Jimmy Stewart seems to be following me around these days.
I’m not complaining.
Well, I am complaining about the recent rumors of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” sequel, as this is just straight up cinematic blasphemy (more on that in a minute). What I’m not complaining about is being able to have reasons to discuss Jimmy Stewart with people several times over the past two weeks. As someone who vastly prefers the old to the new when it comes to movies, this is a problem I run into a lot. While my peers reference Lloyd Dobler and his boombox or the cue card scene in Love Actually as some of the best love declaration scenes movies have to offer, I am in my corner with no one to discuss the wonder of the “hearthfires and holocausts” speech from The Philadelphia Story except myself.
Now, I love Say Anything and Lloyd Dobler. I am, after all, a female born in the 80s subject to the same Cusack problem as everyone else. And Andrew Lincoln’s storyline in Love Actually is certainly my favorite. But there is nothing that compares to the earnest delivery of a Jimmy Stewart monologue.
If anything, it is because I love Jimmy Stewart so much that I enjoy these other flicks as much as I do. When given the opportunity to try and convert a friend who is not interested in watching black and white movies to the wonders of classic Hollywood cinema, I almost always try to win them over with Jimmy, because I think so many of the things they like in modern cinema are so Stewart-esque.
For those not in the know, before there was Tom Hanks, there was James Stewart. The entire Hanks trajectory from affable and funny comic lead to respected, well-rounded actor and everyman, pretty much matches Stewart beat for beat. One of the things that helps calm me down when I think about scary situations like an It’s a Wonderful Life sequel is that there is only one guy who could be George Bailey and it is Tom Hanks. And Tom Hanks would never, ever agree to do something as stupid as star in the sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life.
If you liked Tom Hanks in Philadelphia or enjoy a good courtroom drama or The West Wing, you should check out Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Not only will you have a textbook example of what people are talking about when they say “Capra-esque”, you’ll be treated to a Stewart monologue that can get you hopeful about politics even in this time when no one can seem to get along.
If you’re looking for something a little more lighthearted or you could use a break from watching Elf for the umpteenth time over Thanksgiving weekend, consider Harvey. Like Buddy, Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd lives in a blissfully different world than the rest of us, convinced he has a partner in crime that is a six-foot tall bunny. While this isn’t my favorite Stewart performance and I would probably say Will Ferrell gives us a better jubilant man child than Stewart does, let’s review this logline one more time: This is a movie about a guy who thinks there is a giant bunny following him wherever he goes. That, my friends, is a concept.
Rom com fan? Hard to narrow down all the lovely Stewart performances in the screwball comedy genre. You Can’t Take it with You is becoming a quickly-forgotten classic , but I think the best entrée into screwball comedies of the 1930s is The Philadelphia Story. Not only do you get Jimmy, you’ve got Cary Grant being his dapper and endearing self as well as Katherine Hepburn in a role that might help you understand why many people think she is the superior Hepburn. Plus, there is the speech. The hearthfires and holocausts speech. If you like a good speech like Ben Affleck’s in Chasing Amy or the orations from Grey’s Anatomy or The Notebook, you’re gonna want to watch this movie just for the speech.
Perhaps thrillers are your thing. Alfred Hitchcock movies tend to have a broader appeal than a lot of old movies, and Stewart has been in a ton of them. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a fun case of mistaken identity that has Stewart traipsing across Morocco and Europe a la Tom Hanks in the Robert Langdon films. If you’d rather something a little more suspenseful, Rear Window is a story you’re probably familiar with—the man who is spying on his neighbors and then thinks he has witnessed a murder. Many movies have done this story since Hitch and Jimmy did—none have done them nearly as well.
My favorite of the Hitchcock movies is a strange one though. Most people remember Rope purely because of the gimmick that it is filmed in one time with what appears to be one continuous take. This is also an incredibly campy movie with a massive amount of homosexual subtext. So much so that my best friend and I developed a Rope drinking game that basically amounts to drinking to every time one of the characters says something suggestive. There is a point where Farley Granger (yes, that is his real name) gives a speech about choking chickens. You chug during that speech. We have never played this game and not gotten absolutely hammered.
And then there is It’s a Wonderful Life.
It defies genres, the Frank Capra classic. I may have just spent 800 words trying to win you to the ways of Jimmy Stewart by comparing his flicks to stuff you may have seen, but I am going to get cliché when it comes to this film and say this: they just don’t make them like this anymore.
It is a small drama about a small town and an everyman living a small life. Rather than see our hero save the world, stop a plague, suffer from a disease, or uncover a mass conspiracy, George Bailey just tries to live his life right. Along the way, he falls in love, he buys a house, he helps his family, and he makes the small sacrifices and compromises we all make because we couldn’t afford it or things just couldn’t work out.
And one holiday season, things just get too tough for poor George Bailey. He hits his breaking point and wonders if maybe not being in the world would make things better. If you haven’t been there, I congratulate you on your happy life. Most of the rest of us have hit these spells of self-pity from time to time and we need It’s a Wonderful Life to snap us back into order, give us the motivation and inspiration to put our head down, push through the crap, and keep going.
I can’t tell you the last contemporary movie I’ve seen with the basic message that life doesn’t work out as planned most of the time, but that is okay. You’ll be okay.
Movies are bigger now. The stakes are higher, the escapism more outlandish, and movies with feel good messages like Life of Pi are done in 3-D. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just doesn’t happen to be my thing. On TV, I can find things more my speed. This is where the small scale lives now, which makes sense given the differences in medium between film and TV. In fact, some of the best shows on TV during what many call a golden age are character studies about relationships, small decisions, and events that don’t threaten people’s lives. If you like Parenthood, Gilmore Girls, Sorkin, early Grey’s Anatomy, The Sopranos or The Good Wife, you probably understand this desire to not have so much peril in your mass media consumption.
There were a lot of jokes on Twitter about what on Earth an It’s a Wonderful Life sequel would even be about. The article indicated Zuzu, the precocious daughter of George Bailey, would play a role. Maybe the old Building and Loan got embroiled in the fiscal crisis. Maybe Zuzu uncovers that the descendants of Old Man Potter are secretly dumping chemical waste into the town’s water supply. Hell, maybe Zuzu finds more magic petals and travels to outer space on a magic carpet with Clarence.
No matter the scenario, there is no way a sequel doesn’t undercut the resonance of the story of little old George Bailey. At some point, the movie would have to acknowledge what happened to George; how his wonderful life ended. You’d realize the hope he has on New Year’s Eve in the film faded again. That he ended up having to sell the Building and Loan after all, or that he had a heart attack three years later. Rather than suggest that life is wonderful, this movie would inadvertently be about how life goes on without you. Charming, right?
My life isn’t going on without Jimmy Stewart though. Yours shouldn’t either. If you haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life, find time to watch it. Every time I convert a person to the wonder of Jimmy, I’d like to think an angel gets its wings.