Heartland Film + Jimmy Stewart + the Athenaeum = awesome night.
Heartland Film recently hosted a mini-Jimmy Stewart film festival at the Athenaeum at Mass Ave in Indianapolis. This independent film company has “inspire[d] filmmakers & audiences through the transformative power of film” for twenty-four years through their annual film festival, monthly screenings, and special events.
For this Jimmy Stewart film festival, Heartland Film showed three of Stewart’s films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Alas, I only was able to attend the last two.
I was intrigued by the venue, a place I had visited before but never seen movies in, the historic site of Das Deutsche Haus, a meetinghouse for a society German immigrants (Socialer Turnverein Aktiengesellschaft) in the late 1800s. While parking was a bear—the Athenaeum is located by the uber-popular Mass Ave area of Indianapolis—the Athenaeum with its historic auditorium filled with dining tables rather than auditorium seats—was a lovely spot to host the classic films.
The Jimmy Stewart film festival wasn’t just about seeing these films. Jimmy Stewart’s daughter Kelly Stewart flew out to attend, introduce the films, and answer questions from the audience after the movies. And as an added bonus, his honorary 1984 Oscar for his fifty years in film was on display in the lobby. Kind of cool seeing an Oscar that up close and personal. (It turns out that they are 13 pounds…no, we couldn’t pick it up; it was beneath a glass case.)
A brief summary of the films for those who may not have seen them….
The Philadelphia Story was shot in 1940—five years after Jimmy Stewart first got into film. He plays a writer/reporter who is disdainful of high society but has been assigned to cover the wedding of a high society dame.
Katherine Hepburn plays the high society dame who is being protected in a manner of speaking by her ex-husband Cary Grant. Cary is helping the reporter carry out his under cover story of the wedding in exchange to keep an even worse story about Katherine’s philandering father out of the tabloids.
A few things about the movie struck me. The film is full of delightfully witty repartee from a bygone era. Jimmy Stewart’s character is from South Bend, Indiana. Katherine Hepburn references a Chinese Tang dynasty poet without mentioning him by name (Li Po). Some societal norms are a bit shocking to modern sensibilities—such as the idea that wives should be fine with husbands’ philandering or that a strong-willed woman needs to be taken down a notch or two.
It’s a Wonderful Life, a Christmas tradition in many households, was Jimmy Stewart’s first film after a five-year hiatus he took to fight in World War II. The film is the story of despair and hope, of dreams colliding with principles, of living one’s life for others and in turn being buoyed by them.
George Bailey grows up with dreams of travelling and building great things. Instead, he ends up following in his father’s footsteps by heading the community Building and Loan company as a counterbalance to a greedy old man who seeks to own all the town.
His life pivots on the loss of $8,000, which threatens to run him and his family. With only a $15,000 life insurance policy, he looks toward ending his life but with the help of a guardian angel is shown what life would have been like if he had never been born. It turns out that he actually profoundly touched the lives of so many people without really realizing it. In the end, George decides to live and the community rallies around him to raise the needed $8,000.
One thing struck me about this film—a film I have seen numerous times over the years—the animals of Uncle Billy. Sure, there is the crow that hops around the office in several scenes. And there is the odd squirrel that comes up to console Uncle Billy.
But it turns out that Uncle Billy is quite the collector of animals. In a brief impassioned scene in Uncle Billy’s office, my attention was diverted from the acting when I noticed something behind Uncle Billy and George. Is that a hamster cage with a hamster in it? Holy smokes, it is! And then I noticed the odd assortment of animals around him: various birds, a dog, a monkey.
If you get a chance, take in some classic films, especially those of Jimmy Stewart. As his daughter mentioned, he never played a role that was untrue to his character….and he played some lovely characters. He had a wonderful life.