Stewart, Jimmy: Screen Career–Long and Spectacular from Start to Finish

In a spectacular Hollywood career spanning almost six decades, Jimmy Stewart made about 80 films, half of which classics.

Stewart made 21 films in the 1930s, 14 films in the 1940s, 23 in the 1950s, 13 in the 1960s, and about a dozen from 1970 to 1991, when he lent his voice to American Tail.

During the 33 years that elapsed between 1935, when Stewart made his Hollywood debut in Murder Man (at age 27), and 1968, in which he made the Western Firecreek, Jimmy Stewart’s career, unlike those of many other durable stars, had never really taken a downward turn.

Stewart Versus Other Movie Stars

Clark Gable, James Cagney, and Errol Flynn were major stars and did their best work in the 1930s, and Bogart and Tracy reached their heights in the 1940s and 1950s.

However, Stewart, like John Wayne, became a quintessentially international star in the the 1950s.  It’s not that he was a late bloomer; Stewart made many popular films in the late 1930s, such as You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Philadelphia Story.  Nonetheless, Stewart not only reached the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, but also left his strongest signature on that decade.

Moreover, Stewart’s career, unlike most stars of his age, was not associated with one particular studio.  His first film, The Murder Man, was for MGM, but for his second, he was loaned out to Universal for Next Time We Love.  Even so, in the first phase of his career, he was under contract to MGM.

Stewart and Hollywood Studios

Eventually, Stewart worked for all of the Hollywood studios.

Of his 80-film-output, 15 were made at MGM, 12 at Universal, 10 at Twentieth-Century Fox, 9 for Lowe, 8 for Columbia, 7 for Paramount, 6 for Warner, and the rest for RKO, United Artists, and other companies.

More significantly, the first phase of Stewart’s career was insignificant.  By 1938, he had made 13 films though none of any distinction.

The first turning point occurred with his 14th film, Vivacious Lady, directed by George Stevens, in which he played a timid college professor who disrupts the staid atmosphere of his institution by getting engaged to a nifty nightclub singer (played by Ginger Rogers).

With his leisurely, naturalistic delivery, his oddly graceful awkwardness and his ability to convey incorruptible virtue, Jimmy Stewart has done more than any American “to embody the often contradictory spirit of his country and give it convincing expression on the screen.”

The above statement was made by Coe, a British journalist, who in his book traces the actor’s journey from a small Pennsylvania town to his earliest theatrical experience in Princeton’s Triangle Club, his rise through the ranks of Hollywood’s studio system and his breakthrough to stardom in Frank Capra movies.

Winchester ’73

After a wartime stint as a bomber pilot and squadron leader, Stewart suffered a run of bad luck in his choice of roles.  This streak was interrupted by Winchester ’73, which marked the emergence of a rougher screen persona for Stewart, turning him into one of the top box-office draws of the 1950s. His role in that movie also foreshadowed the tormented characterizations he displayed in the movies made under the helm of two vastly different directors, Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock.

In Vertigo, according to Coe, Stewart “brought to the screen–without recourse to histrionics–emotional states more extreme than any that had previously been portrayed in mainstream cinema.”

Coe, a perceptive critic, offers sharp commentary on Stewart and his lengthy career in his book, published in 1994, when the star was still alive.