Tom Hanks is sometimes called this generation’s Jimmy Stewart. In an odd sort of way, that is sort of a compliment to both men. Both are extraordinary actors who have secured a place in film history as the best of their time at playing the everyman. While such a role would doom other actors to being typecast as the all-time greatest supporting actor, both Hanks and Stewart have been able to pull off the role with amazing versatility.
Clearly, this is not the definitive set of Stewart’s work as an actor. For t…at, you would have to include his roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and one of my all time favorite films, Vertigo. Of course, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life would also have to receive special treatment. The Spirit of St. Louis, which is in this set, would also be there. But what about The Philadelphia Story or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you might ask? Yes, those would have to be there too. We are now approaching the problem with putting together a set of Stewart’s best movies. If you were to truly include his greatest films, you still might be left with a 20-disc box set. It’s best to look at this release for what it is, and not try to play the “but where is…” game. That is a dead end road.
So what is here? Some wonderful films that usually don’t get mentioned among Stewart’s best, but are still wonderful films nonetheless. The aforementioned Spirit of St. Louis, directed by Billy Wilder, features Stewart as Lucky Lindy, and is easily the best film ever made that looks at Lindbergh’s historic trip across the Atlantic. Stewart, a pilot in real life, was the perfect choice to embody this American hero.
The FBI Story plays as something of an interesting piece of American propaganda film. Not only does legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover make a cameo in the film, but he actually took a keen interest into the whole production, from pushing for Stewart to get the lead role to even forcing the director to re-shoot a scene. This story of the life of a crime fighter may seem to take the Forrest Gump “part of everything” approach, but the end result is quite entertaining nonetheless.
The Naked Spur is one of the actor’s many western films. It is easy to forget what a well-known wester actor he was when his career is measured against so many great roles form other genres. Here, Stewart is part of a group of bounty hunters that discovers that finding their man is the easy part; it is the task of making it back alive that is the hard part. This wonderfully dramatic film shows just how hard it is for men on the edge of the law to rely on one another when money is on the line. The Naked Spur is an overlooked gem in the enormous galaxy of western films.
Stewart returns to his good natured roots in The Stratton Story. This is a fantastic sports film that tells the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Marty Stratton; a promising young player who must overcome insurmountable odds to remain at the top of his game. This is the blueprint for how to make a quality inspirational sports film. Be sure and look for real life ball players peppered throughout the film.
The final disc in this set is a flipper that contains two westerns starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda. The Cheyenne Social Club is a very fun film that sees the two inheriting ownership of a brothel in Wyoming. When a gang shows up and tries to tread on their turf, the pair find themselves protecting their women with hilarious and exciting results. The flipside pits the duo against each other in Firecreek. Henry Fonda plays the part of an outlaw that is moving from town to town, and Stewart plays the part-time, small town Sheriff that must put a stop to his raids.
As great as these films are, the audio leaves something to be desired. While The Spirit of St. Louis has been given the full Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment, everything else here is presented in the original Mono. While I most certainly have no qualms whatsoever with preserving the original films, what is the point of DVD if you can’t experience the classics with enhanced clarity? The mono tracks are adequate, but they are not quite up to the high level of quality that I was hoping for.
The same story goes for the video. Aspect rations range from full screen on The Naked Spur and The Stratton Story to various widescreen treatments on the other films. In fact, this is the first time that Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club have been available in a widescreen format. Unfortunately, the clarity that I was hoping to find wasn’t there. Many of the images are dingy and reflect their age. Again, The Spirit of St. Louis is the best of the bunch, which makes me think that all of these films could have been cleaned up more than they were, if it were economically feasible.
Each film in this set includes its original theatrical trailer, which is pretty-much standard at this point in the life of DVD. There are also vintage featurettes included for The Cheyenne Social Club and The Stratton Story. Likewise, there are vintage shorts included for The Naked Spur and The Spirit of St. Louis. Spur, St. Louis and The Stratton Story all go the extra mile and also come with vintage cartoon shorts. Finally, St. Louis also includes a newsreel of the film’s premiere, and The Stratton Story includes a radio show with Stewart. This is a great collection of special features, and they really do a great job of filing out the excellent features included here.
If this were a $70 boxed set, I might be a little slower to recommend this film collection. However, this set can be found online for as low as $35, which is a real bargain. While the audio and video are not top-notch, they are still of acceptable quality. The films themselves, however, are excellent, and there is a nice little collection of extras included to boot. Warner Brothers almost always treats their classic film library right, and this great set is no exception.
Special Features List
- Theatrical Trailers
- Vintage short “Things We Can Do Without”
- Classic cartoon “Little Johnny Jet”
- “The Spirit of St. Louis” Premiere
- Vintage Joe McDoakes comedy short “So Your Wife Wants to Work”
- Classic cartoon “Tabasco Road”
- Vintage featurette “Pest Control”
- Classic Cartoon “Batty Baseball”
- Audio-only Bonus: Radio Show with Stewart and Allyson
- Vintage “The Cheyenne Social Club” Featurette