by Joanna Paxinou
At the beginning of his career, he was nominated twice for a Best Actor Academy Award—in 1940 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and in 1941 when he won the award for his performance in The Philadelphia Story. He was just 33 years old.
He went on to appear in more than 80 films…12 of which have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
The American Film Institute named him third on their Greatest Screen Legends Actor list.
He worked with the era’s top directors—Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, John Ford and Frank Capra, who many consider made Stewart a star with You Can’t Take It With You.
How did Jimmy Stewart achieve such a stellar career and become one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars when he never even took an acting lesson? The answer? He felt you learned more by acting rather than by studying acting. His acting style? “I don’t act, I react.”
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When we think of Jimmy Stewart’s career, the films that usually come to mind are the ones he made in the 1950s with Hitchcock like Rear Window and Vertigo, or his westerns from the ‘50s and ‘60s including Winchester ’73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance and Broken Arrow.
But Stewart’s career began in the 1930s during the Golden Age of Hollywood. His first film was Art Trouble in 1934 as an MGM contract player, followed during the ‘30s with films that became classics, such as After the Thin Man, Seventh Heaven and Destry Rides Again. While his film career began in the Golden Age, he kept acting until 1991 having appeared in more than 90 movies, TV programs and shorts. After all those years, his films are still viewed on television and his name still resonates with the public.
Perhaps Stewart’s appeal is best summed up by The Jimmy Stewart Museum: “Jimmy Stewart was the movies’ quintessential everyman, a uniquely all-American performer who parlayed his easy-going persona into one of the most successful and enduring careers in film history.”
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James Maitland Stewart was born in 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He loved his hometown and the townsfolk loved and respected him. He stayed in touch and they celebrated many events with him, including his return from World War II and his 50th birthday. When they wanted to dedicate a museum to him, he balked. But when they explained the museum could bring in tourists’ money to the town’s economy, he finally consented and The Jimmy Stewart Museum was dedicated on May 20, 1995.
His father, Alexander Stewart, owned the local hardware store in his hometown, and put his son’s Oscar in the store’s window where it stayed for 25 years.
Stewart attended Princeton University studying architecture and also acted in stage productions with the Triangle Club, produced mostly by Joshua Logan who would go on to become an award-winning stage and film director, writer and producer.
When Stewart graduated, he decided to drop architecture and pursue acting. He joined The University Players, a summer stock theater company based in Massachusetts. Stewart’s tour with the company included a Broadway performance in 1932. He stayed on Broadway appearing in other plays, but when the Great Depression hit Broadway, plays dried up. “Every play I got into folded,” he said. So in 1934 he decided to join his friend, Henry Fonda, a fellow actor with The University Players, in Hollywood. (Their friendship lasted 50 years.)
In 1940, Stewart’s film career was put on hold when he was drafted into the US Armed Forces. He wanted to join the fight, but the Army wanted to keep him out of harm’s way. When they learned that Stewart loved to fly and had flown 400 hours, they thought they had the perfect spot for him—flight instructor at US bases. But Stewart never gave up trying to get in the fight.
Finally, a general helped him and Stewart served as a B-24 bomber pilot and squadron leader in the Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force. He flew 20 missions over enemy territory and came home a war hero. He was a dedicated commander and when his squadron did a bombing raid without him, he would wait on the field until every one of his flyers made it safely back to base.
Jimmy Stewart began as a private and ended the war in 1945 as a colonel. He came home a war hero awarded with more than 12 medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster. After being discharged, he joined the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1968 as brigadier general after 27 years of active and reserve service.
Although he came home a war hero, he never talked about his war experience. But he never forgot it. In Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot, author Starr Smith quotes Jonathan Coe, author of Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life: “Almost fifty years later, he would tell an interviewer that his military experience was something he thought about every day and said it was one of the great experiences of his life. In response to the question, ‘Greater than being in the movies?’ Stewart answered without hesitation, ‘Much greater.’”
BACK IN HOLLYWOOD
Within a year after the war, Stewart resumed his career with It’s a Wonderful Life—his favorite film, according to his daughter, Kelly Harcourt. And some say the most popular film of his 80 movies. Stewart commented: “Such a pure movie.” But the film wasn’t well received at all. Stewart explained: “I don’t think it was the type of story people wanted right after the war. They wanted a war-related story or a pure slapstick, Red Skelton type of comedy. Our movie just got lost.”
It’s a Wonderful Life was released just before Christmas in 1946 and bombed. The New York Times called it a “quaint and engaging modern parable” but “…the weakness of this picture…is the sentimentality of it.” The film lost money and disappeared until 1974 when the film’s copyright holder forgot to file for a renewal and the film entered the public domain.
With no royalties to pay, television channels screened it often during Christmas. Audiences then fell in love with the film making it a beloved Christmas tradition. (In 1993, the rights returned to the studio that had the original copyrights.)
For playing George Bailey, Stewart was ranked number eight on Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time in 2006. And that same year, the American Film Institute voted the film as the “most inspirational film ever made.”
Stewart continued to make outstanding movies, such as Anatomy of a Murder, Call Northwest 777, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Glenn Miller Story, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Harvey, about a man’s relationship with his best friend, a six-foot invisible rabbit. (Stewart received an Academy Award Best Actor Nomination for Harvey in 1950 and the film was nominated as Best Motion Picture.)
HE LOVED WESTERNS
Westerns were Jimmy Stewart’s favorite movies because they “give people a feeling of hope, an affirmative statement of living,” he explained.
Some people felt that the combat Stewart experienced in the war had changed him making him play more tough, even ruthless roles. The westerns gave him a chance to play these roles.
After the release of Winchester’73 in 1950, he made it to the Top 10 Box Office Stars list for the first time, and stayed there until the end of the decade.
He was so good at playing cowboys that in 1972 he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. (Funny thing, he wore the same hat in all of his westerns.)
The honors kept coming. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, by his friend President Ronald Reagan in 1985. He was the recipient of both the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983 and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1980.
He got his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. He won the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1965, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1969, and in a 1999 Entertainment Weekly poll, he was named Best Classic Actor of the 20th Century.
When notified that he was to be awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1985, Jimmy Stewart responded, “This honor means a great deal to me at this stage of the game.”
Cary Grant, who made the presentation to Stewart, said, “I’m here to proudly and happily make a presentation to a man we all love and admire…Jimmy Stewart, [his] decency, strength and kindness is evident in every film he made…The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Honorary Award to James Stewart for his 50 years of memorable performances, for his high ideals both on and off the screen. With the respect and affection of his colleagues. Congratulations.”
In accepting the award, Stewart thanked all the people he worked with on his movies from the crews to the directors, especially Frank Capra, and finally to the audience. “Thank you,” he said, “for being so kind to me over the years. You’ve given me a wonderful life.”
Jimmy Stewart was a beloved, well-respected film star—and he was smart. He was one of the first stars to receive a percentage of the gross of his movies.
“LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT”
Stewart was married only once to Gloria McLean, the love of his life many claim. She had two sons, Ronald and Michael, whom he adopted, and they had twin daughters, Kelly Harcourt and Judy Stewart-Merrill.
Before he met Gloria, Jimmy Stewart was quite a busy bachelor dating such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Olivia de Havilland and Ginger Rogers. But that all stopped when he met Gloria at a dinner party given by his friend Gary Cooper in 1948. In Stewart’s words, “It was love at first sight.” They married within a year and stayed together very much in love for 45 years. According to IMDb: “Their relationship could be considered one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories.”
Stewart was totally devoted to Gloria and never recovered from her death in 1994. After her funeral, he refused to make any public appearances. He stayed in his home and died three years later uttering his last words: “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”
More than 3,000 people attended his funeral. The public, his life-long friends, fellow actors—they all loved him and respected him. James Stewart was decent and solid…a wonderful man who lived a wonderful life.