One of the most beloved Hollywood superstars, Jimmy Stewart became an American icon, due to his idiosyncratic style, ineffable charm, plus the good fortune of having worked with many of the greatest directors in Hollywood, including Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford. Stewart was a star in essentially two distinct incarnations. He was a light-comedy leading man of the late 1930s and much of the 1940s and then a western and action star in the 1950s.
Though he had acted while in college in the Princeton University Triangle Club, he did not take his performing seriously until his fellow classmate Joshua Logan convinced him to give the theater a try after graduation. Stewart agreed and joined Logan's University Players. With such members as Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, it was quite a group. Stewart had a short and modest career in the theater before Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper discovered him, touting his naturalness to MGM. After a screen test, the stuido signed him and gave him a small part in The Murder Man (1935).
Stewart's first starring role was in a "B" movie, Speed (1936), and it took two directors outside of MGM to recognize Stewart's talent and appeal. Loaned out from MGM, George Stevens put him in two romantic comedies at RKO, the first with Ginger Rogers, Vivacious Lady (1938), and the second, The Shopworn Angel (1938), with pal Margaret Sullavan. Both were hits, and Stewart had become a bona-fide Hollywood leading man. But it was Frank Capra at Columbia who turned the leading man into a star with You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The latter film brought Stewart his first Oscar nomination.
MGM continued to loan him out, this time for the comic western Destry Rides Again (1939), another hit. The actor's remarkable string of hits was finally abetted by MGM, which happily paired him with Margaret Sullavan in two excellent films, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940). That same year he also joined Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940), this time winning his one and only Best Actor Oscar.
Stewart made several other films before leaving Hollywood to join the war effort, but none were hits. When he returned from the service (he was a bomber pilot who made 20 sorties over Germany), he found that his charming innocence no longer appealed to movie audiences. His first film after the war, Frank Capra's inspiring It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was a box-office disappointment, though Stewart won another Oscar nomination for his performance in the film. Finally, in 1948, Stewart stopped his slide by playing a tough detective in Call Northside 777, but with his career still lacking focus, he made several more films of questionable quality. The change began when he starred in the surprise hit western directed by Anthony Mann, Winchester 73 (1950).
Between 1950 and 1955, Stewart starred in six westerns, all but one of them directed by Mann. Every one was a hit, and they presented a new Stewart persona. Instead of the sweet innocence of the 1930s and 1940s, he exhibited a hard edge of cynicism, anger, and violence. The actor starred in the first of his four Hitchcock thrillers in Rope (1948), but the movie was a flop. In the 1950s, however, Stewart starred in three of Hitchcock's best films of that decade, Rear Window (1954) with Grace Kelly, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Thanks to the westerns and Hitchcock films, 20 years after his motion picture debut, he was the number-one box office draw in the world.
He starred in Harvey (1950), a role he originated on Broadway, and the now much-admired The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). After his fifth and final Oscar nomination for his performance in Antomy of a Murder (1959), Stewart's career finally began to slow down. His work with director John Ford was noteworth, though only The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was a fully realized masterpiece and money-maker. The actor clearly enjoyed himself starring along with his old friend Henry Fonda in a couple of minor westerns, Firecreek (1967) and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), but the rest of his career was spent in featured supporting roles in movies such as The Shootist (1976) and The Big Sleep (1978). He also starred in a TV series and made numerous guest appearances on the little screen. James Stewart died in 1997.
--SCOTT & BARBARA SIEGEL, from
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood.
A selection of James Stewart films.
Find James Stewart on eBay.com
A selection of James Stewart in books.
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