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James StewartThe James Stewart Signature Collection on DVD

Movie star and war hero James Stewart was one of Hollywood’s top leading men during the so-called “Golden Age.” He is known for such classics as “Harvey,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Rear Window,” “The Philadelphia Story” and so many others that it would take up the whole review just to list them.

It could be argued that this Warner Home Entertainment Signature Collection includes lesser – or at least lesser known – works, but that doesn’t make this collection any less worth seeing, and they’re a good representative sampling of the type of work for which Stewart was known.

The set includes six titles on five discs:

The Spirit of St. Louis – in which Stewart plays famed aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh in the tale of his famous solo flight across the Atlantic ocean – is kind of a dramatic “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,” though that doesn’t do this excellent Billy Wilder film justice.

Stewart put his flying knowledge to good use here, operating the old aviation recreation’s controls properly and, as usual, he’s completely natural in the part. It’s an interesting film beyond that, too, a must see for aviation and history buffs, and also an entertaining yarn about the pursuit of new horizons, when men were willing to do things by the seat of their pants rather than endlessly focus or market test.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, though at times it seems to be stretched from top to bottom, making Stewart look even taller than normal (and the vintage cars, too). The picture is a new, digital transfer from restored elements and for the most part it shows. There’s definitely some grain in places, but overall is pretty good, and the color is excellent. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 kind of; there’s good use of all front channels, but we don’t remember much surround or low frequency effects. This isn’t surprising for an old film like this, though.

Extras include the trailer, a short documentary on the film’s original premiere, a short “Joe McDoaks” black and white comedy and a classic Warner cartoon “Tabasco Road” featuring Speedy Gonzales and a silly, politically correct disclaimer at the beginning decrying potential racism in a toon from a different time.

The set also includes an interesting double feature, in “The Cheyenne Social Club” and “Firecreek,” both of which also star Stewart’s long time friend Henry Fonda. “Social Club” was produced and directed by the also-legendary Gene Kelly and tells the tale of an aging cowboy (Stewart) who inherits a business in Wyoming from his brother.

He sets out with his friend (Fonda) to claim his new heritage, discovering much to his chagrin that’s a high class brothel – not the kind of business he expected or wants. He’s determined to shut it down and turn it into a more “mainstream” business despite the protestations of his ladies (led by the lovely Shirley Jones) and the town in general, which seemed to find the social club a diverting destination.

This is quite an adult film for a light-hearted western, including one girl who wears a see through top through which the audience can readily see, and of course its subject matter could be nothing if not, well, “whore-ifying” to some audience members.

This one’s also presented in a pretty good anamorphic widescreen transfer, 16x9 TV compatible, at 2.41:1, with Dolby Digital mono sound.

Extras include a featurette on the film and the trailer.

In Firecreek, which is on Side B of the DVD, Stewart plays the good guy to Fonda’s bad guy in a story where the townsfolk of Firecreek, a bunch of people who moved there to escape the challenges of the outside world, are terrorized by a gang led by Henry Fonda. It’s kind of a cross between High Noon and Assault on Precint 13, and it's pretty good. Stewart is a part time sheriff with other things on his mind than the public good, whose mettle is tested and who, though initially found wanting, comes through eventually.

It’s also presented in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, with Dolby Digital audio.

The FBI Story stars Stewart with Vera Miles as he dons the gumshoes of an FBI agent (Miles is his wife). Chip Hardesty (Stewart)’s career is followed from 1924 to the late 1950’s and sees him wrestling with the KKK, a bomber looking for insurance money, and some of the infamous gangsters of the 1930’s.

The movie is based on Don Whitehead’s bestselling book and was helmed by Mervyn LeRoy.

The movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, with Dolby Digital mono audio.

The Naked Spur wasn’t nearly as full of nudity as the title would suggest (just kidding), and sees Stewart as a bounty hunter “caught in the snare of the hunted” (according to the box) as the quarry tries to turn Stewart and his allies against each other.

The movie also stars Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh and Ralph Meeker.

This feature is in color, but full frame rather than widescreen so if you have a CRT or Plasma-based widescreen TV you might want to think about stretching/zooming it to fill your screen to prevent burn-in.

On the other hand, you get extras this time, including a vintage short feature “Things We Can Do Without” and a classic cartoon “Little Johnny Jet.”

 The Stratton Story is another bio-pic, this time with Stewart as baseball pitcher Monty Stratton, whose career was dealt a huge blow when he lost his leg thanks to a hunting accident. The script is a tad corny, but baseball fans will probably enjoy it – and there’s good chemistry between Stewart and co-star June Allyson.  

This is another full frame presentation, being made before there was widescreen, and the audio is Dolby Digital mono. Audio and video quality are okay.

For extras this time, you get another short subject “Pest Control” and a toon (“Batty Baseball”, appropriately), and an audio bonus of a radio show featuring the two stars. There’s also the trailer.

Not all of these films are remembered as Stewart’s finest, but a couple of them are really good and the rest are diverting enough and diverse enough to be an interesting spotlight on the great star’s career.

Besides, if all his greats were here in one boxed set (royalties notwithstanding), how could a Volume 2 be justified?

The James Stewart Signature Collection, from Warner Home Entertainment

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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