If I had my career over again? Maybe I’d say to myself, speed it up a little.
– James Stewart
James Stewart, often referred to as Jimmy, was known for his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona. The actor personified the American middle class man struggling with a crisis and received five Academy Award nominations over the course of his career. The American Film Institute named Stewart the third greatest male screen legend of all time and was as noted for his career in the military during the Second World War as he was for his acting.
Born on May 20, 1908 and attended the Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1928. Over two summers he took a job as an assistant with a professional magician making his first appearance on stage at Mercersburg in the play The Wolves. Stewart was a shy child and spent much of his childhood in his basement working on model airplanes, with a dream of going into aviation.
However, he abandoned visions of becoming a pilot when his father insisted that he attend Princeton University instead of the United States Naval Academy. He excelled at architecture and so impressed his lecturers with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies. Gradually the young scholar became attracted to the school’s drama program and was invited to join the University Players.
Stewart and Henry Fonda became great friends during this period and in 1932 they shared an apartment when the young actor arrived in New York. It was here he stared in his first Broadway show, Carry Nation. The play was a moderate success but times were difficult with many Broadway theatres converted into cinemas and the Great Depression taking its toll. Although he didn’t work much, by 1934 he was being offered more substantial film roles. Eventually Stewart attracted the attention of MGM scout Bill Grady and a screen test was organised, after which he signed a contract in 1935 for up to seven years at $350 a week.
Initially the actor had trouble being cast in films due to his gangling looks and shy, humble persona and his first film, The Murder Man (1935), was poorly received. A string of mediocre films proceeded until he received his first dramatic role in the 1936 film After the Thin Man. It was around this time he began dating the newly divorced Ginger Rogers but it didn’t last. An encounter with Margaret Sullavan would prove to be invaluable for the actor as she became a mentor of sorts, rehearsing extensively with him and encouraging him to embrace his unique mannerisms and boyish charm. In 1936 he acquired a big-time agent Leland Hayward.
The 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You brought Stewart widespread attention and garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The 1940 film The Philadelphia Story, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn saw the actor play an intrusive, fast-talking reporter, a role which earned him his only Academy Award for Best Actor. He gave the Oscar to his father who displayed it for years in a case by the front door of his hardware store. In late 1940 the actor was drafted into the army which coincided with a lapse in his MGM contract. With 28 films under his belt the actor stepped away from acting.
Stewart’s family on both sides had deep military roots, with both his Grandparents having fought in the Civil War and his Father in both the Spanish – American War and WWI. The actor decided to become a pilot and almost two years prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941 he had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time. He became the first major Hollywood film star to wear a military uniform in WWII.
The actor was concerned that his background as a film star and celebrity status would relegate him to a desk job, a fear that was realised after his promotion to first lieutenant on July 7, 1942. He was promoted to captain on July 9, 1943 and appointed squadron commander. After appealing to his superiors, Stewart was sent on a combat mission on December 13, 1943 to bomb the U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany, followed three days later by a mission to Bremen. On March 22, 1944, Stewart flew his 12th combat mission, leading the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin. The actor continued to play a role in the Army Air Forces Reserve following WWII, although he rarely spoke of his service publicly.
After the war he took time off to reassess his career and upon his return to Hollywood in 1945 he decided not to renew his MGM contract, instead signing with the MCA talent agency. His first film in five years was the 1946 drama It’s a Wonderful Life and although it received five Academy Award nominations, it received mixed reviews. However in the decades since its release the film is heralded as one of the greatest of all time and a true Christmas classic. Stewart would later claim that, of all the films he made over his career, It’s a Wonderful Life was his favourite. It was around this time that the actor began to doubt his ability to return to acting after his military career.
The 1954 film The Glen Miller Story was critically acclaimed and cemented the popularity of Stewart’s portrayal of American heroes. The actors role in Winchester ’73 was a turning point in Hollywood. Universal Studios, who wanted him to appear in both that film and Harvey, balked at his $200,000 asking price. His agent brokered an alternative deal, in which Stewart would appear in both films for no pay, in exchange for a percentage of the profits as well as cast and director approval. The actor ended up earning about $600,000 for Wincheater ’73 alone. This encouraged other actors to break away from the Studio System.
A collaboration that would come to define Stewart’s career was with Director Alfred Hitchcock. He has stared in his 1948 thriller Rope but it was with films such as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) that cemented his star power, with Stewart becoming the highest grossing star of 1954 and the most popular Hollywood star in the world.
Stewart continued to make films into the 1960s, including numerous Western features, eventually making the transition into television. In the 1980s he entered semi-retirement and as a result of diversified investments including real estate, oil wells and a charter plane company, the actor was a multimillionaire.
Universally described as a kind, soft-spoken, professional man, Stewart settled down at the age of 41 to former model Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949. He adopted her two sons and together they had twin daughters. The couple remained married until her death from lung cancer in 1994 at the age of 75. Stewart was hospitalised after a fall in December 1995 and a year later when he was due to have the battery in his pacemaker replaced, he opted not to, preferring to allow things to happen naturally. Surrounded by his children, Stewart died at the age of 89 on July 2, 1997. His final words to his family were “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”