Make it a Jimmy Stewart Christmas

See 'Wonderful Life' at Senator, other Stewart hits on TCM

  • The Senator Theatre screens "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart.
The Senator Theatre screens "It's a Wonderful Life,"… (Handout photo )
December 16, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

If he was always billed as "James" Stewart, why did movie lovers know him as Jimmy?

James jibed better with his ethical authority and physical height (6 feet, 31/2 inches), but Jimmy suited the actor's down-home casualness and emotional transparency, his soft-shoe timing and his uncanny knack for spontaneous comedy- drama. He let audiences see right through him.

Stewart could be a master of ingratiating wool-gathering. But he could also cut and sting. Few have approached the rage and anguish Stewart fearlessly plumbed in films such as "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Yes, you read that correctly — "It's a Wonderful Life." See it on the big screen at the Senator, and its volatile pathos is overwhelming. Until an angel shows George Bailey that the village of Bedford Falls would be a moral cesspool if he'd never been born, Stewart punches home the point that Bailey is a reluctant rube. His fury at being provincial puts an unexpected edge on Frank Capra's no-place-like-home nostalgia. Stewart streaks his All-American enthusiasm with seething ambition and frustration. And his courtship of the plucky Donna Reed gives off genuine heat.

To round out your Jimmy Stewart Christmas, set your timer to TCM at 4 a.m. Christmas Day for "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958). In this sprightly romantic comedy, Stewart's Manhattan publisher succumbs at Christmastime to Kim Novak's sensitive sorceress; she's part of a witch-and-warlock underground with a crazy club scene. Novak gives the film a glow, and Stewart responds to his screwball co-stars (including Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon, and Hermione Gingold) with an array of slit-eyed winces and quizzical stares. He's a great straight man — especially in the Zodiac Club, which comes off as a gay bar in disguise.

Then stay tuned to TCM at 8 a.m. on Christmas for the sublime "The Shop Around the Corner." (This 1940 classic will also play on TCM at 10 p.m. Monday.) Stewart plays the top employee at a Budapest leather goods shop, and Margaret Sullavan the salesgirl hired over his objections. What we know, and they don't, is that they're also pen pals, conducting a wild romance in an anonymous correspondence. Both performers are perfect. They build their love-hate to Christmas Eve, when Stewart calls her "Dear Friend." She recognizes what that means, and as the snow falls outside the shop, inside they melt. A vision of Christmas as a time when the world rights itself — that's the holiday gift of "The Shop Around the Corner."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

'It's a Wonderful Life' plays the Senator (5904 York Road) on Saturday and Sunday and Dec. 24 at 10 a.m. Donations of nonperishable food items will be given to GEDCO CARES. There will be no cost for admission.

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