From the Archives: ‘America Lost a National Treasure’
James Stewart, the tall, gangling and seemingly diffident Everyman of American motion pictures who prevailed in a fickle industry primarily by being himself, died Wednesday.
The star of such films as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Harvey,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Rear Window,” “The Spirit of St. Louis” and many other enduring examples of film history, was 89 when he died at his home in Beverly Hills.
He had been in failing health for several years, beginning with a series of heart irregularities, and was seldom seen in public after the death of his wife, Gloria, in 1994.
President Clinton, leading the country in mourning the actor’s death, said, “America lost a national treasure today.”
Jack Valenti, chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said Wednesday that Stewart represented “cinema’s nobility . . . and leaves a creative void that is simply unfillable.
“I think,” Valenti added, “God is going to enjoy Jimmy’s companionship.”
Charlton Heston, a co-star and friend, described Stewart on Wednesday as a role model, not only in acting but also in how to behave as a celebrity on the set and in public.
“He had much greater range as an actor than he was credited for,” Heston said. “He could be the playboy or the photographer, the congressman or the cowboy. He became, along with his good friend Gary Cooper, the quintessential American male. If American men couldn’t quite see they were like him, they all wanted to be.”
A reviewer once said: “No matter who he’s supposed to be portraying, he’s always Jimmy Stewart.”
“She’s right,” Stewart said at the time. “The only kind of role I can really play is someone I can understand: a pretty average kind of man, probably trying to work out some kind of problem the best way he can without calling too much attention to himself.
“Someone . . . yeah . . . like me.”
A Bankable Star for Decades
Skinny and lantern-jawed, Jimmy Stewart had risen to stardom in an era dominated by such conventionally handsome leading men as Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power.
Yet he retained his public appeal—visually and audibly recognizable, financially bankable for any production in which he appeared—to the end of his life, even surviving a five-year wartime hiatus (and becoming a war hero) that sent other leading men into oblivion.
Never known as a temperamental actor or one given to haggling over precedence or billing, he nonetheless seemed to attract some of the true plums of his profession. He told people it was “just luck.”
“I was second choice to Gary Cooper for ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ” he recalled. “And Frank Fay originated the lead role in ‘Harvey.’ In ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ I played second fiddle to Cary Grant. Still. . . I did OK.”
He was nominated for all three pictures, as well as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Anatomy of a Murder,” and won the Academy Award for his work in “The Philadelphia Story.” He received an honorary Oscar—presented by Cary Grant—in 1985 for his half-century in films. The American Film Institute also gave him its life achievement award in 1980.
Naturalness and believability were the hallmarks of Stewart’s character, whether on-screen portraying a country banker fighting the philistines for control of his hometown, or in real life leading an Air Force bomber wing to Berlin through heavy anti-aircraft fire.
He had always been that kind of man, and attributed the trait to a “small-town, hardware store kind of upbringing” that he considered “a big asset for almost any kind of career—even being an actor.”
Still, he admitted, acting was the last career anyone would have predicted for the child who was born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908, in the little town of Indiana, Penn.
He was named for his grandfather, who had founded the family hardware business in 1853. His father, Alexander Stewart, continued to operate the store until he was in his late 80s.
“The main reason,” Stewart said, “is that he wanted to have it ready for me to come back to, if ever I needed real work instead of what he regards as make-believe. . . . It was his guess that, sooner or later, people would get wise to me and decide I’d been fooling them. . . .”
He was a thin child who wore eyeglasses, and his ambitions seemed, he said, to “run pretty much between being a stage magician or learning to fly—but most of the kids I knew wanted to do those things, too.”
“My father was a big, demanding, stubborn man who was a strict disciplinarian. Never let me or my sisters get away with a thing. So naturally we all just about worshiped him.”
After grade school in his hometown, Stewart decided he wanted to be a naval officer. That would mean going to Annapolis, and his father was skeptical—so he sent his son to Mercersburg Academy, a Pennsylvania military school, “to see if I really liked the military life.”
As it turned out, he didn’t mind it. But there were complications.
One was his weight. Stewart was too light for the varsity football team. He compromised by playing center on the school’s third-string (lightweight) team.
He was even elected its captain (“the only office I was ever elected to”).
But scarlet fever cut short his stay at Mercersburg, and he celebrated his 19th birthday back in his hometown at the store.
“That was the day,” he remembered, “that Lindbergh began his flight from Long Island to Paris. I thought the store ought to recognize the event, and my father agreed.”
So Jimmy built a cardboard representation of the globe in the store window, and ran between there and the newspaper office—moving a small model of The Spirit of St. Louis along its route, in accordance with the wire reports.
The young man felt a special bond: Not only had the flight begun on his birthday, but he considered himself a fellow aviator.
“Well, almost,” he said. “The truth was, I’d had about four hours of instruction. I worked at the airfield for a day, sweeping up and things, [to pay] for each hour.
From Architecture to Acting
When it was time for college, however, Stewart followed a family tradition and went off to Princeton.
He settled upon architecture and received a bachelor’s degree in 1932.
“But by that time,” he said, “the damage was done. There was this theatrical club at Princeton . . . the Triangle Club.”
James had joined it—and by graduation time, he was beginning to have doubts about the career that everyone expected him to follow.
“So,” he said, “I went home and told my parents that I was wavering between a scholarship I had won, that would lead to a master’s degree in architecture, or a trip to New York to be an actor.
“There was what you might call a stunned, Presbyterian silence.”
Afterword, however, the family rallied behind him.
Within a day or two he got a letter from Josh Logan.
Logan, not yet a famous director but already a businessman of acumen, had put together a summer stock company in West Falmouth, Mass.
He called it the University Players, and it included a few hopefuls named Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan.
Stewart played the accordion for Logan, worked as assistant prop master, assistant set-builder, scenery painter and janitor.
And actor. “I finally got around to that.” He had two lines in the stock tryout of a play called “Goodbye Again,” and the part was included in the play mostly to help introduce the principal players.
But it was enough, and he was given another bit in the company’s production of “Whistling in the Dark"—and then “I got a role in a real, honest-to-goodness New York play.”
It was called “Carrie Nation” (he played the role of Constable Gano) and it was a colossal flop. But he went from that directly into his old role in the Broadway company of “Goodbye Again.”
That got him his first review.
“It seems apropos,” the critic wrote, “to say a few words about James Stewart, a player in this made piece. He was on stage for exactly three minutes, yet before this gentleman exited, he made a definite impression.”
He was never really out of work again, except by choice.
The year after his Broadway debut, Stewart was working backstage in the Boston run of Jane Cowl’s production of “Camille,” where he distinguished himself on opening night by ringing down the curtain before the star had had time to die for the audience.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later Blanche Yurka hired him as stage manager for her play “Springtime in Autumn.” And when it folded, producer Arthur Beckhard found room for him in his New York office.
“It worried me a little,” he said. “Because while I was working—and eating regular&mash;it seemed I was getting farther and farther away from what I really wanted to do, which was act.”
But he got a chance to do that a month or two later in Beckhard’s production of “All Good Americans.”
His first really substantial part came a year later, when he was cast as Sgt. O’Hara, the human guinea pig in “Yellow Jack.”
In between acting jobs (and occasional visits home—during the Christmas season—to help out behind the counter at the hardware store) Stewart and friends Henry Fonda and Burgess Meredith founded an institution called the Thursday Night Beer Club.
Stewart played accordion again for these affairs.
Neither the home visits nor the club’s activities was allowed to interfere with work, though, and it was during this era that Stewart made his first motion picture—a two-reel comedy at Warner Bros.’ studio on Long Island.
“I didn’t think much about it,” he said later, “and I don’t even remember what it was called. I needed the $50 they paid; I wasn’t even interested in a screen career. . . .”
But that was what he got: In 1935 he made a screen test for William Fox but nothing came of it, and he went back to Broadway, working in two plays, “Journey by Night” and “Divided by Three.” Al Altman, who was in charge of Eastern screen testing for MGM, saw him in the latter and made another test—though without sound.
Stewart was back home in Pennsylvania “helping out at the store again” when he got a call from Billy Grady, who was then chief talent scout and casting chief at MGM.
Grady, it developed, had seen the silent test and remembered Stewart from one of the old Triangle Club productions. He offered a job in a forthcoming film, “The Murder Man” with Spencer Tracy and Virginia Bruce.
“I was awful,” he said of his appearance. But he adjudged his performance in his next two pictures considerably more professional. He brought a sense of realism to the role of the wayward brother in “Rose Marie,” and real power and sympathy to the stellar role of the reporter-husband of old friend Margaret Sullavan in “Next Time We Love.”
MGM moved him from “Next Time” right into “Wife Versus Secretary” with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.
He followed with “Small Town Girl,” “Speed,” “The Gorgeous Hussy,” “Born to Dance,” “After the Thin Man,” “Seventh Heaven,” “The Last Gangster,” “Navy Blue and Gold” and “Of Human Hearts,” none of which was especially memorable&mash;at least for Stewart—but, “all of them worth doing.”
Teaming Up With Capra
They were, he told an interviewer in later years, “big parts in little pictures and little parts in big pictures. At one time, I was making four pictures all at once. In the first four years I was out here, I worked in 20 films . . . and it was the best training you can get.”
There were more pictures, “Vivacious Lady,” “The Shopworn Angel,” “Made for Each Other,” and even “Ice Follies of 1939,” that faded from public memory almost as quickly as they were churned out.
But along the way, his indenture to MGM had lapsed. He was lent to other studios, then, at the urging of agent Leland Hayward, even freelanced a bit—a daring move for an actor in those days—while his public image and acceptance grew apace.
One big test was “You Can’t Take It With You” at Columbia, Frank Capra’s translation of the stage hit to film, in which he received equal billing with Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur.
It marked his first professional association with Capra—and led a year later to the lead in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
“It’s true,” Capra once said, “that I considered Cooper for the ‘Smith’ role. But Jimmy’s wrong if he says he was second choice. I always thought he’d be perfect for the part. And he was.”
Critics agreed, and he was nominated for an Academy Award.
He lost out that year, but won the Oscar in 1940 for his performance as the lovesick reporter in “The Philadelphia Story,” after side excursions for such pictures as “Destry Rides Again,” “The Shop Around the Corner” and “The Mortal Storm.”
“Never felt just right about that,” he admitted. “See, I don’t think they gave me that award for ‘Philadelphia Story.’ I think it was ‘cause they forgot to give it to me for ‘Mr. Smith.’ But I took it, anyway. My father liked it. He put it in the store window.”
And when he went back to see it, “My dad and I talked. And I said that people named Stewart had marched away from that store to every war since 1861. Dad had been in both the Spanish-American thing and World War I. And now, another war had started, over in Europe.”
An Aviator in World War II
Returning to Hollywood, Stewart approached his draft board with a complaint. He was considered too old (at 32) to enlist, and too skinny (still at 130 pounds on his nearly 6-foot-4 frame) to be drafted.
“I told them, what can we do about my weight. I gotta do something.”
“And after they got over their surprise, they told me it was simple. ‘We just won’t weigh you, and we’ll put down any weight you want. . . !’ And that’s what they did. And I was in.”
Stewart was able to complete three more films, “Come Live With Me,” “Pot o’ Gold” and “Ziegfeld Girl,” before he got his notice to report for induction—but once he was in the Army, his acting career ceased, despite studio efforts to the contrary.
He had continued the flying lessons begun in adolescence and had logged 400 hours and earned a commercial pilot’s license. As soon as he completed basic training, he applied for Army flight school and was accepted.
He wangled a spot in a B-24 wing headed overseas, and by 1944, he was flying missions over Europe.
On one in particular, as a bomb group commander, he reached back for some old acting skills:
“We hit Brunswick in 1944,” he said, “and there was a lot of flak, a lot of fighter interference, a lot of airplanes going down. To be effective—even to defend ourselves—we somehow had to hold the bomb group together.
“That meant I had to sound like I knew what I was doing and wasn’t scared . . . and believe me, it was a better performance that I put on that day than I’d ever done in my life before. I was scared as hell!”
The effectiveness of his performance was clearly outlined in the citation that accompanied his Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for that raid.
“Despite aggressive fighting attacks in heavy anti-aircraft fire,” it read, “he was able to hold his formation together and direct the bombing run . . . in such a manner that the planes following him were able to bomb with great accuracy.”
He also won the Croix de Guerre and Air Medal with three clusters.
There were other raids: Berlin, Kiel, Ludwigshafen, Fuerth, Frankfurt and the Gilze-Rijan airfields.
He completed 25 combat missions, and came back from the war wearing the eagles of a full colonel, having commanded a wing during his last few air sorties.
Returning to Hollywood, he found that several studios were willing to bid for his services—but only for pictures that would, he felt, trade upon his wartime exploits and reputation.
This he refused to do.
So when another returning Army colonel—old friend Frank Capra—went to him with the outline of an entirely non-wartime story, he was willing to listen. And when Capra was done “talking” the project, Stewart tossed up his hands.
“Frank,” he said, “that’s the weirdest tale I ever heard. But if you really wanna do a picture about a hometown guy who never seems to go anywhere, and an angel that doesn’t have any wings . . . I’m yer boy!”
The picture was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and it is considered by many to be the quintessential Stewart vehicle.
Modern filmmaker Steven Spielberg has called the film his favorite and shows it to casts on location in his own films.
The movie reestablished Stewart’s film career (“Until we made it, neither Frank nor I was really sure we could work professionally anymore”) and lifted Stewart back into the ranks of top moneymaking stars. (He had taken a $2,979-per-week cut in pay to enter the Army, and was nearly broke.)
“But I can’t say it took much acting,” Stewart said. “I knew that character—George Bailey—that I was supposed to play. He was my father. I just pretended I was him.”
Other pictures followed: “Magic Town,” “Call Northside 777" and “You Gotta Stay Happy,” in which, at last, he agreed to play a flier.
Cary Grant once said that Stewart’s way of talking had had an enormous effect on films and film actors.
“Brando did that kind of thing years later, but Stewart did it first,” Grant said. “Jimmy did it with a kind of emphasis and Brando did it with reticence . . . but it was the same. A realness to the delivery . . . seeming casual, almost ad-libbed.”
The casualness, Stewart insisted, was “all illusion. I have to know my lines letter-perfect to try for that. If you’re really ad-libbing, you hesitate in the wrong places, or the close-ups don’t match the master scenes. It doesn’t work.”
In any case, the problem was solved with a picture called “Winchester ’73,” which was a Western—and opened a whole new career for its star. “I found,” he said, “that my speech pattern was acceptable in Westerns.”
That film also marked the first time that a star agreed to accept a minimal salary in exchange for a percentage of the box office receipts. It set a precedent that gave actors greater control over their pictures and made Stewart a millionaire.
He followed with “Broken Arrow,” “Bend of the River,” “The Naked Spur” and “The Far Country.” But his career was by no means limited to Westerns.
In between, he was seen in “The Jackpot,” “No Highway in the Sky” and “Harvey,” for which he was again nominated by the Academy.
“The Greatest Show on Earth” allowed him to realize a cherished boyhood dream—to be a circus clown.
But a far bigger thrill came in 1956, when he was picked to portray his boyhood idol, Charles A. Lindbergh, in “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
There were other successes with such 1950s features as “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Bell, Book and Candle” and “Anatomy of a Murder.”
He had remained in the Air Force Reserve after the war, and climaxed this second career with a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. He retired in 1968.
He had been married, in 1949, to Gloria McLean, formally adopting her two sons by a former marriage and fathering twin girls. By 1969, the older boy, Ronald, was old enough to fight in Vietnam—and to die there.
But Stewart’s commitment to the military was unchanged. The war, he said, “was mismanaged—but necessary. We are very proud of our son.”
He tried two television series (“The Jimmy Stewart Show” and “Hawkins”), neither of which was successful.
Parts became smaller: cameos in “The Shootist” and “Airport ’77,” and there were blandishments from the stage. In 1970, he re-created his lead role in “Harvey,” but resisted other offers.
Still revered, Stewart gave a boost to the presidential hopes of Ronald Reagan in 1976 when the better-known actor traveled with Reagan, introducing him across the country. When Reagan ended his second term as president, Stewart led the parade welcoming him home to California.
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