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 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
appeared as a mountain man in the Cinerama
blockbuster How the West Was Won in
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
with the Vietnam War heating up he
made a decidedly anti-war epic Shenandoah
followed by the aviation/survival adventure Flight of the Phoenix.
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.
deeply saddened when the stepson he raised since age 5 Marine Corps Lt. Ronald McLean was killed
in action in Vietnam in 1969.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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,
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.
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.”