James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Career

His appealing awkwardness in voice and manner set him apart from his Hollywood contemporaries who specialized in Everyman heroes and made James Stewart an American icon both endearing and enduring. Born in 1908 in the small western Pennsylvania town of Indiana to parents who owned and operated the local hardware store, it was anticipated that James Maitland Stewart would take over the family business after his graduation from his father’s alma mater, Princeton. Though excelling at his major of architecture, Stewart found himself gravitating toward the school’s drama and music clubs, and his efforts there led to a post-graduate invitation to join Joshua Logan’s Cape Cod-based intercollegiate stock company, the University Players. 

It was during this apprenticeship that he made a lifelong friend of another young actor named Henry Fonda, and the two were soon splitting a New York apartment while hunting for opportunities on Broadway. Jimmy wrangled small roles on the Great White Way through 1935, when an MGM scout was impressed by his effort in the play “Divided by Three.” Encouraged by Fonda, who’d procured a Hollywood contract the year prior, Stewart tested for and received an MGM deal.

The early years of Stewart’s pact were largely unremarkable, as he made his feature film debut in a 1935 Spencer Tracy vehicle, The Murder Man, and followed with bits and small roles in notable films. 1936 saw Jimmy on the screen in nine efforts; he had a breakthrough in Rose Marie as headliner Jeannette MacDonald’s wayward brother; held his own alongside big-name stars Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in Wife vs. Secretary; and was just a small town boy in Small Town Girl for William Wellman. He didn’t make too big a splash in The Gorgeous Hussy, again the victim of being outranked by MGM luminaries Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. Still playing second fiddle to the bigger stars, he was the love interest for Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance in 1936, and introduced the Cole Porter song “Easy to Love,” which went on to become a standard. It is actually Stewart’s tenor voice audiences hear on the soundtrack, and years later he recalled, “the song had become such a big hit that they felt even my singing couldn’t ruin it.”

His star turned when he was noticed in After the Thin Man (1936), and leads and second leads started to follow for the gangling and ingratiating young performer–Seventh Heaven, The Last Gangster, Of Human Hearts, Vivacious Lady, The Shopworn Angel and a top-billed role in Navy, Blue and Gold–but it took a loan-out to Columbia Pictures for Frank Capra’s 1938 farce You Can’t Take It with You, opposite Jean Arthur, to put him on the fast track. The film’s critical and commercial response earned it the Best Picture Academy Award that year and spurred another teaming with Capra and Arthur the following year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and his work as a political naif installed in a U.S. Senate seat resulted in his first  Best Actor Oscar nomination.

As the 1930s ended and the ’40s  dawned, Jimmy delighted moviegoers in such works as the David O. Selznick domestic “dramedy” Made for Each Other (1938) with Carole Lombard; the lighthearted frontier tale Destry Rides Again (1939), with Marlene Dietrich, at Universal; and a hilarious outing with Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World (1939). The films starring Stewart got better and better and hold their place among some of the world’s most cherished movies: He was paired with Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner and The Mortal Storm (both 1940); got top billing over Hedy Lamarr in Come Live with Me and starred opposite Paulette Goddard in Pot O’ Gold (both 1941). In his next film, Ziegfeld Girl, also in ’41, it took three beautiful women to be his co-stars: Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Lamarr.

1941 also saw Stewart capture the Academy Award for Best Actor prize for his portrayal of the cynical reporter in The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. For trivia buffs, Jimmy’s actual statuette that was given to him had the word “Philadelphia” spelled incorrectly. That Oscar sat for years in the Stewart family’s hardware store back in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It is a mere coincidence that the store was located on Philadelphia Street!

However, with America’s entry into World War II, the patriotic performer placed his career on hold and enlisted. With a lifelong love of aviation to draw on, Stewart’s skills served the Army Air Corps well, first stateside as a flight instructor and, beginning in 1943, in aerial combat over Europe. By the war’s end, he’d risen to the rank of colonel; he’d ultimately make brigadier general as an Air Force reservist.

James Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life

Returning to Hollywood as a freelance, he again aligned with Capra for It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, which was his favorite of all his films. Despite his third Oscar nomination, the critical and box-office response to the now-lauded film was middling, a fate Stewart frequently encountered over the remainder of the ’40s. Some notable exceptions included his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, 1948′s Rope, and later that year the 20th Century-Fox noir docudrama, Call Northside 777.  Jimmy joined Spencer Tracy in Malaya in 1949 and teamed with June Allyson in their first of three pairings, the baseball biopic The Stratton Story (1949), back at MGM.

The search for a stolen rifle drove Stewart in 1950′s Winchester ’73, the first in a string of dark, adult-themed westerns the actor who star in for director Anthony Mann over the decade. That same year he struggled to create a lasting peace between homesteaders and Apaches in another frontier tale, Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow, and re-created his stage role as the delightful dipsomaniac Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is an invisible, 6′  1½”-tall rabbit named Harvey. In 1952, Cecil B. DeMille gave Stewart a key role (one we don’t want to spoil for you if you haven’t seen the movie) in his Brobdingnagian big top epic The Greatest Show on Earth.

Other Eisenhower-era triumphs included Carbine Williams (1952), a fondly remembered biopic about the man who, while in prision, created the M-1 Carbine automatic rifle that became famous during World War II; and The Glenn Miller Story (1954), the famed biography of the musician and band leader, with Allyson as his wife.

Back under Mann’s direction he starred in Bend of the River (1952), as an outlaw-turned-wagon scout guiding settlers to the Oregon Territory. In 1953′s The Naked Spur he was a bounty hunter tracking down fugitive killer Robert Ryan while being hindered by Ryan’s girlfriend (Janet Leigh). He would eventually do three more films with Mann: The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955) and Night Passage (1957), co-starring with Audie Murphy, but a falling out with the director caused Mann to be replaced by James Neilson, and the duo never worked together again.

As the ’50s progressed, the aging actor successfully shed the “aw, shucks” aspects of his screen persona and showed himself wholly capable of edgier characterizations, roles defined largely by his subsequent suspense films with Hitchcock. Rear Window (1954) paired him with gorgeous Grace Kelly and found wheelchair-bound shutterbug Stewart convinced one of his neighbors is a murderer. Hitch’s 1956 remake of his globetrotting mystery The Man Who Knew Too Much has Jimmy capably partnered with Doris Day. And 1958′s Vertigo, voted the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, is also considered by many to be the best of the Stewart/Hitchcock collaborations. It also turned out to be their last; the director supposedly blamed Stewart for Vertigo’s poor box office, claiming the public viewed him as being too old for the role. This consequently cost Jimmy, who had been thought by many to be Hitchcock’s favorite actor, the lead in 1959′s North by Northwest.  Once he and the director parted ways, Stewart confided, “Mr. Hitchcock did not say actors are cattle. He said they should be treated like cattle.” Oddly enough, Cary Grant–North by Northwest’s eventual star–was actually four years older than Stewart!

Spanish movie poster for The Spirit of St. Louis

In addition to his Hitchcock accomplishments, Jimmy’s well-rounded portfolio of  late ’50s performances included a pair of  aviation-themed titles. Strategic Air Command (1955) paired him for the final time with June Allyson, and in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), he was perfectly cast as transatlantic pioneer Charles Lindbergh under Billy Wilder’s direction. A well-accepted change of pace role had him falling under Kim Novak’s spell in the bewitching comedy Bell, Book and Candle (1959).

As the small-town lawyer of Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, he was honored with an Academy nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Otto Preminger’s controversial courtroom drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor nods for both Arthur O’Connell and George C. Scott. Stewart finished off the decade with The FBI Story, where viewers got to see Jimmy take on Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, the KKK, Nazi spy rings and Communist agents.

A more grandfatherly Stewart remained busy throughout the ’60s, his schedule largely dominated by oaters. Favorites from this phase include Jimmy as a hardened marshal in Two Rode Together (1961) with Richard Widmark; as John Wayne’s friend in John Ford’s epic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); opposite Maureen O’Hara in the1962 family comedy Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation; and, later that year, as part of the huge cast of players in the Cinerama spectacular How the West Was Won.

In 1964 he then reteamed with director Ford for Cheyenne Autumn and the following year it seemed like he was born to play the family patriarch in Shenandoah, a wealthy Virginia farmer whose opposition to slavery causes him to remain neutral during the Civil War. Also in ’65, after his plane crashes in The Flight of the Phoenix, he and a disparate group of men try to survive the disaster.

Subsequently, his output began to slow. In 1966, he co-starred with O’Hara again in The Rare Breed, then segued into the ’70s with sunset co-starring vehicles for himself and Fonda like Firecreek (1968) and the very popular The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), with a starring role in 1968′s  Bandolero! , alongside Dean Martin and Raquel Welch, in between the two. He thereafter made a couple of one-season stabs at series television: as a small-town college professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-72) and as a cagey precursor to Matlock in the legal drama Hawkins (1973-’74).

The disco era saw him make his last handful of big-screen appearances: he played a cameo role, at John Wayne’s request, in 1976′ s The Shootist, in what turned out to be the Duke’s final film. Having performed with Wayne in three films and knowing him for years, Stewart said, “John Wayne was probably the biggest star in the world, yet he retained the qualities of a small boy. He had the enthusiasm for life that would make a high school football star envious. And through it all, Duke never changed. As a man he was exactly the boy he started out. And as a friend . . . well, you just wouldn’t want a better one.” In 1978, Stewart took on a character role in the Robert Mitchum version of The Big Sleep, and also that year was seen in the family musical The Magic of Lassie.

By 1980 the Hollywood legend had eased himself into semi-retirement, a period marked by advocacy of his favorite causes (including decrying the colorization of old black-and-white movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life), TV  talk show turns, and the publication of his poetry. The occasional return to acting included his first and only pairing with Bette Davis for the 1983 made-for-cable film Right of Way, the 1986 miniseries North and South: Book II and voicework in 1991 for the animated feature An American Tail: Feivel Goes West. A few years before his passing in 1997, Stewart said, “I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said.” Well, no one who’s ever seen his work could ever say different.

Now sit back and enjoy the master craftsman that was James Stewart in the theatrical trailer for 1954′s Rear Window:

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  • Wayne P.

    It sure was a wonderful film career for Jimmy Stewart…he was the humble ‘everyman’ in real life while being a big movie star.  Can only remember him playing the heavy in one role…his next after his debut in The Murder Man in 1935, and it was After the Thin Man in 1936.  A personal fave of mine was his somewhat against type but deft  application of the Lubitsch touch in The Shop Around the Corner from 1940 as well as a good turn in the comedic masterpiece You Cant Take it with You (1938)..  His on-screen chemistry with Margaret Sullavan was evident in several memorable pairings but the contrast between her tragic off-camera life and his stellar manifestation of conservative character values couldnt have been more pronounced.  He also had one more noticeable trait, which is very commendable,  in that he kept his personal life mostly out of the headlines!

  • Del

    I’ve loved him in every film so far – including The Jackpot from 1950 which is such a lovely, little know gem it seems. 

  • Blair Kramer

    I love DESTRY RIDES AGAIN!  It’s one of my favorite westerns.  But I always wondered about its somewhat confusing message.  The good natured, easy going, witty,  but determined sheriff, played by James Stewart, demonstrates the fact that one can deal with evil without resorting to violence or gunplay…  That is, until he resorts to violence and gunplay at the end of the film!  And of course,  he does so because there is clearly no other way to deal with the bad guys.  So,  what lesson did we learn?  I think it means that it’s OK to resort to the use of violence and guns when there is absolutely no other answer. And sometimes,  unfortunately,  in the real world,  there truly IS no other answer.

  • OZ ROB

    Another great film from Stewart, from his impressive list of collaborations with Mann is the very entertaining, action packed ,Thunder Bay,1953,, a story about discovering and drilling for oil down Louisiana way…

  • Vinny Castellano

    Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors.  He played a variety of roles in movies ranging from idealistic Capra films to dark Hitchcock thrillers.  More importantly, he was a decent, humble, honest man in real life as well as in many of his screen roles. 

    • Lala1941jan


  • Gemini09

    A man of integrity and not only did he do his job well but he excelled at it. It’s very hard to pick one standout role from such a diverse body of work. He made acting look easy and he never overacted or tried to imitate. Even though it has dated a bit I recently saw Shop around the Corner again and was reminded how good he was at showing emotional depth without being saccharine. They don’t make stars like Jimmy Stewart any more thats for sure.

  • Thom Bennett

    Excellent article. Well done, Jay Steinberg!

  • Rddeaton1

    Great article, Jay, on a man who should be considered, not only an icon, but an American hero as well.  Everything he did, was honest, above board and for the good of others.  The film roles that he chose, were always the type that had depth and an honesty to them.  I still remember the first time I saw the Spirit of St. Louis.  While many dismissed this film, in many cases, as with aviation itself, not everything is dramatic and exciting.  In this case, just trying to land after 33 1/2 hours was as real as you can get.  There were many lessons to be learned from that film.  It should be seen in every home and school as a testament to doing what is right, and persevering in the face of all odds.

  • Joseph23006

    Just remember, he wasn’t always the nice guy.  In the second “Thin Man” he was the murderer!

    • hypatiab7

      His character in the Thin Man movie was totally nuts. In “Rosemarie” (also called “Indian Love Call”),
      he was a  good boy gone bad and full of regret. He was great in both roles. One of my favorite Jimmy
      Stewart roles is in “Sprit of St. Louis” (though I loath the real Lindberg). There is one cockpit scene
      that I love. Lindberg is alone in the plane with a hitchhiking fly. The fly stays with him for a long time
      and Lindy has a running conversation with it. When the plane reaches Newfoundland, the last bit
      of land until the plane gets to Ireland, Lindy tells the fly that Newfoundland is a nice place with plenty
      of good food and that Ireland and anymore food was a long way off and he’d understand if the fly left.
      The fly zips right out the window. Stewart’s laughter sounded real.

  • Alberger07

    I became a James Stewart fan after watching a movie no one seems to include:
    “Magic Town”

  • Suitsme

    I once asked Virginia Patton Moss who played Donna Reed’s sister in ‘It’s a wonderful life’ who the nicest actor in Hollywood was and she said without a doubt, James Stewart.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OC6SKJLQDZEY674X7VRYBWH6AI Tom

    I don’t know if I have seen Jimmy Stewart in a movie that I did not like.  If he was your neighbor and you were having a cook-out, he would bring something to the feast.  Just saw “Mister Smith Goes to Washington” for the umteenth time.  ( It is a great Election Year Movie ).  Always enjoy ” Rear Window ” as Jimmy carrys on with the superb and lovely Grace Kelly.  And it’s just not Christmas without ” It’s a Wonderful Life “.  Thanks Jimmy, for all you gave to your country and your fans.

  • Lizasaurus64

    I love all of his films but especially Shenandoah which I have watched so many times.  A great actor and above all a great human being.

    • CRmovies

      I agree – I also have enjoyed Mortal Storm. I loved the way he “battled” against his Nazi friends and the scene where his female lead dies is extremely touching.

  • FalmouthBill

    As someone already said “he doesn’t make bad films”, and I concur I probably have more films starring him in my film library than anyone else. My personal favorite “Harvey”, I couldn’t picture anyone else playing that part, and making it believable !

  • Jim Foster

    A wonderful, approachable human being.  He made himself available to his fans, especially in his later years, and was happy to autograph a still I sent him about three years before his passing.  He is one of the true luminaries of the silver screen, whose work I continue to enjoy to ths very day.  IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is tied for first place with three other pictures on my list of all-time favorites.

  • Burl Morgan

    It is a great honor for Boise Idaho having James Stewart train for his military career. I was one of my favorite actor. I miss his westerns and the type of comedy he provided.

  • Pacerdad

    Wonderful actor!  A very talented man.  His movies will last longer than alot of the garbage that is being put out today.  I never tire of watching him in a movie.  We need more actors like him.

  • LaurenAva

    Jimmy Stewart was definitely a definitive classic actor!  He might not have looked like the dashing Errol Flynn, but you’ve just got to love him and believe that he really feels what his character is portraying.  I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least once every year (usually 2 or 3 times), and absolutely love Jimmy in “Vivacious Lady”.  Three cheers for Jimmy Stewart!! 

  • Lacewing_3

    Much more talented than most of those “pretty boy” actors.

  • http://twitter.com/Bryankr Bryan Ruffin

    Like a few of the others, I can’t think of one film he was in that I didn’t like. He was great at all the roles he played! Lawyer, cowboy, college Professor, didn’t matter. He played them all with the same professionalism and just sheer talent. Some of his movies I watch over and over. If I see a movie that has him in it, I will be sure to watch it for no other reason than him being in it. I am never disappointed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_R42UTQKD33LAHNRO7GWNY5GNYA Ron C

    Along with Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart was/is one of my favorites

  • Sarathompson

    I like him in Harvey,and it is a wonderful lfe, I watch every christmas, I liked Mr. Smith goes to washington also.I like all of his movies, and rent them and see them when they are on the tv.

  • Dave

    This listing of the many wonderful films starring James Stewart leaves out “Magic Town” (1947), an unusual comedy lampooning sociological surveys and studies.  It would be especially refreshing to screen this one if you are getting tired of those political pollsters who have, until November, even displaced product telemarketers as the top seasonal annoyance.  

  • http://awesomesauciness.wordpress.com/ CJ

    He is my favorite actor of all time.  No others can compare.

  • dave816

    I cannot imagine a better Hitchcock movie or performance than the one James Stewart gave in Vertigo. He was in character and riveting during the entire movie. I do not believe Hitchcock blamed him for poor boxoffice. To me it is probably closer to the truth that the movie was too cerebral and sophisticated for most. I saw it as a teenager and appreciated it far more as I grew older and understood the complex nature of the performance Stewart gave. It is my all time favorite James Stewart film and among the finest Hitchcock made. I also loved Shadow of a Doubt, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest as far as Hitchcock goes, James Stewart was a superb actor with the right material and in Vertigo he was given a role he could soar in.

  • dave816

    How did I ever forget the most “entertaining” movie James Stewart or Alfred Hitchcock ever made and to me it was Rear Window.

  • William Sommerwerck

    If I had to pick one, it would be Jeff in “The Far Country”. It was only in Stewart’s post-War career that he showed what a /really/ good actor he was. Here he convincingly plays against “type” as a complex and sometimes unsympathetic character. (I also like the fact that Walter Brennan’s character is obviously in love with Stewart’s.)

    • Wayne P.

      Ok, so you like to mention that you also like depictions of so-called gay relationships in movies…so, what of it? Some of us may not as well…its a matter of personal preference and lifestyle, of course. One might wonder since you seem to bring up stuff like this on your comments to this blog more than just once, exactly what point is it that youre trying to make? Its a sign of the times that such behavior is more accepted in todays mainstream film culture…but back then, not at all, just as it wasnt accepted in that society at large so, in my opinion, such speculation is a stretch at best and unnecessary at worst!

  • Chuck

    Not mentioned and often panned- “The Man From Laramie” is the archtypical Stewart western and one of my favorites. Love “Bell, Book and Candle”- but also love Kim Novak, so who can tell?

  • LaurenAva

    Love Jimmy Stewart! He was a great actor (I’ve read he never took any kind of acting lessons), and seemed to be a great, genuine man. I think his performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is unbelievable, and he’ll always be perfect in It’s a Wonderful Life. Three cheers!

  • Cara

    I love a number of Jimmy Stewart’s performances, but one I came to appreciate only in the last few years is his turn in Anatomy of a Murder. I’d seen it as a girl, and most of the nuances of character went right over my head. When I saw it on TCM, I wasn’t distracted by Preminger’s determined effort to overcome the Hollywood censors. This time when I watched the film, I was totally caught up in Stewart’s understated performance. The film isn’t watched nearly as often as It’s a Wonderful Life, the three Hitchcock films and the iconic westerns, but it ranks up there with his very best roles. He paints us a rather dark picture of a jaded lawyer who’s drifting through life and a mediocre legal career, drinking just a little too much, and escaping responsibility with a rod and a reel. The plot unfolds strictly through his POV, and he’s in almost every scene. There are a number of excellent performances in the film, including one by a young George C. Scott, an great turn by Eve Arden, playing it strictly straight as Stewart’s frustrated secretary, and some fun scene stealing by the real life judge who is the judge at the trial. But Stewart’s performance carries the picture. And his perception of reality colors the viewer’s perspective through all the plot twists. (I won’t be a spoiler.) Watch it yourself, and see if you don’t agree.

  • classicsforever

    Jimmy Stewart never seemed to be acting. His was a natural talent. Any movie he appeared in was made better by his presence.

  • Jay

    Try and check out a film he starred in with Ginger Rogers called Vivacious Lady.

  • John Adams

    Fool’s Parade. One of Jimmy’s later — and best — performances, and still not on DVD!

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