James Stewart--rising but underpaid MGM contract player.
It is almost impossible not to admire, even love, James Stewart, the consummate film actor whose career spanning more than 50 years included some of the most memorable and beloved films ever made. Stewart died on June 2, 1997 at the age of 89 in his long time Beverly Hills home.
His on-screen persona as an American everyman, sometimes befuddled, sometimes angry, but always at heart decent was rooted in his own experience and personality. He himself said that often, “I just play Jimmy Stewart.” This belies the subtlety of acting which made everything he did seem natural, even effortless.Stewart's close knit Indiana, Pennsylvania family. Young James idolized his pharmacist father and learned to love music from his mother.
Stewart was a product of a classic American small town, Indiana, Pennsylvania, born the son of the local druggist in 1908. He worshiped his father, was a Boy Scout, and inherited his mother’s musicality picking up the accordion—a lifelong passion. He tinkered with model airplanes and dreamed of attending the Naval Academy and becoming an aviator—dreams his father discouraged because he wanted his son to join him in the drug store which had been in the family for three generations. He was sent away to a prep school where he excelled at academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities—including a spin in the drama club.
Stewart’s father insisted that he attend Princeton and give up his dreams of aviation and he obediently complied, apparently without rancor. He studied and excelled in architecture and his thesis—on airport design—won him a fellowship to graduate school. But he had become seriously involved in college theatrics and glee club in addition to serving as head cheerleader and spent hours haunting local movie houses.
Young actors, room mates, life long pals Henry Fonda and James Stewart.
Graduating in 1932 at the height of the Depression, he was invited to join a noted summer stock company, the University Players for a season on Cape Cod. Although he got no more than small supporting roles and bit parts, he became immersed in the theater experience, rooming with director Joshua Logan, and two other young actors Henry Fonda and Myron McCormick.
That fall, resisting his father’s pleas to come home to the drug store, Steward decided to give Broadway a try, rooming again with Fonda. The two would share a lifelong affectionate friendship despite once having a fist fight over the New Deal—Fonda was a liberal Democrat and Stewart maintained his father’s small town Republican conservatism. Fonda reportedly won the fight but the two decided for the sake of friendship never again to discuss politics. And apparently they never did.
His professional career got off to a good start with a small role in the moderate hit Goodbye Again with other members of the University Players, including old roomy McCormick. But the Depression was as tough on actors as anyone else. Theaters closed or converted to movie houses. Plays that could not pull packed houses were closed quickly rather than building audiences. Stewart reported that over the next two years he worked a total of three months. Still, he hung on and continued to resist going home.
Stewart's Broadway turn as a post-Spanish American War medic in his first major dramatic role in 1932's Yellowjack convinced him to stick with acting instead of returning home to the drug store.
In 1934 Fonda was called to Hollywood on the strength of his Broadway hit The Farmer Takes a Wife. Soon he arranged a screen test for Stewart who signed with MGM as a contract player for $350 a week for seven years. That money looked pretty good after years as a starving actor, but he was kept to that figure for most of his pre-war films, including his first big hits.
The studio was at something of a loss as to what to do with the 6’2” gangling actor with the modest demeanor. His first small role in 1935 was in Spencer Tracy’s first MGM picture The Murder Man which was not a box office success. The next year he got noticed as Jeanette McDonald’s outlaw brother in a big hit, the operetta Rose Marie. Parts, mostly in B movies, got bigger. In 1936 he got third billing in a major studio release and big hit, After the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy.
As a young bachelor around Hollywood, Stewart had a reputation as a ladies man, but not like pal Gary Cooper a womanizer or playboy. His romance with Henry Fonda's ex-wife Margaret Sullavan was genuine and the two paired in classic films including The Shop Around the Corner and the anti-Nazi melodrama The Mortal Storm.
While working steadily at the studio, his star rising, Stewart cut a figure as a lady’s man. Clubbing with pals Fonda and Gary Cooper he regularly dated some of Hollywood’s most attractive starlets. He had a brief romance with recently divorced Ginger Rogers and had affair with Margaret Sullavan, Fonda’s former wife and a former University Player herself. Already a well-established leading lady, Sullavan rehearsed with Stewart and urged him to be comfortable in his persona and to use his drawl and stammer naturally in his parts instead of trying to hide them. She campaigned to get him cast opposite her in the Universal Picture’s 1936 Next Time We Love. Four years later they would team up again for two memorable films, the romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, and the early anti-Nazi melodrama, The Mortal Storm.
Through Sullavan he met high-powered agent Leland Howard who guided his career. Sullavan later married Howard and all remained close friends. Howard worked to get Stewart loaned out to other studios as often as possible where he could make substantially more money than his MGM contract allowed.
Stewart's performance as the innocent beau in the ensemble comedy You Can't Take it With You got attention.
In 1938 he had a brief, reportedly tumultuous affair with the fading queen of MGM Norma Shearer, the widow of studio production boss Irving Thalberg. To get out of the heat, he was relieved to be loaned to Columbia for Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of You Can’t Take It With You, the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Stewart starred opposite Jean Arthur in a stellar cast that included Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, and a young Ann Miller. Capra was so impressed he called Stewart, “...probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.” The film was a sensation and was a rare comedy to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The next year Capra teamed Stewart and Arthur again in the idealistic political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart received the first of five Oscar nominations for the role and officially entered the ranks of A list stars.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic boosted Stewart to A list stardom. With his frequent co-star Jean Arthur.
Despite his success his parents, worried over reports about his active love life pressured him to come home and escape sinful Hollywood. Instead, Stewart took a short break for an unpublicized trip to Europe. He was on the Continent when war broke out in 1939. Over the next two years he worked feverishly in picture after picture at MGM and on loan.
On loan to Universal again he teamed with sultry German bombshell Marlene Dietrich for the western spoof Destry Rides Again, in which he played a pacifist law man finally driven to take up the gun—an unsubtle lesson on idealistic American isolationism in the face of the Nazi war machine. It was Stewart’s only pre-war western and ignited a real life romance between its stars.
The screwball love triangle The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant earned Stewart his first Oscar in 1940.
1940 would be Stewart’s busiest film year. In addition to his two re-matches with Margaret Sullavan, he was cast as part of a quadrilateral romantic tangle with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and John Howard in George Cukors’s classic comedy The Philadelphia Story. Stewart won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1940, much to his embarrassment, beating out his buddy Henry Fonda’s memorable turn as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Stewart sent the Oscar home to Indiana where his father proudly kept it on display in his store window for many years. It also dimmed demands that Stewart come home.
Taking advantage of his new star power, MGM used him in some quickly produced, mostly second rate romantic comedies. In the big budget musical Ziegeld Girl he played opposite Lana Turner as the doomed chorine in a film that also featured Judy Garland, Heddy Lamarr, and elaborates production numbers.
Stewart was inducted into the Army in 1940. He was eager to serve.
Late in 1940 Stewart was drafted. Unlike other actors, he was eager to go. His family had a long tradition of military service—both grandfathers fought in the Civil War and his father was in both the Spanish American War and World War I. The draft notice coincided with the end of his seven year MGM contract, so he felt no constraints. Most importantly, the draft notice gave him an opportunity to fulfill and old dream. Stewart had taken up flying and gotten his pilots certificate in 1935. In ’38 he got certified in multi-engine aircraft and got his commercial license. He often flew to Pennsylvania to visit his parents. By the time he was drafted he had racked up over 400 solo hours in the air.
It was no surprise when he wrangled an appointment to the Army Air Force despite his lanky frame and being 5 lbs. underweight to meet the requirement for flight school. He officially entered the Army as a private in March 1941. Except for some training and propaganda shorts Steward would not make another film for five years.
After completing his pilot training, Stewart was awarded his wings and commissioned a second lieutenant in January 1942, only a month after Pearl Harbor. Considered over age for combat flying, he was assigned to California airfields as a flight instructor. The Air Corps also encouraged him to make radio and personal appearances in support of the war effort. He made a short recruiting film, Winning Your Wings with John Huston’s First Motion Picture Unit which General Hap Arnold credited with attracting 10,000 new Air Force recruits.
Stewart desperately wanted combat duty but continued to receive training assignments as he advanced in rank. He trained bombardiers in New Mexico and then became a B-17 pilot instructor. He was serving at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho when he heard through the grape vine that he would be taken off pilot status and assigned to War Bond tours. He appealed to his commanding officer to be posted to combat.
Back home in Indiana, Pennsylvania Army Air Force Col, James Stewart signed autographs for home town fans in his father's drug store where his Oscar was on display along with pictures of local heroes at war.
In August 1943 he was finally assigned to the 445th Bombardment Group at Sioux City AAB in Iowa as Operations Officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron and then as its commander, at the rank of Captain. Flying B-24 Liberators the unit arrived in England in December and began combat operations. While flying combat missions he was promoted to Major and then assigned as Operations Officer to a troubled new unit, the 453rd Bombardment Group. To inspire confidence in his crews, he flew lead in several raids deep into Nazi air space. He ordered that these missions not be counted as official because he was a staff officer. The real reason was so that these flights would not be counted against the maximum number of combat missions he could fly before being rotated home.
He was officially credited with 20 combat missions, including the October 14, 1943 bombing of Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing industry which resulted in the loss of 60 aircraft out of 291 dispatched due to the lack of fighter cover.
For his war-time service Steward was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three Oakleaf Clusters. By the end of the war Stewart was a full Colonel and Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the Eighth Air Force.
He continued his service after the war in the Air Force Reserve rising to the rank of Brigadier General. In 1966 he flew an unpublicized mission as an observer on a B-52 raid over Vietnam. After his retirement from the service in 1968, he was promoted to Major General by his close friend, President Ronald Regan.
Service in the Air Force Reserves was parallel to Stewart's acting career and included assignments during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He retired as a Brigadier General.
Returning from the war he took time to decompress, spending a lot of time with old pal Henry Fonda. He invested in Southwest Airlines, founded by Leland Howard who had retired as an agent. He considered going into aviation professionally because he felt his acting career may be over.
He returned from the war visibly aged, no longer the boyish innocent. He declined to renew a contract with MGM, instead signing with the powerful MCA talent agency which helped him negotiate uncharted waters as an independent actor. Stewart turned down light comedies of the pre-war type and war movies he felt were trying to exploit his service. He also did not believe war movies adequately captured the horror of the real experience. He almost never discussed his personal war experiences.It's a Wonderful Life may now be Stewart's most beloved film but it was not a success when first released. Critics were confused and audiences found it too dark. George Baily's growing desperation and despair, however, showcased new dramatic depth.
Frank Capra offered him his first job, as George Baily in the allegorical fantasy It’s a Wonderful Life. The film was an independent produced by Capra’s own company, Liberty Films. Young Donna Reed was selected as the female lead when Jean Arthur was unavailable. Despite being nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Stewart, the film received mixed reviews and was a box office failure leading to the collapse of Capra’s production company. Audiences felt that instead of the usual sunny Capra fare, this film was too dark. Stewart felt responsible and began to have doubts about his future.
It was only years later, after repeated television showings, that the film became regarded as a classic, although it was always Stewart’s personal favorite film.
His next film, Magic Town, a capra clone by William Wellman was also a critical and box office bust.
In 1947 he worked for Alfred Hitchcock for the first time on Rope. Stewart played against type as an arrogant intellectual who sees some of his class and caste theories warped by two former students. Shot in real time on a single set, the claustrophobic film unwound as Stewart slowly uncovers a Leopold and Loeb like thrill killing. Although the film was a success, Stewart felt miscast.
The same year Call Northside 777 got good notices in the suspenseful tale of a newspaper reporter investigating the case of a wrongly convicted man. Other films in this period, however bombed, and Stewart found few new offers.
He decided to return to Broadway assuming the role of Elwood P. Dowd in the long running comedy Harvey. He was a stunning success, reshaping the part so completely that he seemed to melt into the eccentric millionaire who chats with an invisible six foot rabbit. The film version released 1950 garnered yet another Academy Award nomination.
The lady's man went off the market when Stewart married former model and divorced mom Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. Their long, happy marriage lasted until her death.
In 1949 the ladies’ man settled down to marriage with Gloria Hatrick McLean, a former model and a divorcee with two children. Stewart adopted her sons and the couple had twin daughters in 1951. Stewart remained devoted to and—unlike pals like Fonda, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne—strictly monogamous with Gloria until the day of her death.
Despite the successful release of the baseball biography The Stratton Story which paired him for the first time with June Allison, who would become his “movie wife” in several ‘50’s films and set a pattern for based-on-true-story films with her, Stewart felt his career was stagnating.
One day he got on the telephone and called his agent. “Get me in Western,” he pleaded. And he did. A two pictured deal for Universals included Harvey and one western. Because Universal balked at paying Stewarts requested $200,000 per picture, Stewart agreed to take no salary and percentage of the gate. Smart move.
Beginning with Winchester 73 Steward made adult, phycological Westerns playing deeply flawed and embittered heroes with director Anthony Mann and others.
The western was Winchester 73, both a breakthrough role for Stewart and a new kind of oater with darker themes and a flawed hero. It also brought Stewart into collaboration for the first time with director Anthony Mann, with whom he would go on to make a series of landmark westerns during the ‘50’s including Bend of the River, 1952; The Naked Spur, 1953; The Far Country, 1954; and The Man from Laramie, 1955. Mann set his films against the backdrops of the Rocky Mountains or Pacific Northwest to distinguish them from John Ford’s signature desert and Monument Valley. Stewart also began wearing the same grey Stetson and riding the same dapple grey horse in this and almost all his subsequent westerns. By the end of the decade that hat was pretty beat up.
Stewarts characters in these and other westerns he made during the period were deeply flawed men, angry, bitter, vengeance seeking, sometime greedy, often with shady, even criminal, pasts who are eventually redeemed in some way by serving or protecting others. They represented a new era in adult, psychological westerns. Mann also collaborated with Stewart on other films, two of them with June Alison as a loyal wife including The Glenn Miller Story, 1953; Thunder Bay, the same year, a shrimpers vs. oilmen in the Louisiana gulf epic; and Strategic Air Command, 1955, a celebration of Stewart’s beloved Air Force.
With the release of Harvey, Winchester 73, and another western, Broken Arrow with its rare sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, 1950 was the year Stewart finally became a top ten box office star, a distinction he kept for more than a decade.
Stewart did a turn as a troubled clown, appearing through almost the entire movie in makeup, in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, adjusted for inflation one of the highest grossing films of all time and the Academy Award winner for Best Picture—a widely acknowledged travesty considering films that year included High Noon and Singin’ in the Rain. Still, the box office success added luster to Stewart’s appeal.
In 1954 Stewart renewed his association with Hitchcock in the classic thriller Rear Window with Grace Kelley, who he later said was his favorite leading lady and who became a close personal friend. Hitchcock tapped him again for the lead in a remake of his own film, The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day in 1956.
Stewart was paired with Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The two co-starred again in the romantic comedy Bell, Book, and Candle after which he refused to play a leading man.
They teamed for the final time in 1958 with the psychological thriller Vertigo with Kim Novak. Although the film is now considered a classic, rated the second best commercial film of all time behind Citizen Kane in a 2002 Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, the film at first confused critics and was a box office failure. Hitchcock bitterly blamed Stewart for being too old to play a leading man and they never worked together again.
Stewart, insisted on aging gracefully in most of his rolls. He let his hair go grey. His only concession to cosmetics was wearing a hair piece as he grew increasingly bald. The same year he was teamed again with Novak for the occult comedy Bell, Book, and Candle after which he never again allowed himself to be cast as a romantic leading man.
The ‘50’s ended with another masterpiece, Otto Preminger’s court room suspense drama Anatomy of a Murder, for which Stewart received the final of his six nominations for Best Actor.
Unlike other movie stars, particularly those of his stature, Steward did not shy away from television. He appeared with some regularity on his real-life neighbor Jack Benny’s program, on various variety shows doing skits, and occasionally as an actor on scripted programs. He also did a season of a western radio program, The Six Shooter. Stewart just liked to work.
In the early ‘60’s he joined John Ford for three memorable westerns. During shooting on the first, Two Rode Together with Richard Widmark in 1961, he had trouble with some of his dialoged because of advancing hearing loss due to noise damage from his days as a bomber pilot and from gunfire on the set. The problem would worsen and plague him the rest of his career.
In John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Stewart and John Wayne reprised their pre-war film personas.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance teamed him up with Ford’s favorite actor and a close personal friend, John Wayne. In the black and white film, the two actors both well into late middle age, reprised their youthful personas from films of the ‘30’s—Stewart the bumbling idealist and Wayne the strong silent hero. Critics were confused to see them playing much younger men and the film was not terribly successful. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo, this box office failure has become recognized as an all-time classic, generally regarded as one of the top ten westerns of all times.
The final collaboration with Ford was in an extended cameo as Wyatt Earp in a memorable scene from the epic Cheyenne Autumn in which Stewart paid tribute to his old friend Fonda by echoing his rocking back on a chair, feet up on a porch rail in his own version of Earp in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.
Stewart also appeared as a mountain man in the Cinerama blockbuster How the West Was Won in 1964.In the 1960's Stewart turned to family friendly comedies like Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation with Maureen O'Hara.
He signed a multi-picture deal with 20th Century Fox where he transitioned to family friendly comedies playing a flustered father and kind of everyman. Critics used to his darker films of the ‘50’s were not always kind to these films, but they showed a return to the fine comic touch he had displayed earlier in his career. Anyone doubting just how good he was in them should review two scenes from Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation—when his large family descends upon his beach house chatting away as they leave the old man to unload seeming tons of luggage from their car, and when he is caught with a young grandson out to sea in a tiny sailboat in a thick fog and he simultaneously re-assures the boy while suppressing his own rising panic. Other films in this style included Take, She’s Mine and Dear Bridget with Stewart as the father of a boy smitten by Bridget Bardot.
Mid-decade, with the Vietnam War heating up he made a decidedly anti-war epic Shenandoah followed by the aviation/survival adventure Flight of the Phoenix.
His final films of the decade were all westerns—The Rare Breed reuniting him with his Mr. Hobbs costar Maureen O’Hara; Firecreek, a dark, violent film with Stewart as a pacifistic part-time Sheriff and Henry Fonda as the leader of a pack of outlaws; and Bandalero with Dean Martin.
Stewart was deeply saddened when the stepson he raised since age 5 Marine Corps Lt. Ronald McLean was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969.
In 1970 Stewart re-teamed with Fonda in a comic western tailored to the pair, The Cheyenne Social Club in which they played down-at-the-heels cowboys who come into possession of a whore house. The script slyly and affectionately referenced the deep political difference between the two old friends, the very liberal Fonda and the very conservative Stewart.
Feature films, particularly his signature westerns, were getting taxing on the aging Stewart. For the next seven years he concentrated on television including series, The Jimmy Stewart Show, a situation comedy with Stewart as a professor at a small college ran the 1970-71 season on NBC. Producers insisted on the name to tip audiences off that this was lighter fare even though Stewart detested the nick name. Hawkins ran for the ’73-74 season on CBS with Stewart as a small town lawyer investigating murders. The program ran as hour and a half T.V. movies running in alternate weeks with adaptions of the Black exploitation film Shaft. The show was critically acclaimed and Stewart won a Golden Globe for his performance, but it could not generate an audience alternating with such a radically different program as Shaft. Neither survived. Andy Griffith later had a huge success with the same formula in Mattlock.
In one of his many appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Stewart broke out his beloved accordion for a jam session with Phillis Diller, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and Carson on the drum kit.
Stewart appeared as a guest on numerous talk and variety shows and competed with his wife Gloria on Password. Most memorably he made several appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show where he delighted audiences with self-depreciating humor, reading original poetry in a mock heroic style, and occasionally playing his beloved accordion.
In 1977 his old friend John Wayne, who he knew to be deathly ill, cajoled him into playing a doctor in his final film The Shootist. Stewart had supporting roles just three more live action features, Airport '77, the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum, and The Magic of Lassie. The last film was beyond mediocre. Steward complained that he made it because it was the only thing offered him without nudity or excessive violence. Its failure marked his retirement from features, but not from acting.
Through the ‘80’s he made a number of mostly forgettable T.V. movies including the first film ever made for cable, Right of Way with another aging icon, Bette Davis. The deaths of close friends Margaret Sullavan, Henry Fonda and Grace Kelly deeply affected him as he became increasing frail himself.
Stewart was buoyed by receiving an honorary Oscar for 50 years of films from another pal, Cary Grant, in 1985. Previously he had also received many lifetime achievement awards notably from the Screen Actors Guild 1968; American Film Institute (AFI), 1983; and The Kennedy Center Honors, 1983.
He spent his final years in declining health but campaigning against colorization of films, promoting the Boy Scouts, contributing to Republican candidates, visiting old friend Ronald Regan in the White House, and founding the American Spirit Foundation to apply entertainment industry resources to developing innovative approaches to public education and to assist the emerging democracy movements in the former Communist Bloc countries.
His last film role was as the voice of Sheriff Wylie Burp in the animated feature An American Tail: Fievel Goes West in 1991.
After his beloved wife Gloria died in 1995, Steward deteriorated rapidly. He suffered several injuries and falls and had surgery to replace a heart pacemaker, reportedly against his will. He stayed mostly in his room and may have begun to suffer dementia. He died in his home of a blood clot on the lung. His last words were reportedly, “I’m going to see Gloria now.”