One of the all-time great Hollywood leading men, James Stewart (1908-1997) was also one of the least likely to achieve stardom when MGM made him a contract player in 1935. The awkward gait, languorous drawl and hangdog expression of naïve dismay could have scored against Jimmy Stewart. Compared to Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Cary Grant he was not a natural heartthrob. But from his first starring role, in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), cinemagoers rooted for the decent, homespun average Joe: the quintessential American underdog.
Frank Capra, who directed Stewart three times, said of him: “I think he’s probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.” The American Film Institute’s list of the greatest 20th-century films bears this out, with several Stewart movies included in the list and the man himself coming third in the same institution’s roll call of the 25 greatest male screen legends. Directors could put him in screwball comedies (The Philadelphia Story, 1940), romantic comedies (Bell, Book & Candle, 1958), gritty Westerns (The Man from Laramie, 1955) or psychological thrillers (Rear Window, 1954) and he put in performances that were – and still are – the best in every genre. Given the lead in a major dramatic role like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), James Stewart was untouchable.
Donna Reed, who co-starred with Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, called him very demanding. “He’s so natural, so realistic, that I never knew whether he was talking to me or doing the scene. He’s the most demanding of all the actors I’ve ever worked with,” she said. With typical modesty, Stewart would only say: “I don’t act. I react.” His only question when looking at the rushes was: “Can you do a part and not have the acting showing?”
Stewart was not an overnight success as an actor. Persuaded to take a degree in architecture at Princeton by his father, he joined the university drama society The Princeton Triangle Club and after graduating in 1932 was invited to tour in summer stock – despite his father’s declaration that: “No Stewart has ever gone into show business!” – where he met Henry Fonda and Maureen Sullivan. Lodging with Fonda in New York, Stewart struggled to find work until he was scouted for Hollywood in 1935. Stewart credits Sullivan for his first break when she insisted he play her love interest in the 1936 film Next Time We Love. Sullivan also advised Stewart to literally “act natural”.
Though he did romance actresses Ginger Rogers and Norma Shearer, Stewart preferred to make model aeroplanes and fly kites with Henry Fonda rather than chase starlets at Ciro’s with the likes of Errol Flynn. He appeared to be a lucky charm for directors and co-stars – his first Capra film You Can’t Take It With You (1938) won the Academy Award for best picture, Stewart earned his first best actor nomination for Mr Smith Goes To Washington and he won the Oscar in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story. Stewart showed his chops as a comic actor in the parody Western Destry Rides Again (1939) co-starring with the great Marlene Dietrich, and opposite Maureen Sullivan in the 1940 romantic comedy classic, The Shop Around the Corner.
Obsessed by aviation since he was a child, Stewart already had his pilot certificate in 1935 and would see active service with the US Air Force, flying 20 combat missions over Germany in the Second World War. When he was drafted in 1940, Stewart was the first Hollywood star to wear a military uniform and he would become the highest-ranking entertainer in the US military. Stewart was adamant that he would not spend the war behind the lines and the casualties on the missions he commanded were said by author Robert Matzen in Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (2016) to have given him post traumatic stress disorder.
Movie stars in uniforms were catnip for wartime propaganda and James Stewart was photographed wearing a standard issue A-11 military watch: the model christened “the watch that won the war”. The A-11 was mass manufactured by the Waltham Watch Co., Bulova and the Elgin National Watch Company. What distinguished the A-11 was the hacking mechanism that allowed servicemen to stop the second hand and thus synchronise watches.
In 1949, Stewart appeared in a series of print advertisements suggesting that Elgin may have been the maker of his military watch. One can imagine the Mad Men of the late 1940s brainstorming which Hollywood male would best exemplify the brand values of Elgin: founded in 1864 to mass produce high quality pocket watches, one of the first marques in America to produce a wrist watch in 1910 and the maker of the aforementioned “watch that won the war”. Trusted, familiar, heroic, best buddy type? It had to be Jimmy Stewart.
Active service in the Second World War had left its mark on Stewart physically and psychologically. Even Harvey (1950), a comedy about a man who thinks he sees a giant white rabbit, touches on alcoholism and mental illness. He brought a darkness and inner turmoil to roles such as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and Dr McKenna in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) co-starring Doris Day. Stewart adeptly handled the world-weary, morally ambiguous characters giving nuanced performances that never entirely lost the audience’s sympathy.
The second post-war chapter of Stewart’s career was dominated by his work with Hitchcock and the Western directors Anthony Mann and John Ford. As detective Scottie Fergusson in Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock pushes Stewart to act/react to anxiety, suicide and nervous breakdown. It is an unsettling performance. In Rear Window he plays Jeff Jefferies, a photographer convalescing in a wheelchair who believes a murder has been committed by his neighbour. The relationship between Jeff and his fashion editor girlfriend (Grace Kelly) is tinged with cruelty and the claustrophobia of the wheelchair-bound voyeur in his dark apartment is uncomfortable to observe. On a more timely theme, Rear Window does give Stewart’s stainless-steel Tissot watch almost as many close-ups as Grace Kelly.
Though he was four years younger than Cary Grant, on screen Stewart looked much older, which is allegedly why Alfred Hitchcock gave Grant the lead in North by Northwest (1959). But his acting technique kept him in step with the new generation of method actors such as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, whose acting style Cary Grant said owed much to what came naturally to Jimmy Stewart.
Happily married to Gloria McLean from 1941, Stewart had four children and became one of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood, having been one of the first to make a “percentage of profits” deal and take celebrity endorsement deals with all-American brands like Elgin and Van Heusen. In later years, television and the stage supplemented dwindling film work.
When he died in 1997, Stewart was one of the most richly awarded actors in Hollywood history. In 1980, the American Film Institute gave him a lifetime achievement gong. In 1985, he was presented with an honorary Oscar and the Medal of Freedom. In 1969, he retired from the American Air Force with the rank of Brigadier General, having secretly flown on a 1966 bombing mission during the Vietnam War in a B52. There is no better epitaph for James Stewart than the words of fellow actor Richard Dreyfuss: “You symbolise an America that is gentle, ironic, self-depreciating, tough and emotional.”