James Stewart: The Signature Collection

If you need me to describe the gentle everyman persona of James Stewart, you probably unplug your television every year at Christmas. And if you want any variation on that persona, you probably won’t need this five-disc, six-film collection, with one notable exception. That special case would be The Naked Spur, a wonderfully dark Anthony Mann western with Stewart leading a thrown together group of bounty hunters to catch and return outlaw Robert Ryan. Our man isn’t as squeaky clean as usual, running as he is from personal failure and family tragedy; his resulting odyssey is taut, sad and gripping to its climactic shootout ending. After that deviation, the best of the lot is The Spirit of St. Louis, a rather interestingly structured biopic of Charles Lindbergh (guess who?) that nonetheless is a little pious for its own good. Director Billy Wilder is famed for more cynical work but he brings all his craft and feeling to the tale of both the man and his fateful transatlantic flight. The Stratton Story is another inspirational biopic, with Stewart as White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton; he loses his leg but not his will to pitch, as wife June Allyson stands by. The film is expertly made, three-handkerchief fluff, goes down easily (if not entirely credibly) and is pretty enjoyable without being exactly affecting. Meanwhile, The FBI Story is a hugely bowdlerised history of Hoover’s Angels, with Stewart as an agent whose family grows with the mandate of the bureau. Camp howlers are plentiful as the sanitisation process gets underway but skilled technician Mervyn LeRoy keeps it surprisingly well paced and watchable. Rounding out the collection is a single disc devoted to two late ’60s western pairings with Henry Fonda: Firecreek, with Stewart as a local lawman who must stand up to Fonda’s posse, and The Cheyenne Social Club, with Stewart inheriting a high-class whorehouse to the amusement of buddy Fonda. Both are twilight of old Hollywood clunkers trying to seem racy and with-it for the kids who were fleeing this kind of thing, and both are resounding failures as art and marketing. These are (mostly) nice movies to have if you’re a fan of the star but for casual viewers, the only essential title is The Naked Spur. Extras include short subjects and cartoons on Spur, Spirit and Stratton, a newsreel on Spirit, and a vintage featurette on The Cheyenne Social Club. (Warner)