Kelly Ann Butterbaugh
Stewart Goes to Hollywood”
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
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
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.
As 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
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
For more information about James Stewart, visit the James M.
Stewart Museum site at http://www.jimmy.org
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.