James Stewart (1908-1997)

james stewart
James Stewart
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During his long career, James Stewart appeared in many classic films and is widely regarded as one of the finest actors of Hollywood's Golden Age. He appeared in a variety of different genres including westerns, screwball comedies and thrillers and he was nominated five times for Academy Awards, winning once for Best Actor for his role in 'The Philadelphia Story' in 1940.

He distinguished himself also in World War II, joining the United States Air Force one year before Pearl Harbour and as a bomber pilot and squadron commander he flew 20 combat missions before rising to the rank of Brigadier General, earning the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre.

In most of his movies Stewart played the everyday All-American, usually a character with whom the audience could identify and empathise. He was one of the best loved and popular actors ever to work in Hollywood and he was named by the American Film Institute as the third Greatest Male Star of All Time.


James Stewart was born James Maitland Stewart on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, a small town in western Pennsylvania. He had two younger sisters and his father owned the town's hardware store which had been in the family for several generations.

After elementary school Stewart was sent away by his parents to attend Mercersburg Academy in south-central Pennsylvania where he became proficient at baseball and football and a particularly good track athlete. He went on to study architecture at Princeton University which was where he first developed an interest in acting. Away from his studies, he enjoyed going to the movies at the time when silent films were being phased out in favor of 'Talkies'. Stewart was a self-taught accordion player and he began to play for the Triangle Club, a student acting group. He got to know Josh Logan, later to become a well known director on Broadway, who, following his graduation in 1932, invited Stewart to join his University Players acting company in Falmouth MA.

The Young Actor

It was the start of an acting life and after spending the summer of 1932 performing small roles in the Players' productions, Stewart made the move to New York, sharing an apartment with Logan and another rising actor and former member of the University Players, Henry Fonda. Within a short time he was appearing in his first Broadway production in a two-line role as a chauffeur in the comedy 'Goodbye Again'. The play had a successful run but The Great Depression had started, many theaters were closing and for two years Stewart found roles difficult to find. He appeared in the 1934 hit show 'Page Miss Glory' and in the same year he had his first major stage role when he appeared in 'Yellow Jack' which gave him the confidence to continue his acting career.

Hollywood Actor

He was finally given a screen test by MGM after which he signed a seven year contract in April 1935. He started by making several movies a year and his first film was the disappointing 'The Murder Man' starring Spencer Tracy. He gradually overcame his shy, diffident manner and indeed used it to good effect in a number of movies. His first significant role was as a killer in 1936 in 'After the Thin Man' after which he was taken under the wing of Margaret Sullavan, ex-wife of his friend and flat-mate, Henry Fonda and former member of the University Players. She was already a star name and she used her influence to get him the leading man role in her 1936 romantic comedy 'Next Time We Love'. Encouraged by her, Stewart began to use his naturally diffident, deceptively casual manner as part of his acting persona and over the next few years it brought him more and more success.

These early films, as he honed his style, were mostly comedies and romantic dramas from the mid 1930's, such as 'Wife vs. Secretary,' and "Born to Dance', in 1936 and 'Navy Blue and Gold' in 1937.

With 'You Can't Take It With You' in 1938 Stewart began a successful association with director Frank Capra who came to regard Stewart as the best actor in Hollywood. Capra maintained that Stewart instinctively understood what each picture required and needed very little guidance - a director's dream. 'You Can't Take It With You' starred comedienne Jean Arthur and won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award.

Hollywood Stardom

Stewart's breakthrough into real Hollywood stardom came in 1939 with two wonderful movies, both of which have become classics: 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and 'Destry Rides Again'. 'Mr. Smith' again co-starred Jean Arthur and was directed by Capra and Stewart played a naive idealist who is thrown into the snake pit of Washington politics but who ultimately triumphs by evoking the ideals of middle America. The movie was critically acclaimed and was an extremely popular box-office success. For his performance Stewart received the first of his five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.

'Destry Rides Again', also in 1939, was a Western parody, in which Stewart co-starred with Marlene Dietrich and in which she sang her famous song "The Boys In the Back Room". Off-screen, Stewart, still a single man, had a passionate but short-lived romance with his co-star.

The Philadelphia Story

1940 was a busy and important year for James Stewart. After successfully branching out into regular radio broadcasting with "Lux Radio Theater," and "The Screen Guild Theater" he made a number of movies including 'The Shop Around the Corner'and 'The Mortal Storm', both with Margaret Sullavan again, and then he played in one of the films which defined his career, 'The Philadelphia Story' co-starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. In this classic screwball comedy, again directed by George Cukor, Stewart plays a reporter who gets involved with the society wedding story he is supposed to be covering. All three stars gave superlative performances and Stewart was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1941. It turned out to be his only competitive Academy Award win.

Military Career

Stewart made several more comedies before his contract with MGM ended in 1941 and this coincided with his decision to put his career on hold and enter the Air Force. He was the first Hollywood star to volunteer and it was certainly no PR stunt. Over more than four years he served first as a flying instructor, then as a pilot of B-24 bombers and during the last two years of the war, based in England, he led his squadron on more than 20 missions over Germany and occupied France. There seems little doubt that James Stewart was a genuine war hero. He continued to be active in the Air Force Reserve after the war and achieved the rank of Brigadier General, the highest ranking actor in the US military.

Stewart returned to Hollywood in the fall of 1945. He made the conscious decision not to renew his MGM contract and instead signed with the MCA agency. This gave him the freedom, for the rest of his career to choose his movies and roles.

It's A Wonderful Life

His first movie after returning from the war was another classic, 'It's A Wonderful Life', co-starring Donna Reed, and again directed by George Cukor. Stewart stars as George Bailey, an ordinary man in an ordinary town, who is driven to suicide due to financial troubles and who is led to reassess his life by a guardian angel. The film received five Academy Award nominations and has since been raised to the status of national Christmas treasure although at the time it was received with lukewarm reviews. It was ranked number eleven by the AFI on its all time list of great movies.

The Mature Actor

Stewart assumed a new, more mature and harder-edged movie persona during the rest of his career. Both he and the movie-going public had been changed by the war and he began a series of roles in which replaced his early idealistic country boy image with darker, more complex characterisations. He showed his new side in four classic movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock: 'Rope' in 1948, 'Rear Window' with Grace Kelly in 1954, 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' in 1956, and 'Vertigo' in 1958 with Kim Novak.

He showed his acting versatility in 1950 with a light comedy 'Harvey' in which he plays a lovable soak called Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend is a six foot invisible rabbit. He also appeared in a series of realistic Westerns directed by Anthony Mann such as 'Winchester '73 ' in 1950, 'The Naked Spur' in 1953, 'The Far Country' in 1954 and 'The Man from Laramie' the following year, all of which further developed the darker, edgier side of his screen persona.

Stewart made three movies in the 1960's with director John Ford: 'Two Rode Together' in 1961, with Richard Widmark, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' the following year, with John Wayne, and 'Cheyenne Autumn' in 1964.

Stewart also worked with other top directors such as Billy Wilder in 1957's 'The Spirit of St. Louis', a biopic of Charles Lindbergh, and Otto Preminger in 'Anatomy of a Murder' in 1959, which earned him yet another Best Actor nomination.

Later Career

After making a succession of poorly received movies in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Stewart made the transition to television, notably 'The Jimmy Stewart Show' from 1971-72, and making guest appearances on'The Jack Benny Show' as well as winning a Golden Globe for his own thriller series, 'Hawkins'. He also made regular appearances on Johnny Carson's 'The Tonight Show', reading his own poetry. He reverted occasionally to making movies such as 'The Shootist' in 1976 and 'The Big Sleep' in 1978.

In 1970, he revived his movie hit 'Harvey' on the Broadway stage, co-starring with Helen Hayes, and made several television movies including 1983's powerful 'Right of Way', with Bette Davis, after which he retired from acting. He was a regular visitor to the Reagan White House and he travelled on the lecture circuit.


In his single days Stewart was renowned as a womanising man about town and was linked romantically with a number of actresses including Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and Olivia de Havilland, but when he settled down and married in 1949 at the age of 41, he remained devotedly faithful to his wife, former model Gloria Hatrick McLean. She and Stewart had two twin daughters, Judy and Kelly and she was the mother of two sons by a previous marriage, whom Stewart adopted. He and Gloria were married for almost forty-five years, ending with her death in February 1994, an event which devastated Stewart.

After several years of failing health, James Stewart died on July 2, 1997 in Beverley Hills, California. He was 89. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

James Stewart Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Best Actor ... It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Best Actor ... Harvey (1950)
Best Actor ... Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Honorary Award 1985 "For his fifty years of memorable performances, for his high ideals both on and off the screen, with respect and affection of his colleagues."


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James Stewart Filmography

Art Trouble (uncredited)
The Murder Man
Next Time We Live
Wife vs Secretary
Important News
Small Town Girl
The Gorgeous Hussy
Born to Dance
After the Thin Man
The Good Earth
Seventh Heaven
The Last Gangster
Navy Blue and Gold
Of Human Hearts
Vivacious Lady
The Shopworn Angel
You Can't Take It with You
Made for Each Other
The Ice Follies of 1939
It's a Wonderful World
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Destry Rides Again
The Shop Around the Corner
The Mortal Storm
No Time for Comedy
The Philadelphia Story
Come Live with Me
The Golden Hour
Ziegfeld Girl
Magic Town
Call Northside 777
On Our Merry Way
You Gotta Stay Happy
The Stratton Story
East of the Rising Sun
Winchester '73
Broken Arrow
The Jackpot
No Highway
The Greatest Show on Earth
Where the River Bends
Carbine Williams
The Naked Spur
Thunder Bay
Tomorrow's Drivers
The Glenn Miller Story
The Far Country
Rear Window
Strategic Air Command
The Man From Laramie