James Stewart rides his acting range in six-disc collection
Of all the male stars from Hollywood's "Golden Age" in the 1930s, `40s and `50s, James Stewart may have been the most versatile. Yet while many modern moviegoers are familiar with Stewart from his late 1930s-early `40s comedies like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "The Philadelphia Story," and his suspense films with Alfred Hitchcock in the `50s, notably "Rear Window" and "Vertigo," it is in his Westerns directed by Anthony Mann that Stewart first showed his great range as an actor.
These Westerns also re-established Stewart as a box-office star. Since returning to Hollywood after service during World War II, he had failed to star in any significant hits. Even such memorable movies as Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) were box-office flops.
Stewart made eight films with Mann from 1950 through 1955, five of them Westerns, and three of those are included in the just-released boxed set "James Stewart: The Western Collection" (six discs, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $39.98, not rated).
Each written by Borden Chase, "Winchester `73" (1950), "Bend of the River" (1952) and "The Far Country" (1954) are all big movies, set and beautifully photographed on large landscapes (in Arizona, Oregon and Alberta, Canada), with serious, involved stories that feature Stewart in complicated, adult roles.
As film scholar Jim Kitses wrote in "Horizons West," his seminal 1969 book on the Western, "Animating the obsessive heroes of (Mann's) Westerns ... Stewart revealed an emotional range unlooked-for given his early career of light comedy roles."
In "Winchester `73," nothing will stop Stewart's Lin McAdam as he chases after both the murderer of his father and the thief who stole the Winchester rifle he had won in a shooting contest.
In "Bend of the River," Stewart portrays Glyn McClyntock, a man with a dubious past who tries to redeem himself by leading a wagon train of settlers on an arduous trip from Missouri to the Oregon territory.
And in "The Far Country," Stewart stars as Jeff Webster, a cowboy driving a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle and then up to Skagway and Dawson in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of 1896.
In each of these films, Stewart plays a loner, or a man with perhaps one good friend, who takes on a serious mission which he strives to complete no matter what obstacle he faces. And in these three films he must battle Indians, rustlers, crooked businessmen, corrupt politicians and former friends who betray him, as well as the natural hindrances of mountains, rivers and deserts.
In Mann's films, Stewart's characters are invariably decent toward women and ordinary folks but ruthless and explosively violent when dealing with those who would do him and others wrong. He's rarely an idealist, just a man who knows right from wrong and won't take any guff.
"Winchester `73" was not only a major box-office hit in 1950 for Stewart, but, according to his biographer Frank Sanello in "Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life," thanks to a deal his agent, Lew Wasserman, made for him with Universal Pictures, it turned Stewart into a wealthy man.
The other movies included in "James Stewart: The Western Collection" are:
"Destry Rides Again" (1939), which is technically Stewart's first Western, but an atypical one, as it's a comic and musical sendup of Westerns, with Stewart playing an unlikely nonviolent sheriff and Marlene Dietrich starring as a saloon owner/ entertainer (this is the performance that Madeline Kahn parodies so hilariously in "Blazing Saddles")
"Night Passage" (1957): Also written by Borden Chase, this was to be directed by Mann, but he quit the picture early on and was replaced by William Daniels. Stewart and co-star Audie Murphy play brothers who may (or may not) be on opposite sides of the law as Stewart tries to deliver a railroad payroll through territory controlled by outlaws
"Rare Breed" (1966): Stewart plays a drifter who agrees to help an English widow (Maureen O'Hara) and her daughter transport a prize Hereford bull to Texas.
His footing re-established on the Arizona soil of "Winchester `73" in 1950, Stewart went on to some of the finest roles in his legendary career. These included not only his Westerns with Anthony Mann, but the Mann-directed "Strategic Air Command," Hitchcock's "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much," Delmar Daves' "Broken Arrow," Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" and John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."