James Maitland Stewart
Night Passage (1957) James Stewart and Audie Murphy
Studio publicity photo for Call Northside 777 (1948)
James Maitland Stewart (May 20, 1908 – July 2, 1997) was an American film and stage actor, known for his distinctive voice and persona. Over the course of his career, he starred in many films widely considered classics and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving one Lifetime Achievement award. He was a major MGMcontract star. He also had a noted military career and was a World War II and Vietnam Warveteran, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve. His most popular films include You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington(1939), Destry Rides Again (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), The Philadelphia Story(1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rope (1948), Winchester ’73 (1950), Harvey (1950), The Glenn Miller Story (1953), Rear Window (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How The West Was Won (1962) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).
Early life and career
James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of Elizabeth Ruth (née Jackson) and Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a hardware store. Stewart’s parents were of English, Scottish and Irish descent and Presbyterians. His maternal ancestors served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. The eldest of three children (he had two younger sisters, Virginia and Mary), he was expected to continue his father’s business, which had been in the family for three generations. His mother was an excellent pianist but his father discouraged Stewart’s request for lessons. But when his father accepted a gift of an accordion from a guest, young Stewart quickly learned to play the instrument, which became a fixture off-stage during his acting career. As the family grew, music continued to be an important part of family life.
Stewart attended Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1928. He was active in a variety of activities. He played on the football and track teams, was art editor of the KARUXyearbook, and a member of the choir club, glee club, and John Marshall Literary Society. During his first summer break, Stewart returned to his hometown to work as a brick loader for a local construction company and on highway and road construction jobs where he painted lines on the roads. Over the following two summers, he took a job as an assistant with a professional magician. He made his first appearance onstage at Mercersburg, as Buquet in the play The Wolves.
A shy child, Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry—all with a dream of going into aviation. But he abandoned visions of being a pilot when his father insisted that instead of the United States Naval Academy he attend Princeton University. Stewart enrolled at Princeton in 1928 as a member of the class of 1932. He excelled at studying architecture, so impressing his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies; but he gradually became attracted to the school’s drama and music clubs, including the Princeton Triangle Club. His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company in West Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The company had been organized in 1928 and would run until 1932, with Joshua Logan, Bretaigne Windust, and Charles Leatherbee as directors. Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players’ productions in Cape Cod during the summer of 1932, after he graduated. The troupe had previously included Henry Fonda, who married Margaret Sullavanon Christmas Day 1931, while the players were in Baltimore, Maryland for an 18-week winter season. Sullavan, who had rejoined the Players in Baltimore in November 1931 at the close of the post-Broadway tour of A Modern Virgin, left the Players for good at the end of The Trial of Mary Dugan in Baltimore in March 1932. By the time Stewart joined the University Players on Cape Cod after his graduation from Princeton in 1932, Fonda and Sullavan’s brief marriage had ended. Stewart and Fonda became great friends over the summer of 1932 when they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick. When Stewart came to New York at the end of the summer stock season, which had included the Broadway try-out of Goodbye Again, he shared an apartment with Fonda, who had by then finalized his divorce from Sullavan. Along with fellow University Players Alfred Dalrymple and Myron McCormick, Stewart debuted on Broadway as a chauffeur in the comedyGoodbye Again, in which he had two lines. The New Yorker noted, “Mr. James Stewart’s chauffeur… comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause.”
The play was a moderate success, but times were hard. Many Broadway theaters had been converted to movie houses and the Depression was reaching bottom. “From 1932 through 1934”, Stewart later recalled, “I’d only worked three months. Every play I got into folded.” By 1934, he had gotten more substantial stage roles, including the modest hit Page Miss Glory and his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard‘s Yellow Jack, which convinced him to continue his acting career. However, Stewart and Fonda, still roommates, were both struggling. In the fall of 1934, Fonda’s success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood. Finally, Stewart attracted the interest o fMGM scout Bill Grady who saw Stewart on the opening night of Divided by Three, a glittering première with many luminaries in attendance, including Irving Berlin and Moss Hart and Fonda, who had returned to New York for the show. With Fonda’s encouragement, Stewart agreed to take a screen test, after which he signed a contract with MGM in April 1935, as a contract player for up to seven years at $350 a week.
Upon Stewart’s arrival by train in Los Angeles, Fonda greeted him at the station and took him to Fonda’s studio-supplied lodging, next door to Greta Garbo. Stewart’s first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly arrived starlets. At first, he had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence. Aside from an unbilled appearance in a Shemp Howard comedy short called Art Trouble in 1934, his first film was the poorly received Spencer Tracy vehicle, The Murder Man (1935). Rose Marie (1936), an adaptation of a popular operetta, was more successful. After mixed success in films, he received his first substantial part in 1936‘s After the Thin Man.
On the romantic front, he found himself dating newly divorced Ginger Rogers. The romance soon cooled, however, and by chance Stewart encountered Margaret Sullavan again. Stewart found his footing in Hollywood thanks largely to Sullavan, who campaigned for Stewart to be her leading man in the 1936 romantic comedy Next Time We Love. She rehearsed extensively with him, having a noticeable effect on his confidence. She encouraged Stewart to feel comfortable with his unique mannerisms and boyish charm and use them naturally as his own style. Stewart was enjoying Hollywood life and had no regrets about giving up the stage, as he worked six days a week in the MGM factory. In 1936, he acquired big-time agent Leland Hayward, who would eventually marry Sullavan. Hayward started to chart Stewart’s career, deciding the best path for him was through loan-outs to other studios.
In 1938, Stewart had a brief, tumultuous romance with Hollywood queen Norma Shearer, whose husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, had died two years earlier. Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can’t Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart’s minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several popular movies, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs — other recent actors in Capra’s films such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, “I think he’s probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.”
You Can’t Take It With You, starring Capra’s “favorite actress”, comedienne Jean Arthur, won the1938 Best Picture Academy Award. The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again in the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film, playing an idealist thrown into the political arena. Upon its October 1939 release, the film garnered critical praise and became a box-office success. Stewart was nominated for the first of five Academy Awards for Best Actor. Stewart’s father was still trying to talk him into leaving Hollywood and its sinful ways and to return to his home town to lead a decent life. Stewart took a secret trip to Europe to take a break and returned home in 1939 just as Germany invaded Poland.
“You hear so much about the old movie moguls and the impersonal factories where there is no freedom. MGM was a wonderful place where decisions were made on my behalf by my superiors. What’s wrong with that?
—James Stewart, The Leading Men of MGM
Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, became Stewart’s first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career. In this western parody, Stewart is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the dancing saloon girl who comes to love him, but doesn’t get him. In the film, Dietrich sings her famous song “The Boys In the Back Room”. Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived. Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with irrepressible Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars, but did less well with the public. Newsweek wrote that they were “perfectly cast in the leading roles.” Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the Lux Radio Theater‘s The Screen Guild Theater and other shows. So well-known had his slow drawl become that comedians began impersonating him.
In 1940, Stewart and Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred Stewart and Sullavan as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance but who cannot stand each other in real life (this was later remade into the musical, In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and later as the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). It was Stewart’s fifth film of the year and that rare film shot in sequence; it was completed in only 27 days. The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured the pair as friends and then lovers caught in turmoil upon Hitler‘s rise to power, literally hunted down by their own friends.
Stewart also starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor‘s classic The Philadelphia Story (1940). His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941), and he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Stewart thought his performance “entertaining and slick and smooth” but lacking the “guts” of “Mr. Smith.” Stewart gave the Oscar statuette to his father, who displayed it for many years in a case inside the front door of his hardware store, alongside other family awards and military medals.
During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed the mediocre No Time for Comedy (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr with the Judy Garland musical, Ziegfeld Girl, and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o’ Gold featuring Paulette Goddard. Stewart was drafted in late 1940, a situation that coincided with the lapse in his MGM contract, marking a turning point in Stewart’s career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.
The Stewart and Jackson families had deep military roots as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Stewart considered his father to be the biggest influence on his life, so it was not surprising that, when another war came, he too was eager to serve. Members of his family had previously been in the infantry, but Stewart chose to become a military flier.
An early interest in flying led Stewart to gain his Private Pilot certificate in 1935 and Commercial Pilot certificate in 1938. He often flew cross-country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks. Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time.
Considered a highly proficient pilot, he even entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot in 1939. Stewart, along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, saw the need for trained war pilots, and joined with other Hollywood celebrities to invest in Thunderbird Field, a pilot-training school built and operated by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona. This airfield became part of the United States Army Air Forcestraining establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during World War II, and is now the home of Thunderbird School of Global Management.
In October 1940, Stewart was drafted into the United States Army but was rejected for failing to meet height and weight requirements for new recruits—Stewart was five pounds (2.3 kg) under the standard. To get up to 148 pounds, he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s muscle man and trainer Don Loomis, who was noted for his ability to add or subtract pounds in his studio gymnasium. Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the Air Corps, but still came in under the weight requirement, although he persuaded the enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in, with the result that Stewart enlisted and was inducted in the Army on March 22, 1941. He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.
Stewart enlisted as a private but as both a college graduate and a licensed commercial pilot applied for an Air Corps commission and pilot rating. Soon to be 33, he was almost six years beyond the maximum age restriction for aviation cadet training, the normal path of commissioning for pilots. Stewart received his commission as a second lieutenant on January 19, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, while a corporal at Moffett Field, California. He also received a pilot rating, although the circumstances are unclear, since he did not participate in the standard pilot training program. Stewart’s first assignment was an appearance at a March of Dimes rally in Washington, D.C., but Stewart desired assignment to an operational unit rather than serve as a recruiting symbol. He applied for and was granted advanced training in multi-engine aircraft. Stewart was posted to nearby Mather Field to instruct in both single- and twin-engine aircraft.