May 20th, 2008

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Happy 100th, Mr. Stewart

This has been (and will be) a bumper year for classic star centennials. In April, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Bette Davis; the 100th anniversary of Carole Lombard's birth will come on Oct. 6 (and yes, we will remind you frequently!); and today marks the centennial of the birth of one James Stewart in Indiana, Pa.

Stewart, shown above in a still from "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," one of several classics he made during 1939, could well be the most beloved of American film actors. Much of that was due to his small-town, largely unpretentious personality; I'm sure many of us recall seeing his frequent visits on "The Tonight Show," where he'd regale Johnny Carson with some charming poetry about his dog.

But Stewart was hardly a bumpkin; he was a Princeton graduate who would serve his country during World War II. He performed -- and, more importantly, excelled -- in just about every genre Hollywood had to offer. Comedies, dramas, biopics, westerns...Stewart could do them all. Heck, he even appeared in a few musicals and introduced the Cole Porter standard "Easy To Love."

Yes, Stewart often portrayed the everyman, most famously George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life." But he was not afraid to show an edge to his character, even if it diminished sympathy for him. For example, Stewart's westerns of the fifties weren't really epics -- John Wayne and John Ford had that field mastered -- but they were marvelously complex character studies, and hold up beautifully today.

Stewart worked with Lombard a few times, although they only made one film together -- "Made For Each Other" for Selznick-International in 1939. It's a rather unusual blend of drama, comedy and melodrama, as James and Carole play a couple who fall in love, marry and have a child. The final third of the film, where the baby needs a rare antibiotic in order to stay alive, is rather jarring. This was a change of pace for Lombard following several comedies, and helped her make the transition to recognition as a dramatic actress. Here's a publicity still from the film and a more candid shot of them on the set:

The other two Lombard-Stewart collaborations both came on radio (, and fortunately both broadcasts have been preserved. The first was "Tailored By Toni," an original story aired on the Screen Guild Theater on March 12, 1939. Carole plays Toni, a woman who designs men's fashions in New York, while James is a struggling playwright she aids, then falls for. Nearly two years later, on Feb. 10, 1941, Lombard and Stewart teamed up on "Lux Radio Theater," playing in an adaptation of "The Moon's Our Home" and portraying the roles done on screen by Margaret Sullavan and Stewart's good friend Henry Fonda.

Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is commemorating Stewart's centennial today with a slew of his films, covering many facets of his career. From our perspective, it would have been nice to see "Made For Each Other" in the mix, but it's in public domain and is easy to find (including a colorized version). Here's the TCM schedule (all times ET):

* 6 a.m. -- "The Stratton Story" (1949). True story of Monty Stratton, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who fought to continue his career after losing a leg. With June Allyson and Frank Morgan.

* 8 a.m. -- "The Mortal Storm" (1940). The Third Reich's rise tears apart a German family. With Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young.

* 9:45 a.m. -- "The Shop Around The Corner" (1940). Feuding co-workers don't realize they're secret romantic pen pals. With Margaret Sullavan; directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

* 11:30 a.m. -- "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). Tabloid reporters crash a society marriage. With Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

* 1:30 p.m. -- "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954). Biopic of the famed bandleader. With June Allyson.

* 3:30 p.m. -- "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956). International spies kidnap a doctor's son when he stumbles on their assassination plot. With Doris Day' directed by Alfred Hitchcock in a remake of his own 1934 British film.

* 5:45 p.m. -- "Vertigo" (1958). A detective falls for the mysterious woman he's been hired to tail. Another Stewart-Hitchcock collaboration, with Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.

* 8 p.m. -- "Rear Window" (1954). A photographer with a broken leg uncovers a murder while spying on the neighbors in a nearby apartment building. One more Hitchcock-directed film, with Grace Kelly and Raymond Burr.

* 10 p.m. -- "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). An experienced gunman and a peace-loving tenderfoot clash with a Western bully. Print the legend. With John Wayne and Lee Marvin; directed by John Ford.

* 12:15 a.m. -- "Anatomy Of A Murder" (1959). A small-town lawyer gets the case of a lifetime when a military man avenges an attack on his wife. Stewart's father deemed the film obscene and ran ads in the Indiana, Pa., newspaper suggesting people not see it! With Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick; directed by Otto Preminger with a score by Duke Ellington (who makes a cameo appearance).

* 3 a.m. -- "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). An idealistic Senate replacement takes on political corruption. With Jean Arthur and Claude Rains; directed by Frank Capra.

* 5:15 a.m. -- "Harvey" (1950). A wealthy eccentric prefers the company of an invisible six-foot rabbit to his family. An adaptation of a successful stage play; with Josephine Hull.

Once the Stewart marathon is through, TCM will shift into a birthday celebration (though not a centennial) of yet another Lombard co-star. More on that tomorrow.
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