurotic former detective who can’t stand heights be seeing a shrink? Why is that voyeur with his leg in plaster staring through the long lens of his camera at the women in the apartment opposite? Isn’t it time that the despairing, suicidal small-town businessman got a grip on himself?

None of these are questions movie fans expect to be asking about James Stewart (1908-1997), who remains among the best-loved stars in all of Hollywood history. The paradox, though, is that Stewart so frequently played characters with damaged and twisted natures. 

The Jimmy Stewart Museum in his hometown – Indiana, Pennsylvania, where Stewart’s family had a hardware store – last year celebrated its 25th anniversary. Its description of Stewart is revealing. The museum proclaims on its website that he is “the movies’ quintessential everyman, a uniquely all-American performer who parlayed his easygoing persona into one of the most successful and enduring careers in film history”.

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