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JAMES STEWART

By
Kelly Ann Butterbaugh

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1940 James Stewart Bridgewater Trading Card1930's James Stewart Editorial Bruguera Paper Card“Mr. Stewart Goes to Hollywood”

Running through the snow with a gait that seemed as if his legs would buckle from beneath him at any moment, he was oblivious to everything around him.  As he shouted his greeting to those whom he passed on the street, his only thoughts were about getting home to see his family.  As American as baseball, the well known scene of George Bailey returning to his wonderful life is what gives meaning to the movie’s title.  It’s a cinematic moment that will outlive the film upon which it was cast.

Not any actor could have portrayed George Bailey; he needed to be awkward but lovable, aspiring yet naive, and downtrodden yet redeemable.  He needed to be James Maitland Stewart.  Long in the face as he was in the legs, Jimmy Stewart became America’s son as he stammered his way into people’s hearts before his death on July 3, 1997.  His life echoes that of the fictitious George Bailey so similarly that it is easy to understand why Stewart noted the role as his favorite.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation myself,” Stewart was known to say in reflection of his life.

His roots were set in Indiana, Pennsylvania where he was born on May 20, 1908 in his parent’s home above their store.  He was the oldest of three children and the only son.  There above the J.M. Stewart Hardware Store the future icon spent his boyhood days sledding down the family staircase on an oriental rug and organizing magic shows in the basement with his sisters.

Even as a youth Stewart managed to gravitate towards admiration.  He achieved the honor of Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable, while in the Boy Scouts of America.  Not unlike his role as George Bailey, Stewart aspired to be an architect while attending the then all-boy Princeton University from where he graduated with his degree in 1932.   It was there that he turned towards acting after a friend convinced him to join the University Players group in Massachusetts.  From there he followed his calling and his newly found friend, Henry Fonda, to the stage.

1936 James Stewart 4x5 MGM Promotional Photo1973 Jimmy Stewart print from John Ford Cowboy Kings CollectionAs his film career started with The Murder Man (1935), Stewart demonstrated his panache for choosing roles which represented the soft-spoken and likeable man whom his fans loved.  This well-liked demeanor served him well in films such as Harvey (1950) where a kindly Stewart befriended an invisible six foot rabbit and The Philadelphia Story (1940) for which he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar.

As diverse as the country who loved him, Stewart avoided typecasting by taking on roles which showed a more serious side and proved successful with them as well.  Casting aside the boy next door quality, Stewart found critical success in Alfred Hitchcock’s films Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956),  and Vertigo (1958).  Stewart even added western films to his endless list of credentials.  Such films as The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) display the lanky man from Pennsylvania with a rougher and more gristly demeanor.  It was these westerns, however, which allowed for a contract between Stewart and Universal Pictures which awarded Stewart a cut of the film’s profits, an unprecedented deal.

The more notable points in Stewart’s career came with the film You Can’t Take It with You (1938.)  Not only did this film win the 1938 Academy Award for Best Picture but it also brought together the classic pair of James Stewart and director Frank Capra.  During its filming Capra, like everyone it seemed, fell in love with the man he called America’s Everyman.  This association with Capra brought Stewart back to the Academy Awards in 1939 with a nomination for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which he played a senator.  In the following year he would move on to win the Oscar for his role of a reporter in The Philadelphia Story.  Stewart then gave the award to his father who displayed it in his storefront appropriately overlooking Philadelphia Avenue for the next twenty-five years.  From this partnership with Capra also came Stewart’s signature role of the failing optimist George Bailey in 1946 with the filming of It’s a Wonderful Life.

It wasn’t only Stewart’s choice of characters that made him the icon of the American society; it was his personal life as well.  Following in the footsteps of the characters he played, Stewart remained loyal to both his family and his country.  He married Gloria Stewart on  August 9, 1949 and remained at her side until her death in 1994.  With Gloria came her two sons from a previous marriage, one of whom died in Vietnam, and in James Stewart Best Actor 1940 Volpe Print from 1962James Stewart with Louis Armstrong & Gene Krupa in The Glenn Miller Story1951 their family grew to include twin daughters.

Before taking on the duel role of husband and father, Stewart enlisted in the service of his country and defended it as a member of the air force during World War II.  His notably thin six foot three and a half inch frame caused him to be denied admission to the air force at first when he came in five pounds under the recommended weight.  His charm and logic won his way into service after he persuaded the admitting officer to ignore his weight examination.  Stewart went on to fight the war in the front lines, earning himself the title of colonel as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross medal and seven battle stars.  As a result, Stewart claims the title of highest ranking military actor in history with only the exception of former president Ronald Reagan.

No wonder people like Jimmy Stewart, for he is the all-American.  Not lacking in imperfections, the often awkward but always loveable Stewart related well to the average person.

When asked about his public persona, Stewart once replied, “I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

For more information about James Stewart, visit the James M. Stewart Museum site at http://www.jimmy.org
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Residing in Pennsylvania, Kelly is a teacher, a freelance writer, a wife, and a mother.  She writes and publishes fiction, editorial essays, and occasional non-fiction articles. Contact her at Englishteach@rcn.com. Read more profiles like this each month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other James Stewart Pages:

A Tribute to Jimmy Stewart A salute to everybody's favorite Everyman and one of the most beloved actors ever to appear on screen.
It's A Wonderful Movie by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com
Ten Percent of Jimmy Stewart by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com
Wife vs Secretary -- A mini-review of the 1936 film right here on this site as part of Cliff's DVD Collection.