Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jimmy Stewart

Los Angeles, CA Visited June 2013

This post is an opportunity to highlight my favorite actor – Jimmy Stewart. Over a career spanning six decades Jimmy Stewart carved out legacy as one of the enduring Hollywood legends who also served his country with distinction in the armed forces. His is a story worth its own movie.

James Stewart at a Princeton ma  

James Maitland Stewart was born May 20, 1908 in Indiana, PA to a small town hardware store owner. His family was devoutly Presbyterian, a faith that Stewart adhered to with various resolve throughout his life. Young Jimmy went to prep school, played sports and worked in manual labor during summer recess. Submitting to his father’s desire he enrolled at Princeton University. It was at Princeton that he got his first taste of acting. After graduation he joined a drama company that included an actor who would become a life-long friend, Henry Fonda. While both found work acting on Broadway it was Fonda’s initial success in movies that paved the way for Stewart to sign a contract with MGM.

James Stewart (his chosen film name) got his first substantial role in After the Thin Man in 1936. Two years later he teamed with Frank Capra for the first time to a achieve a star-making role in You Can’t Take it With You. 1939 was the year Stewart cemented his place as a top star with his first western, Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In 1940 he starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. While he was nominated for five Academy Awards in his career, he won his only Oscar for best actor his role as newspaperman Macaulay Connor in this film.

Stewart statue in his hometown of Indiana, PA

With the outbreak of World War II James Stewart was drafted but almost didn’t receive military admittance due to his height/weight ratio. But the actor was resolute in his commitment to serve in active duty. His family had a long military history. Jimmy Stewart was a direct descendent of veterans of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. His grandfathers had fought in the Civil War; his father had fought in the Spanish American War and World War I. Stewart went into the army as a private with intention to join the air corp. It took him over two years to work his way through to his wish to fly in battle but he finally flew his first combat mission as commander of a squadron of B-24 Liberator bombers. By the end of the war James Stewart had been awarded the distinguished flying cross and risen from the rank of private to full colonel in just four years. Following the war Stewart transferred to the reserves, retiring as a brigadier general in 1968.

A true pre-mission photo - not a publicity picture

At the end of the war James Stewart considered not returning to the movie business but was coaxed back into pictures by Frank Capra to do It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie garnered him another Academy Award nomination but it didn’t do well in its initial run. However, due to a lapse in ownership rights the movie wound up in the public domain for a number of years and has been subsequently recognized as one of the most popular movies of all time. Ultimately Jimmy Stewart’s career reached its real potential in the post war years through collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock (Rope, Rear Window, Vertigo, etc.) and in well regarded Westerns (Winchester 73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and How the West was Won, among others). He also starred in the both the Broadway and film versions of Harvey. Jimmy Stewart’s film career took him well into his seventies. In a poignant late-career supporting role Stewart played a doctor diagnosing John Wayne’s aging gunfighter with terminal cancer in The Shootist – Wayne’s final film made while he was in his own cancer fight. Jimmy Stewart’s last credited role was a voice performance as sheriff Wiley Burp in An American Tale – Fievel Goes West.

My daughter Kelsey at Jimmy Stewart's spot at Grauman's Chinese Theater May 2005

Your blogger at Grauman's - June 2013

One thing that set Jimmy Stewart apart in Hollywood was his marriage. After living his early years as something of a Hollywood playboy he met a former model named Gloria McClean. Wed in 1949, their marriage lasted 45 years until her death in 1994. This long and devoted marriage is just one aspect of his life that distinguished Stewart in Hollywood. He was, by all accounts a genuine and self-effacing man whose iconic on-screen demeanor was reflective of his off-screen personality. Stewart was a life-long political conservative in the mold of his friend Ronald Reagan; in addition he was a shrewd businessman and generous philanthropist to causes he cared about.

Jimmy and Gloria Stewart with President Ronald Reagan in 1986

A quirky aspect of Jimmy Stewart’s late career were his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He would often recite a droll self-composed poem. You can view one classic moment as Stewart shares a poem about his dog Beau.  If you watched that then you really need to see Dana Carvey's spoof of Stewarts poetry reading on Saturday Night Live.

James Stewart died of heart disease at 83 in Hollywood, California on July 2, 1997, surrounded by family and friends. Following a memorial service attended by over three thousand mourners he was laid to rest next to his beloved wife Gloria at Forest Lawn-Glendale Cemetery. In the years following his death the American Film Institute rated James Stewart as third greatest actor in film history. One of my favorite scenes with Jimmy Stewart is his  dialogue with Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story

There’s a great anecdote that Jimmy Stewart told to "Guideposts" magazine back in 1977 that gives a sense of where the actor and the man came together.  In the film It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey (Stewart) is,

"unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him. In this scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey's life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair. In agony I raise my eyes and following the script, plead, 'God...God...dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if You're up there and You can hear me, show me the way, I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God...'

 "As I said those words, I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless had reduced me to tears."

Jimmy Stewart's Grave at Forest Lawn
James Stewart is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery – Glendale, one of the largest cemeteries in California. When my son Grant and I were on a trip out to California I talked him into checking out some cemeteries along the way. He had no idea what he was agreeing to. The actor is buried next to his wife on a hillside under a simple plaque containing the words of Psalm 91:11: For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

James Stewart appeared in 84 films during a career that ran from 1935 to 1991. My top five favorite Jimmy Stewart films are

#5 - Shenandoah

#4 - Destry Rides Again   

#3 - The Philadelphia Story

# 2 - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington  

#1 - Its a Wonderful Life