EARLY JAMES STEWART

For Hicksflicks.com, Feb. 13, 2015

One thing about such manufacture-on-demand sites as Warner Archive, Fox Cinema Archives, Sony Choice Collection, Universal Vault Series, etc., is that it’s a great opportunity to see the early work of your favorite stars, movies that may not be remembered today but which can still be most entertaining as they capture some of cinema’s greats when they were just starting out.

Three recent releases from two such labels are prime examples, offering us glimpses of James Stewart on the rise — “The Murder Man” (1935) and “Speed” (1936), both from Warner Archive, and the remake of “Seventh Heaven” (1937), from Fox Cinema Archives.

“The Murder Man” is notable as a Spencer Tracy vehicle, a newspaper/crime drama (newspaper flicks were very popular in the 1930s) with Virginia Bruce, Lionel Atwill and 26-year-old James Stewart in his feature-film debut as a reporter called “Shorty.” (Stewart’s first appearance on the big screen was the year before in a Shemp Howard comedy short titled “Art Trouble,” which is also available at Warner Archive as part of the two-disc “Vitaphone Comedy Collection, Volume One”).

      

James Stewart, left, Shemp Howard, 'Art Trouble'

The focus is on Tracy, of course, as he writes about the murder of a crooked businessman and prints a story placing blame on a suspect. Stewart is onscreen a lot less as a newsroom colleague — but he does make an impression.

Stewart’s debut did not go without notice by the studios, either, and he appeared in three more 1935 films, and one more in 1936 before landing his first starring role as a leading man.

That was in “Speed,” in which Stewart plays a racecar tester for a large automotive company. But he really wants to make a splash with a new carburetor he’s invented. And he’s also romancing Wendy Barrie (an English actress who made films on both sides of the pond).

The film gets a boost from actual Indianapolis 500 footage, which might be of interest to racing fans as a historical curio.

But for Stewart fans, it’s just a real treat seeing these films made available for the first time.

         

In 1936, Stewart made three more movies (including a “Thin Man” sequel in which he is revealed as the killer!), and then starred with Simone Simon in “Seventh Heaven,” a remake of a classic silent film (cited with two other pictures for Janet Gaynor’s best-actress Oscar, the first-ever).

In this version, set in a Paris ghetto in 1914, Stewart is a sewer worker who takes in a weak-willed woman (Simon) who is in an abusive relationship with her sister. He pretends they are man and wife to put off any public notice (though local police are suspicious) and gradually they come to care about each other. But then World War I separates them.

There is also a strong subplot about belief in God that comes to a head in the film’s final moments.

There’s no question that the 1927 original is a superior film but this one’s not bad, and it’s fun to see Stewart in an atypical role as a penniless laborer who redefines himself through true love.