James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Career

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October of 2012.

His appealing awkwardness in voice and manner set him apart from his Hollywood contemporaries who specialized in Everyman heroes and helped to make James Stewart an American icon both endearing and enduring. Born in May of 1908 in the small western Pennsylvania town of Indiana,  it was anticipated that James Maitland Stewart would take over the family’s hardware store business after his graduation from his father’s alma mater, Princeton University. Though excelling at his major of architecture, the collegiate 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 1934, 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.

MURDER MAN, THEThe early years of Stewart’s pact were largely unremarkable, as he made his screen debut in a 1934 Vitaphone short subject, Art Trouble, where he worked with once and future Stooge Shemp Howard. Jimmy’s first feature film was the following year in the Spencer Tracy vehicle The Murder Man, followed by bits and small roles in some notable pictures. 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.

Jimmy didn’t make too big a splash in 1936’s 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.”

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON 2His 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. His turn here 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 cynical reporter Macaulay Connor in MGM’s 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.

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 that same year teamed with June Allyson in their first of three pairings, the baseball biopic The Stratton Story, back at MGM.

HARVEY 6The 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.

GLENN MILLER STORYIn 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.

REAR WINDOWAs 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!

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).

ANATOMY OF A MURDERAs 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.

MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY 4A 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 the 1962 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 their plane crashes in the Sahara Desert in The Flight of the Phoenix, Stewart and a disparate group of men try to survive the disaster, while he then returned to comedy with Dear Brigitte.

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.