Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) was one of Hollywood's most respected and admired stars during his long movie career. He won an Academy Award in 1940 and was considered by many critics to be one of the great leading men from Hollywood's studio era.
In the 81 films made throughout his nearly 50 year career, Jimmy Stewart often played a man of modest means, striving to overcome his situation to reach his dreams. He is probably best remembered for his role in the 1946 sentimental, holiday favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, in which he plays the embittered idealist, a decent, small-town citizen, George Bailey.
Growing Up Prosperous and Responsible
James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Alexander Maitland and Elizabeth Ruth Jackson Stewart. He had two younger sisters. According to James Lacayo of People, Stewart's mother "had attended college, which was unusual for a woman of her generation, " and his father was a "Princeton graduate who had returned home to run the prosperous family hardware store founded in 1853." The Stewarts of Indiana were regarded as a prosperous family by middle America standards and were considered strict parents who, according to James Ansen of Newsweek raised their children "in an ethos of service" and sent their sons to Princeton University.
Stewart was a lanky boy-he would grow to six foot three and a half inches tall-and he enjoyed playing the accordion and putting on plays he wrote himself. He attended high school at Mercersburg Academy, a boarding school in Pennsylvania. He played football and was a member of the glee club and the Dramatics Club. He spent his summer vacations working.
In keeping with family tradition, Stewart entered Princeton University in New Jersey in 1928, where he became a member of the Princeton Triangle Club and appeared in their musicals. Although he studied architecture, even before he earned his degree in 1932, Stewart knew he was more interested in acting. After graduation, he headed for the University Players, a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where he met another soon-to-be-great-film-star, Henry Fonda. They would become lifelong friends even though they had differing views on many subjects. Lacayo noted that Stewart and Fonda "stayed close by agreeing never to discuss politics."
Stewart first stepped on a Broadway stage in October 1932, in the unsuccessful Carry Nation. Two months later he had two lines as the chauffeur in Goodbye Again. But in 1934, Stewart landed a sizeable role in the story of Walter Reed's battle against yellow fever in Yellow Jack, playing the role of Sergeant O'Hara. He received positive reviews for this role, but the play did not do well.
After five more stage appearances, Stewart took a train to Hollywood, where he roomed with Fonda who had settled there earlier. An MGM talent scout, Billy Grady, had seen his work and got the studio to cast him in Murder Man in 1935. Stewart later said he was awful, but over the next five years he made 24 movies, including Frank Capra's 1938 film You Can't Take It With You, which won the Academy Awards for best picture and best director. He then portrayed the idealistic young senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for which Stewart won the New York Film Critics best actor award and an Academy Award nomination. In 1940, he was in The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and won the best actor Academy Award for his performance. His Academy Award was sent home to Indiana to be displayed in the family hardware store.
A Pilot in World War II
Stewart's career was taking off when World War II gave him a new role as a pilot. Having some flying experience, he joined the United States Army and was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941. According to Lacayo, "Stewart was rejected on his first physical for being 10 pounds under-weight, an embarrassment that made headlines around the country…. Just days after winning the Oscar, Stewart took his second physical. This time he made it, but barely." After some time as an instructor, he was sent to Europe as commander of a bomber squadron in November of 1943. Ansen of Newsweek noted, "His war record was distinguished-he flew some 25 missions and returned a highly decorated colonel-but when studios wanted to exploit his real-life heroism in postwar fly boy epics, he refused to play along." He was awarded the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross and reached the rank of brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve in 1959.
His first movie after the war was It's a Wonderful Life in 1946. Although the movie was not a success at the box office, it has since become a holiday classic. Audiences still enjoyed Stewart and related to the depressed, down-on-his-luck George Bailey. Lacayo noted that Stewart's "speaking voice seemed to spring from an ideal American center, both geographic and spiritual, a place of small towns and unhurried people." According to those who knew him, these qualities on screen were part of the real person. From then until his last two films, a television movie with Bette Davis (1983) called Right of Way and an animation film entitled An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), Stewart's popularity never waned.
A Wonderful Career and Life
In 1949, then Hollywood's most eligible bachelor, Stewart, age 41, married Gloria Hatrick McLean. In a town where marriage and divorce are not considered front page news, the Stewarts managed one of Hollywood's most durable and happy unions. The family included four children, sons Ronald and Michael from his wife's first marriage, and twin girls Judy and Kelly, born in 1951. (Ronald was later killed in battle during the Vietnam War.)
As Stewart aged, he kept many of the screen mannerisms of his youth, but they were displayed in a more mature, confident demeanor that audiences responded to. His long and varied career includes some audience and critic favorites: Call Northside 777 (1948); Harvey (1950), in which he plays a drunk whose friend happens to be a giant, invisible rabbit (Stewart returned once to Broadway for this role in 1947); bandleader Glenn Miller in The Glenn Miller Story (1953); pilot Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957); the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Vertigo (1958); and a number of well-received Westerns, including Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Man From Laramie (1955), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Some critics did not know how to react to an unshaven Stewart playing a rough and tumble cowboy, but the audiences didn't mind. For his 1959 role as the defense attorney in Anatomy of a Murder, Stewart won the New York Film Critics awards as well as honors from the Venice Film Festival.
When Stewart played the quiet, confident American hero, audiences felt he was pretty much playing himself. In 1955, he was a baseball player recalled to the air force in Strategic Air Command, opposite June Allyson with whom he played in a number of films. Stewart often liked to work with the same actors or directors. He was also considered to be a good businessman. According to Lacayo, in the 1950s, "he became one of Hollywood's first free agents, moving studio to studio … and negotiating contracts that often gave him what was then an usual deal: a percentage of the film's box office receipts instead of a salary." These deals made Stewart a rich man.
In his later years, Stewart worked steadily into the 1970s, even trying his luck with two television series. He never quite lost the boyish charm that had caught the eye of a movie agent back in the 1920s. Graying and still soft spoken, he was always a welcome guest on television late night shows where he delighted audiences with Hollywood stories and sometimes bad poetry. Taking his anecdotes a step further, he had a best selling book, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, which was published in 1989. He also received an Honorary Academy Award in 1985 for, as the Academy noted, "his 50 years of meaningful performances, for his high ideals, both on and off the screen, with the respect and affection of his colleagues."
After a 45 year marriage, Gloria Stewart passed away in 1994. In 1995, Stewart was honored when "The Jimmy Stewart Museum" opened in his hometown. Yet, Stewart was said to be distraught after the loss of his wife. Former co-star Shirley Jones commented to People "Gloria's death was a shock he never got over." Stewart died on July 2, 1997, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. As Ansen of Newsweek reflected, "It's nice to remember a world when a movie star was also a gentleman." Added Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, Stewart's "shy stutter, every-guy charm, and extraordinary range of classic film roles made him one of the most loved and admired of all American actors."
Further Reading on Jimmy Stewart
International Directory of Film and Film Makers: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1997.
Detroit Free Press, July 3, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, July 14, 1997.
London Times, July 4, 1997.
New York Times, July 23, 1997.
Newsweek, July 14, 1997.
People, July 21, 1997.
"James Stewart, " Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com (May 13, 1998).
The Jimmy Stewart Museum: Homepage, http://www.jimmy.org (May 13, 1998).