Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Happy Birthday, James Stewart!

The nicest man that has ever come out of Hollywood, James Maitland Stewart, was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was the eldest child of Elizabeth Ruth Jackson, an expert pianist, and Alexander Maitland Stewart, the owner of the local hardware store. As a young boy, Jimmy dreamed of becoming a pilot and would spend many hours in the basement building model airplanes and working on mechanical drawing. In the weekends, he would go to the movies and marvel at the way actors performed in the still silent silver screen.

Jimmy (right) at Princeton Triangle Club (ca. 1931)
In the fall of 1928, after graduating from the Mercersburg Academy prep school, Jimmy enrolled at Princeton University, where he studied towards a degree in architecture. During his sophomore year, his skills as an accordion player won him a coveted membership in the school's prestigious musical dramatic society, the Triangle Club, where he befriended fellow member Joshua Logan, the future Oscar-nominated director of Picnic (1955) and Sayonara (1957). During rehearsals for a play one day, Logan asked Jimmy if he had any ideas about becoming a professional actor after he graduated. Jimmy's response: "Good Gawd, no. I'm going to be an architect."

In the spring of 1932, the same day he received his degree from Princeton, Jimmy took a train to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to accept Logan's invitation to join his intercollegiate summer stock company, the University Players. Among the youthful troupe of aspiring actors, Jimmy met two who would became his lifelong friends: Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda. With the Players, he got the chance to appear on Broadway for the first time, in a small role as a policeman in Frank McGrath's Carry Nation (1932), a play about Prohibition. Although the show was a failure, Jimmy was "bitten by the acting bug" and decided to stay in the city, moving into an apartment with Logan and Fonda. 

If I hadn't become an actor, I think I'd been mixed up in flying [...] Acting was like getting bit by a malaria mosquito.
(James Stewart)

With Sullavan in Next Time We Love
After a couple of years as a struggling actor, Jimmy finally got his big break when he was cast in his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard's Yellow Jack (1934), for which he received glowing reviews. That fall, on the opening night of the highly anticipated production of Divided by Three (1934), Jimmy was spotted by MGM scout Bill Grady, who offered him a screen test. Encouraged by Fonda, who had just started his own movie career at 20th Century Fox, Jimmy agreed to take the test and was immediately signed to a standard seven-year contract with the studio.

Jimmy's first film role was as a slaphappy reporter named Shorty in Tim Whelan's crime melodrama The Murder Man (1935), starring Spencer Tracy and Virginia Bruce. After appearing as Jeanette MacDonald's brother in W. S. Van Dyke's Rose Marie (1936), his old friend Margaret Sullavan campaigned for him to be her leading man in Universal's Next Time We Love (1936). Sullavan rehearsed with Jimmy day and night and helped him develop his acting skills by encouraging him to turn his off-screen awkwardness into an on-screen asset. Her extensive coaching paid off and the lanky 28-year-old actor received the first good film reviews of his career. Jimmy's work in Next Time We Love led to an avalanche of opportunities and he soon appeared in a string of popular films with some of the biggest names in the business, such as Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance (1936), William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man (1936) and Ginger Rogers in RKO's Vivacious Lady (1938).

In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
After reuniting with Sullavan in the profitable war drama The Shopworn Angel (1938), Jimmy was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to appear in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Co-starring Jean Arthur, the film was a resounding success, earning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and marked the emergence of James Stewart as the quintessential Capra hero. The success of You Can't Take It With You led to a follow-up with both Capra and Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a comedy-drama about a naïve and idealistic young senator and his fight against political corruption. Released two months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington delivered a very gutsy message at a time when Americans where concerned with the rise of Nazism overseas and restored people's faith in democracy and liberty. The film was a critical and financial success and Jimmy's emotionally intense performance as Jefferson Smith not only earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but also made him a folk hero throughout America.

Following the completion of two more films with Margaret Sullavan, Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (1940), he was cast opposite Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940). Jimmy's performance as a fast-talking reporter won him the Oscar for Best Actor, beating out his best friend, Henry Fonda, who was nominated for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and taken as the sure winner of that year. Jimmy always felt that the statuette should have gone to Fonda and that the Academy was only trying to make amends for not giving him the award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was arguably the best role of his career. You can read my post about The Philadelphia Story by clicking here.

With the crew of a B-24 bomber in 1943
In October 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, Jimmy was drafted into the armed forces, but was rejected for being underweight. Still determined to serve his country, he lifted weights and ate everything he could that was fattening until he finally met the weight requirements. On March 22, 1941, a month before the release of Ziegfeld Girl (1941), he reported for active duty at Fort MacArthur in California, becoming the first Hollywood star to enter military service prior or during World War II. 

It may sound corny, but what's wrong with wanting to fight for your country. Why are people so reluctant to use the word patriotism?
(James Stewart)

Because of his flying experience and educational background, Jimmy was instantly accepted as an Army Air Corps pilot and immediately began an extensive schedule of flight training, ground work and academic examinations, eventually earning his wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant on January 19, 1942. In November 1943, after almost two years as a flight instructor, he was finally granted his wish to be sent overseas by being assigned to a Liberator squadron in England with the famed Mighty Eighth Air Force, where he was quickly promoted to Major. As a command pilot in B-24 bombers, he flew over 20 perilous combat missions over Nazi-occuppied Europe, including a pivotal raid to Berlin as the flight leader of a 1000 plane squadron. For his extraordinary bravery under fire, Colonel James Stewart received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with three clusters and the French Croix the Guerre with Palm. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1968, having been awarded the rank of Brigadier General.

With Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life
Shaken by his war experiences upon his return to California in the fall of 1945, Jimmy thought of quitting Hollywood and going back to Pennsylvania to run his father's hardware store. Fortunately, Frank Capra called him and offered him the lead role in his latest picture, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), based on a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern. In the film, Jimmy played George Bailey, an upstanding small-town man frustated by his ordinary existence and financial troubles, whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve leads him to reassess his life with the help of an angel with no wings named Clarence.

Although the film presented an engaging theme of redemption through faith, it opened to disappointing reviews and poor box-office results, with audiences considering its sentimentality old-fashioned in the face of the sharp realism of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the most successful film of that year. Despite Hollywood's doubts that Jimmy could recapture his pre-war screen momentum, It's a Wonderful Life earned him his third Oscar nomination for Best Actor and George Bailey went on to become one of the most memorable roles of his career.

In the late 1940s, Jimmy began to realize that audiences were no longer interested in sentiment and that his charming innocence simply wasn't appealing anymore. Henry Hathaway's semi-documentary noir Call Northside 777 (1948) brought a new and tougher James Stewart to the screen, but it wasn't until the following year that he had his first box-office hit with Sam Wood's The Stratton Story (1949), based on the life story of Monty Stratton, a Major League baseball player who fought to continue his career after losing  leg.

In a publicity still for Harvey
The 1950s marked the beginning of a new phase in Jimmy Stewart's career, one that brought him to his highest level of stardom. Starting the decade with the hit western Winchester '73 (1950), which cemented a powerful eight-picture partnership with director Anthony Mann, he then moved to the whimsical Harvey (1950), the story of a wealthy, good-natured eccentric named Elwood P. Dowd, who prefers the company of an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit to that of his family. The film earned Jimmy his fourth Academy Award nomination and proved to be a perfect fit for a 42-year-old actor making a graceful transition from playing idealistic young men to mature character roles.

After the challenge of making an entire picture in clown make-up in Cecil B. DeMille's Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and exhibiting a hard edge of cynicism, anger and violence in Anthony Mann's westerns Bend of the River (1952) and The Naked Spur (1953), Jimmy proved to be adept at character study when he was cast in the title role of Mann's The Glenn Miller Story (1954). Co-starring June Allyson in their second of three films together, The Glenn Miller Story was universally acclaimed, with Jimmy's performance being singled out for praise, and it became the third highest grossing picture of that year.

Also instrumental to Jimmy's success in the 1950s was his work with director Alfred Hitchcock, who, like Mann, was able to uncover new depths to his acting, showing a protagonist confronting his fears and repressed desires. Though Jimmy's first collaboration with Hitchcock, the innovative thriller Rope (1948), was a flop, the three films they produced in the 1950s were among the best of that decade.

With Kim Novak in Vertigo
In Rear Window (1954), he played a voyeuristic photographer with a broken leg, who uncovers a murder while spying on his neighbors from his apartment rear window. Co-starring Grace Kelly as his love interest, Rear Window received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and was a success at the box-office and Jimmy Stewart, having cut a deal to defer his salary for a percentage of the film's profits, became the highest grossing star of 1954 as a result. You can read my more detailed article about the film by clicking here.

By 1955, the 47-year-old James Stewart was the number one box-office draw in the world, outranking the Duke himself, John Wayne. After being paired with Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hitchcock's remake of his 1934 British production of the same name, he was cast opposite Kim Novak in the psychological thriller Vertigo (1958). In what many consider Hitchcock's most personal film, Jimmy played Scottie Ferguson, a former police detective suffering from acrophobia, who develops a destructive obsession with a woman he was hired to investigate. While today Vertigo is ranked by film experts and audiences alike as one of the greastest films of all time, in 1958, it opened to critical and box-office indifference and maked the last collaboration between Jimmy and Hitchcock.

After his fifth and final Oscar nomination for his performance in Otto Preminger's landmark courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in which he starred as a small-town lawyer who gets the case of a lifetime when a soldier avenges an attack on his wife, Jimmy's career finally began to slow down and he dedicated more of his time to his family: wife Gloria, whom he married in 1949, stepsons Ronald and Michael, and twin daughters Judy and Kelly.

In How the West Was Won
The early 1960s marked a period of personal tragedy in Jimmy's life, with the deaths of his father and his longtime friends Margaret Sullavan and Gary Cooper. After a short break, he returned to work to show amazing range and undiminished charisma in films like the westerns The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962), and the light-hearted comedies Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and Take Her, She's Mine (1963).

Most critics agree that Jimmy Stewart's last greatest film was Andrew McLaglen's Shenandoah (1965), in which he played a proud father who tries to keep his family out of the Civil War. Though set during the American Civil War, the film's strong anti-war and humanitarian themes resonated with audiences agonizing over the Vietnam War and Shenandoah became the sixth highest grossing film of that year, Jimmy's biggest moneymaker since Rear Window, more than a decade earlier. In 1969, tragedy struck Jimmy once again when his 24-year-old stepson, Ronald, was killed in action in Vietnam, while serving as a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.

His stepson's death left Jimmy in a state of severe depression and it was Henry Fonda that urged him to go back to work on the film they had started before Ronald died, Gene Kelly's comedy-western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), which opened to critical and box-office indifference. Convinced that his best filmmaking days were behind him, he turned to television, a medium he hoped would launch one last mainstream connection for him to the outside world. After two unsuccessful television series, The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972) and Hawkins (1973-1974), Jimmy returned to big screen with a major supporting role in John Wayne's final film, The Shootist (1976).

Following Henry Fonda's death in 1982, Jimmy retired from Hollywood, though he did make some television films including HBO's Right of Way (1983), with Bette Davis. The 1980s were then dedicated to quiet nights with the family, philanthropic affairs and gardening. He also took to writing and even published a tongue-and-cheek poetry book called Jimmy Stewart and His Poems (1989), which included the poem "Beau", a humorous tribute to his deceased pet dog, recited for the first time on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981. After losing Gloria to cancer in 1994, he shied away from public life. Three years later, on July 2, 1997, James Stewart died quietly at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, leaving behind an eternal legacy of cinematic greatness.

James Stewart (1908-1997)
I think it's wonderful to have been able to give people little pieces of time they can remember.

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2007) | Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot by Starr Smith (2005) | Jimmy Stewart: His Wonderful Life (1997)


  1. Lovely tribute! My favorite actor! One of these days I want to catch up on some of his television work including Hawkins and Right of Way.