Biography (1908 - 1997)

Header Photo: Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
© Paramount

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jimmy stewart 1930s publicity photograph
Publicity Shot (1930s)

James Stewart ~ Biography

1908 - 1997

American Actor / Film Star / Legend / Icon

Jimmy Stewart was one of the most trusted and beloved of American actors, a star who now arouses great public affection chiefly because of his comedies, It's a Wonderful Life, and his artful hesitation in talk shows towards the end of his life. His body of mature films, made during the 1950s for Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, while generally presenting him as a troubled, querulous, or lonely personality, clearly play on the immense reputation for charm that his early films had won. Thus Stewart is one of the most intriguing examples of a star cast increasingly against his accepted character. The emotional subtlety of films like The Naked Spur, Rear Window, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and Vertigo derives from the way in which we are intrigued by the contradictions in Stewart himself, between hardness and vulnerability. Who can forget his nightmare in The Naked Spur, or his cries of distress?

Yet in the years before the war, Stewart was pre-eminently a diffident, wide-eyed, drawling innocent, a country boy who had wandered into a crazily sophisticated world. After a brief foray as a heavy in Rose Marie (36, W. S. Van Dyke) and After the Thin Man (36, Van Dyke)— he settled down as a romantic lead and an honest crusader, thriving on grassroots virtues of honour and simplicity long forgotten by Hollywood's lounge lizards.

Stewart had studied architecture at Princeton before he joined a theatrical company led by Joshua Logan and also including Henry Fonda. He worked steadily in the theatre until 1935 when he made his debut in The Murder Man (Tim Whelan) on an MGM contract. He was loaned to Universal for Next Time We Love (36, Edward H. Griffith), opposite Margaret Sullavan, and his own studio gave him supporting parts: Wife vs. Secretary (36, Clarence Brown); Small Town Girl (36, William Wellman); and The Gorgeous Hussy (36, Clarence Brown). He had the lead opposite Eleanor Powell and sang (with very thin voice) in Born to Dance (36, Roy del Ruth) and then played with Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven (37, Henry King). He had more support work in The Last Gangster (37, Edward Ludwig), Navy Blue and Gold (37, Sam Wood), and Of Human Hearts (38, Brown), before finding his place in romantic comedies: Vivacious Lady (38, George Stevens); as the Texan soldier who meets Margaret Sullavan in New York in The Shopworn Angel (38, H. C. Potter); and Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (38).

He followed these with Made for Each Other (39, John Cromwell); It's a Wonderful World (39, Van Dyke); the classical early Stewart role, Jefferson Smith, in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (39); the taciturn cowboy taming Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (39, George Marshall); two more clever pairings with Margaret Sullavan—a wise Lubitsch comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (40) and Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (40)—one of cinema's best two-shots is Sullavan reclining and inspecting the shining diffidence of a young Stewart; a rather generous best actor Oscar in The Philadelphia Story (40, George Cukor).

His popularity was undoubtedly enhanced by a distinguished war record in the air force—a record later invoked in Anthony Mann's Strategic Air Command (55). After the war, Stewart left MGM and free-lanced for several years: one of his favorite roles, George Bailey, in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (46), a picture that caught the first hint of frenzy and gloom; Wellman's Magic Town (47); the reporter in Call Northside 777 (48, Henry Hathaway); and his first Hitchcock movie, the relentlessly interior Rope (48), playing a rather monotonous seeker-out of truth.

Briefly, his career faltered, but in 1950 he went to Universal to make Winchester 73 (Anthony Mann) and to Fox for Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves). He then made two movies for Henry Koster that successfully reworked his shy charm: Harvey (50) and No Highway (51). But the Western—especially the unexpected intensity he had revealed in Winchester 73 —now claimed him. After playing the clown in De Mille's The Greatest Show on Earth (52), Stewart struck an innovatory contract with Universal whereby he took a percentage of his films' profits.

It was this deal that allowed Stewart and Anthony Mann to make Bend of the River (52); Thunder Bay (53); The Glenn Miller Story (54); and The Far Country (54). Curiously, The Naked Spur, made with Mann in 1953, and looking like a Universal Western, is an MGM picture. These Westerns redefined Stewart's character: he was now revealed as a tougher, more pained and selfish man, who was often made to suffer and put to a brutal test of courage and wounding. It was the more of an achievement since, as Glenn Miller Stewart was as homely, sentimental, and appealing as ever.

In 1954, Hitchcock pounced on this new Stewart and put him in a wheelchair as the voyeur photographer in Rear Window (54) while in 1955, at Columbia, Mann and Stewart made another Western, The Man from Laramie, which dealt especially well with the effect of violence on Stewart. The scene in which Alex Nicol maims Stewart's hand, and Stewart's swooning reaction, introduce a new frankness about violence in American films. Hitchcock used him in the much simpler central tral role in The Man Who Knew Too Much (55) and Billy Wilder made an inexplicable failure with Stewart playing Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (57). Inexplicable by the fact that Stewart by then far too old (49) to play Lindbergh who had been 25 at the time of the flight.

Despite every hint of the darker side of Stewart, Hitchcock's Vertigo (58) was still a surprise. A masterpiece by any terms, Stewart's portrayal of the detective who loses his nerve and then becomes entranced by the two forms of a mythic Kim Novak is frightening in its intensity: a far cry from a man who talked to rabbits.

But as if to assert versatility, Stewart then returned (with Novak) to middle-aged comedy in Richard Quine's Bell, Book and Candle (58). Perhaps his last major role, and one played with comfortable fraudulence, was the country lawyer in Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (59). Thereafter, mannerism, laziness, and indifference set in, perhaps encouraged by John Ford who tolerated a growing self-indulgence in Two Rode Together (61); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (62); as Wyatt Earp in Cheyenne Autumn (64). Otherwise, Stewart tried to revive his 1930 comedy character in some very dull movies and surrendered to knockabout Westerns that are sad indeed when one recalls the cold, laconic hero of Mann's films: How the West Was Won (62, Hathaway); Shenandoah (65, Andrew V. McLaglen); Firecreek (67, Vincent McEveety); Bandolero! (68, McLaglen); The Cheyenne Social Club (70, Gene Kelly); and Dynamite Man from Glory Jail (71, McLaglen). Only Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (65) used Stewart honestly—as a harassed, elderly, and old-fashioned pilot in a crisis. All too briefly, he was compelled to tell John Wayne his negative prognosis in The Shootist (76, Don Siegel): a case of the doctor looking less hearty than the patient.

Stewart was a very frail General Sternwood in the awful remake of The Big Sleep (78, Michael Winner), giving up the ghost in a film and filmmaker not worthy of him. Somehow, I think there should have been a health warning given to great actors who worked with Winner. It wasn't any good for the health of those just watching a Winner film so how bad was it for the career of such an iconic actor appearing in his rubbish? Winner was the Ed Wood of his day but without Wood's meticulous attention to detail, his painstaking slowness in search of perfection, his flair, charm, ability or sense of humour. In fact a poor man's Ed Wood so poor that he still owes Mr Wood a fiver.

Stewart looked fitter in The Magic of Lassie (78, Don Chaffey). He then made Afurika Monogatari (81, Susumu Hani) and Right of Way (83, George Schaefer), with Bette Davis.

His beloved wife of 45 years, Gloria Stewart, died in 1994, a loss which left Stewart an emotional shell of his former self. He retreated into a semi-reclusive lifestyle, rarely leaving his bedroom and not answering old friends' calls or letters and instructing his housekeeper to turn them away when they came to visit.

Finally, he died in Los Angeles in 1997 of a pulmonary blood clot, three years after his wife. Over 3,000 people (mostly Hollywood celebrities) went to his funeral to pay respects.

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    James Stewart ~ Key Dates

    1908:
    Born 20 May in Indiana, Pennsylvania, US

    1932:
    While studying at Prineton, fellow classmate Joshua Logan convinces him to join the newly formed University Players group in Massachusetts. Meets his lifelong friend Henry Fonda for the first time

    1935:
    Makes his M-G-M in a short, Important News. Makes his first feature film, The Murder Man

    1936:
    Gets first lead in Speed

    Third lead in You Can't Take It With You. With this film he begins his fruitful association with director Frank Capra

    1939:
    First Academy Award nomination for his role in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Appears in Destry Rides Again

    1940:
    Wins Oscar for his role in The Philadelphia Story

    1941:
    With the US entering the 2nd World War, he enlists in the Army Air Corps. Flies in many missions over enemy territory and winsboth the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross

    1946:
    Oscar nomination for his role for one of the best movies of all time, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

    1948:
    Works with Hitchcock for the first time on the film Rope

    1949:
    Marries Gloria Stewart. 4 children (2 adopted from her previous marriage)

    1950:
    Oscar nomination for his role in the delightful Harvey. Appears in the Western Winchester '73

    1952:
    Appears in The Greatest Show on Earth

    1954:
    Appears in Hitchcock's Rear Window and The Glenn Miller Story

    1956:
    Appears in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much

    1960:
    Oscar nomination for his role in Anatomy of a Murder

    1962:
    Appears in John Ford's Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    1994:
    Wife Gloria Stewart dies

    1995:
    The James Stewart Museum is dedicated in Indiana, PA on 20 May

    1997:
    Dies of a pulmonary blood clot on 2 July in Los Angeles

    James Stewart ~ Filmography (Films List)

    01/ Art Trouble (1934) (uncredited)
    02/ Murder Man, The (1935)
    03/ Rose-Marie (1936)
    04/ Next Time We Love (1936)
    05/ Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
    06/ Important News (1936) (uncredited)
    07/ Small Town Girl (1936)
    08/ Speed (1936)
    09/ Gorgeous Hussy, The (1936)
    10/ Born to Dance (1936)
    11/ After the Thin Man (1936)
    12/ Seventh Heaven (1937)
    13/ Last Gangster, The (1937)
    14/ Navy Blue and Gold (1937)
    15/ Of Human Hearts (1938)
    16/ Vivacious Lady (1938)
    17/ Shopworn Angel, The (1938)
    18/ You Can't Take It with You (1938)
    19/ Made for Each Other (1939)
    20/ Ice Follies of 1939 (1939)
    21/ It's a Wonderful World (1939)
    22/ Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
    23/ Destry Rides Again (1939)

    24/ Shop Around the Corner, The (1940)
    25/ Mortal Storm, The (1940)
    26/ No Time for Comedy (1940)
    27/ Philadelphia Story, The (1940)
    28/ Come Live with Me (1941)
    29/ Pot o' Gold (1941)
    30/ Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
    31/ It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
    32/ Magic Town (1947)
    33/ Call Northside 777 (1948)
    34/ On Our Merry Way (1948)
    35/ Rope (1948)
    36/ You Gotta Stay Happy (1948)
    37/ Stratton Story, The (1949)
    38/ Malaya (1949)

    39/ Winchester '73 (1950)
    40/ Broken Arrow (1950)
    41/ Harvey (1950)
    42/ Jackpot, The (1950)
    43/ No Highway (1951)
    44/ Greatest Show on Earth, The (1952)
    45/ Bend of the River (1952)
    46/ Carbine Williams (1952)
    47/ Naked Spur, The (1953)
    48/ Thunder Bay (1953)
    49/ Glenn Miller Story, The (1953)
    50/ Rear Window (1954)
    51/ Far Country, The (1954)
    52/ Tomorrow's Drivers (1954)
    53/ Strategic Air Command (1955)
    54/ Man from Laramie, The (1955)
    55/ Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1956)
    56/ Spirit of St. Louis, The (1957)
    57/ Night Passage (1957)
    58/ Heart of Show Business, The (1957)
    59/ Vertigo (1958)
    60/ Bell Book and Candle (1958)
    61/ Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
    62/ FBI Story, The (1959)

    63/ Mountain Road, The (1960)
    64/ Two Rode Together (1961)
    65/ X-15 (1961) (voice)
    66/ Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (1962)
    67/ Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
    68/ How the West Was Won (1962)
    69/ Flashing Spikes (1962) (TV)
    70/ Take Her, She's Mine (1963)
    71/ Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
    72/ Dear Brigitte (1965)
    73/ Shenandoah (1965)
    74/ Flight of the Phoenix, The (1965)
    75/ Rare Breed, The (1966)
    76/ Firecreek (1968)
    77/ Bandolero! (1968)

    78/ Cheyenne Social Club, The (1970)
    79/ Fools' Parade (1971)
    80/ "Jimmy Stewart Show, The" (1971) TV Series
    81/ Harvey (1972) (TV)
    82/ Hawkins on Murder (1973) (TV)
    83/ "Hawkins" (1973) TV Series
    84/ Shootist, The (1976)
    85/ Airport '77 (1977)
    86/ Big Sleep, The (1978)
    87/ Magic of Lassie, The (1978)

    88/ Mr. Krueger's Christmas (1980) (TV)
    89/ Afurika monogatari (1981)
    90/ Right of Way (1983) (TV)
    91/ "North and South II" (1986) (mini) TV Series

    92/ American Tail: Fievel Goes West, An (1991) (voice)

    James Stewart ~ Interred

    At Forest Lawn, Glendale, California, USA, in the Wee Kirk O' the Heathers Churchyard , on the left side, up the huge slope, to the left of the Taylor Monument, space 2, lot 8

    Links

    James Stewart: Biog. >> Key Dates >> Filmography >> Interred >> Glenn Miller Story UK Dvd >> Rear Window >> Vertigo >> James Stewart official prints are available at Allposters.com >> Advertise >> James Stewart Books and Dvds available @ amazon.com

    It's a Wonderful Life: All the Facts >> Cast & Credits >> Making of >> UK Colour/B&W 2 Dvd Set - Dec. 14: Special Offer >> UK Colour/B&W 2 Dvd Set + Poster + Postcards - All Scanned >> Canvas Print >> >> Screen Legend 4 Dvd UK Boxset >> Frank Capra 4 Dvd UK Boxset >> Repro. Movie Promo Poster Gallery

    Top of Page >> Search Site

  • Releases & Links

    All the facts on It's a Wonderful life here. UK Col./B& W 2 Dvd set here. Superb canvas print here.

    Jimmy Stewart Treasures


    It's a Wonderful Life (UK Colour/B&W 2 Dvd Set)
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    It's a Wonderful Life (60th Anniversary Edition)
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    It's a Wonderful Life [Blu-ray]
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