Born in Pennsylvania in 1908, the gawky but handsome Jimmy Stewart won over audiences by playing a series of likable and relatable characters in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. However, Stewart never limited himself to easy nice guys. In thrillers by Alfred Hitchcock and westerns by Anthony Mann, Stewart proved himself a diverse performer, able to play regular people in extraordinary circumstances.
Have a look at these Jimmy Stewart movies that testify to the actor’s talent and versatility.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Yes, It’s a Wonderful Life does end with a celebration of life and community, with George Bailey and his family gathering around the Christmas tree to watch their neighbors pitch in money to keep them out of jail. Until that point, however, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of an ambitious man’s failure, an unending series of disappointments that drive George to the point of suicide. With anyone else in the lead, those wild tone swings would crush the film. But Stewart grounds Bailey in real, earned emotions that make us believe his response to every victory or defeat.
2. Vertigo (1958)
To those just digging into Stewart’s filmography, the affable actor seems a poor fit for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. However, Stewart’s everyman persona proved the ideal protagonist for his stories about regular people caught in massive conspiracies.
That quality comes to the fore in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, where Stewart plays acrophobic detective Scottie Ferguson. Tasked by a friend to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), Ferguson gets wrapped in a mystery that involves her apparent doppelgänger, a woman named Judy (also played by Novak). Thanks to Stewart’s familiar drawl and likable face, viewers feel just as unmoored as Scotty, emphasizing the film’s dizzying themes.
3. Rear Window (1954)
Stewart has always allowed a seediness to slip even beneath his most guileless characters, suggesting an edge that could come out behind closed doors. Almost all of Rear Window takes place inside, where Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies convalesces from a broken leg. Even when Jefferies gets involved in a murder he witnesses across the street, Hitchcock and Stewart never let viewers forget that they’re following a creepy peeping tom, an acknowledgment that incriminates movie watchers as well.
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The larger conflict in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance deals with the potential statehood of the territory that houses Shinbone, the frontier town of the film’s setting. Director John Ford illustrates with leads Stewart and John Wayne. The former plays lawyer Ranse Stoddard, who gets accosted by the titular outlaw (Lee Marvin), while Wayne plays gunslinger Tom Doniphon. Doniphon understands the ways of the West, including the violent justice owed to Valance, but Stoddard believes in the rule of law. The movie refuses to make either man a hero, allowing them both to play the pathos of the towering figures they embody.
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
All of the unfair charges leveled against It’s a Wonderful Life do describe director Frank Capra’s previous movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. An indefatigable optimism runs through the film, the story of a sweet Boy Scout leader who gets chosen to replace a deceased lawmaker.
Stewart’s Jeff Smith remains an unimpeachable hero throughout, even during a sequence in which he punches out reporters he doesn’t like, something that could ring false to viewers who know how Washington operates. But by the film’s climax, in which Smith holds a 24-hour filibuster to prevent a graft scheme from destroying a Boy Scout camp, even the most cynical watcher cannot help but believe in the power of democracy. Maybe Mitch McConnell should watch more Jimmy Stewart movies?
6. Rope (1948)
Just two years after playing all-American everyman George Bailey, Stewart teamed with Hitchcock to play imperious professor Rupert Cadell in Rope. The movie doesn’t make Cadell as evil as his students Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), who decide to apply his lectures on Nietschze by killing their classmate, but even when reprimanding his charges, the professor exudes cold superiority.
For all the talk about the tricks that Hitchcock uses to make Rope appear like a single, unbroken cut, the real special effect is in Stewart embracing a darker take on his star persona.
7. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
As this list demonstrates, Stewart can play a wide range of characters. But he seems most natural as a romantic lead, using his easy appeal to enchant a lovely lady. The Philadelphia Story puts that appeal to good use, in which Stewart’s reporter Mike Connor falls for divorced socialite Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn). However, director George Cukor casts Stewart as the other man in between Lord and her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant — a man with a ton of charm himself. Cukor’s casting allows Stewart’s likability to ramp up the tension of the movie, giving the breezy romantic comedy high stakes.
8. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
None of Stewart’s collaborations with Hitchcock mobilize his everyman persona like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the director’s ultimate “wrong man” movie. Stewart’s Dr. Ben McKenna and his wife Jo (Doris Day) just wanted to enjoy a vacation in French Morroco. But when Ben accepts an invitation to dinner with mysterious Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), he finds himself caught in a larger conspiracy, something he never wanted or expected.
Hitchcock constructs massive, complex scenes and gorgeous crowd scenes, which almost threaten to overwhelm the McKennas.
9. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
The under-appreciated holiday classic The Shop Around the Corner puts the Lubitsch touch on the Miklós László play Illatszertár. Director Ernst Lubitsch, a master of breezy comedies, casts Stewart as salesman Alfred Kralik, who tries to keep his troubled boss Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan) from destroying his shop. Kralik resists most of Matuschek’s decisions, including one to hire Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan), resulting in a rivalry between the two. At the same time, Novak begins a romance with an anonymous pen pal, not realizing that she’s been corresponding with Kralik. The stakes remain low throughout, but Stewart and Lubitsch give the proceedings real heart.
10. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
As his collaborations with Frank Capra demonstrate, Stewart knows how to deliver an impassioned monologue. Directed by Otto Preminger, the legal drama Anatomy of a Murder gives Stewart a chance to exercise those muscles as lawyer Paul Biegler. But the real power of the story comes from the quiet moments, in which Biegler wrestles with the complicated case of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a soldier accused of murdering a local shopkeeper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The tawdry tale written by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Robert Traver, takes a cynical look at American justice, allowing Stewart to add a deeper shade to his earnest characters.
11. Harvey (1950)
Based on the play by Mary Chase, the delightful comedy Harvey stars Stewart not as the title character, but as lovable oddball Elwood P. Dowd. The mild-mannered Dowd introduces everyone he meets to his best friend, an invisible, 6’ 3.5” rabbit called Harvey. Dowd’s friendship with Harvey makes trouble for his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). The attempts by Veta to prove Dowd’s insanity could make him into a simple victim, but director Henry Koster and screenwriters Oscar Brodney and Myles Connolly, working with Chase, keep things light and breezy, giving Stewart room to play a wonderful fool. Call it the goofiest of all Jimmy Stewart movies.
12. The Man From Laramie (1955)
Writers Philip Yordan and Frank Burt come up with a perfect Western plot for The Man From Laramie, in which driver Will Lockhart (Stewart) runs afoul of Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), the hotheaded son of powerful land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). From that setup, the writers and director Anthony Mann unspools a complicated tale about the corruption at the center of the frontier myth. Stewart anchors the film as a man trying to maintain his decency in a lawless land.
13. The Far Country (1954)
Although Stewart retains a bit of edge in even his most gentle characters, he does not often get as unpleasant as in The Far Country, once again directed by Anthony Mann. As cattle driver Jeff Webster, Stewart barks out lines about how he cares for no one, not even his partner Ben, played by Western mainstay Walter Brennan. Stewart cannot help but emphasize the character’s dignity, especially as Jeff gets further enmeshed in the gold rush city Dawson City, but his take on a grizzled frontiersman will shock many viewers.
14. Speed (1936)
Not to be confused with the mid-90s action flick starring Keanu Reeves, 1936’s Speed features Stewart in his first leading role. Stewart plays undereducated mechanic Terry Martin, a man with a chip on his shoulder and dreams of greatness. At this point in his career, Stewart struggles to sell the character’s bitterness. However, he shines when sparing with romantic lead Wendy Barrie, showing off his greatest strengths as an actor.
15. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Stewart’s first collaboration with Frank Capra came as a supporting role in the raucous comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Stewart enters the movie as Tony Kirby, the son of a rich banker who falls for Alice (Jean Arthur), a member of a free-spirited family who lives in a mansion that the elder Kirby wants to raise. Lionel Barrymore puts in a delightful turn as the lovable patriarch of the odd-ball family and Stewart is charming as ever as yet another Capra character who learns that there’s more to life than money.
16. The Big Sleep (1978)
The 1978 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel The Big Sleep will never outdo the first adaptation from 1946. But the later version, starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe and directed by English journeyman Michael Winner, has its charms, chief among them Stewart as General Sternwood. A 70-year-old Stewart turns into a softer, more sympathetic version of the rich man who hires Marlowe to find his missing daughter, bringing an air of tragedy to the hard-boiled mystery.
17. Destry Rides Again (1939)
Long before Westerns became his main genre, Stewart donned a cowboy hat for Destry Rides Again, written by Felix Jackson and directed by George Marshall. Unlike the Westerns he made late in his career, Destry Rides Again takes a comedic approach, letting Stewart play his strengths as a likable lead. Alongside Marlene Dietrich as barroom entertainer Frenchy, Destry Rides Again has a raucous energy that fits better among Stewart’s early romantic comedies.
18. After the Thin Man (1936)
The Thin Man is a wonderful film noir, a perfect Dashiell Hammett adaptation anchored by sparkling leads William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. But as great as it is, The Thin Man doesn’t lend itself to a sequel, given that the titular thin man refers to a character in the Charles’ first case. And yet, After the Thin Man stands next to its predecessor, thanks in part to Stewart’s involvement. Stewart plays just a supporting minor role through most of the movie, a likable drip overshadowed by the plot, until his riveting climactic breakdown.
19. The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
Stewart put in multiple stints with legendary artists, but he collaborated with the great Billy Wilder just once. No one would count The Spirit of St. Louis among Wilder’s best movies, in part because it downplays the director’s cynical streak. Still, Stewart makes for a compelling lead as pilot Charles Lindbergh and, as long as the real man’s politics don’t come into play, the main character has an interesting story.
20. The Stratton Story (1949)
The Stratton Story, the second autobiographical movie on this list, follows Monty Stratton, a Texas boy who rises from the family farm to pitching in the major leagues, becoming an all-star with the Chicago White Sox. Director Sam Wood keeps things moving at a steady pace and Stewart lights up the screen with co-star June Allyson, even if the story doesn’t transcend basic inspirational tropes.
21. Call Northside 777 (1948)
Call Northside 777 dips into noir conventions with its story about a murder in a speakeasy. However, this film, directed by Henry Hathaway, has more in common with Anatomy of a Murder, thanks to reporter P.J. McNeal’s (Stewart) mission to prove the innocence of the man accused of the killing. NcNeal’s indefatigable belief in justice and the rule of law gives Northside 777 more hope than most noir entries, as does Stewart’s take on the crusading member of the fourth estate.
22. The Bend of the River (1952)
As with The Far Country, Stewart teams with director Anthony Mann to play a cynical cowboy in a sweeping western, The Bend of the River. However, the screenplay by Borden Chase, based on a novel by Bill Gullick, gives Stewart a more heroic arc to play. However, Mann also fills the movie with unnecessary asides, some involving a fun Rock Hudson as a degenerate gambler, and some with uncomfortable racial humor. Still, the movie works whenever Stewart rides onto the screen.
23. The Mortal Storm (1940)
His second collaboration with Frank Morgan and Margaret Sullivan in 1940, The Mortal Storm takes a more sober tone than The Shop Around the Corner. This drama directed by Frank Borzage stars Stewart as a German man facing the rise of Hitler. Stewart does his best to defend his beloved Professor Roth (Morgan) and his daughter Freye (Sullivan) against the tide of fascism, building to a tragic climax.
24. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
Against his high-minded work with Frank Capra and Hitchcock or his rugged westerns with Anthony Mann, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation feels as inessential as a movie could get. However, these low stakes shouldn’t take away from what remains a charming family comedy, in which Stewart plays a put-upon father whose bid for rest and relaxation gets undermined by his wife and grown children. Director Henry Koster and writer Nunnally Johnson keep the gags coming at a quick clip, making for enjoyable sitcom antics.
25. Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Stewart has just a bit part in Cheyenne Autumn, a star-studded epic directed by John Ford. Alongside luminaries such as Edward G. Robinson, Ricardo Montalbán, and Karl Malden, Stewart chronicles the attempt of two Cheyenne chiefs (Montalbán and Gilbert Roland) to return their tribes from the reservation to their ancestral home in Oklahoma. Although flawed in its representation, Cheyenne Autumn recognizes the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by the U.S. government. Although Stewart has just a bit part, he makes the most of his screen time as an aged Wyatt Earp.