Oscar Actors: Stewart, Jimmy–Wonderful Life, Just like His Favorite Film, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life

Research in Progress:

Jimmy Stewart was one of the most beloved and trusted of American actors, a screen folk hero who stirred great public affection, chiefly because of his two seminal Capra movies: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, which was Stewart’s personal favorite picture.

Integral to Stewart’s charisma was his easy way of opening himself up to the audience.  Even when he was stuck in flimsy and poor roles, Stewart could instantly engage the audience’s empathy, and often sympathy.

In his first decade, the young Stewart stood stand for the great American Dream of the 1930s and 1940s, when most embraced the values of that Dream, and only few doubted life’s prospects.

When he died, Time magazine critic Richard Corliss called him “A Wonderful Fella,” borrowing, of course, from It’s a Wonderful Life, and reflecting the actor’s artful but still natural portrait of simplicity, decency, and abundancy of charm.

In a career spanning five decades, Stewart had made about 80 films, at least half of which are considered classics. (See Filmography).

One of Hollywood’s most versatile actors, Stewart, unlike John Wayne or even Gary Cooper, excelled in a variety of genres, contributing to many various one, dramas, comedies, Westerns, action-adventures, thrillers.  However, above all, Stewart may be remembered for his all-American heroes, in half a dozen screen biographies of legendary and famous heroes.

More than any other star of his generation, Stewart is one of the most intriguing examples of a star who is cast increasingly against his accepted character.  Indeed, his work in the 1950s for Hitchcock and Anthony Mann changed his boy-scout image, and presented him as a more troubled, querulous, or lonely personality.

The emotional subtlety of films like The Naked Spur, Rear Window, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and Vertigo derives from the ways in which we are intrigued by the contradictions in Stewart’s personality, between harshness and vulnerability, toughness and softness.  Who could ever forget his nightmare in The Naked Spur, or his cries of distress?

James Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  An amateur magician and accordionist from boyhood, he made his acting debut in a Boy Scout play and later appeared in shows of the Princeton Triangle Club.

After graduating from Princeton in 1932 with a degree in architecture he was persuaded by classmate Joshua Logan to join the University Players at Falmouth, Massachusetts, whose members included such future Hollywood stars as Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan (who were married for a short while).

In fact, Stewart and Fonda were roommates when they both took their first steps on Broadway later that year and also when they first arrived in Hollywood in 1935.  They remained good friends, although in ensuing years they drifted apart in their political and social views, as Stewart became a spokesperson for the conservative cause.

Sullavan, as Fonda’s ex-wife, was instrumental in Stewart’s early screen career, insisting time and again that he be given parts in her films.  He was loaned to Universal for Next Time We Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936), opposite Sullavan.

He made his debut in 1935 in The Murder Man, an indifferent film directed by Tim Whelan, while under contract to MGM.   Unfortunately, however, the powerful studio, ran by Louis B. Mayer, gave him mostly supporting (or unrewarding) roles: Wife vs. Secretary (Clarence Brown), Small Town Girl (William Wellman), and The Gorgeous Hussy (Clarence Brown), all in the course of 1936.

He had the lead role opposite Eleanor Powell and sang with thin voice in Born to Dance (36, Roy del Ruth) and then played with Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven (37, Henry King).

Stewart played more second bananas in The Last Gangster (37, Edward Ludwig), Navy Blue and Gold (37, Sam Wood), and OF Human Hearts (38, Clarence Brown), before landing his place in romantic comedies, Vivacious Lady (38, G. Stevens).

In 1938, he played the Texan soldier who meets Margaret Sullavan in New York in H.C. Potter’s The Shopworn Angel, but it was Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, which swept the 1938 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

He followed these roles with Made for Each Other (John Cromwell), It’s a Wonderful World (39, Van Dyke), before appearing in what would become one of his signature roles, as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for which he won the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

In the same year, he made a strong impression  as the taciturn cowboy who tames the unruly cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, a very popular Western comedy directed by George Marshall.

The following year, Stewart won his first and only Best Actor Oscar in George Cukor’s classic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, opposite Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Two clever pairings with Margaret Sullavan followed, in the perfect if sentimental Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm, a film that contains one of the most memorable two-shots in Hollywood’s history, which depicts Sullavan reclining and inspecting the shining diffidence of the young and naïve Stewart.

During WWII, Stewart flew 20 missions over Germany as a bomber pilot, rising from a private to full colonel.  Up until his retirement from the service, in 1968, he was a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, the highest-ranking entertainer in the US military.


His popu was enhanced by a distinguished war record in the air force, a record later invoked in Mann’s Strategic Air Comand (55).


After the war, Stewart left MGM and free-lanced for several years;


One of his favorite roles was playing George Bailey in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), apic that caught the first hint of frenzy and gloom


Wellman’s Magic Town (47)


The reporter in Call Northside 777 (48, Hathaway)


His first Hitchcock movie, the relentlessly interior Rope (48), playing a rather monotonous seeker-out of truth.


In the years before the War, St was preeminently in a diffident, wide-eyed, drawling innocent, a country boy who had wandered into a crazily sophisticated world.


After a brief foray as a heavy: In W. S. Van Dyke’s Rose Marie (36) and again in Dyke’s After the Thin Man (also 36), he settled down as a romantic lead and an honest crusader, thriving on grassroots and simplicity long forgotten by Hollywood.


A gawky, gangling young man with a slow, hesitant drawl and a shy country-boy manner, S was an oddity among Holly’s leading men and a challenge to casrting directors.


But the oddity was soon revealed as a unique asset, when S’s cold-kicking embarrassment and pleasantly nasal delivery were put to work in W. S. Van Dyke’s It a Wonderful Wolrd (39) and Capra’s sentimental social comedies, You Can’t Take It with You (38) and Mr. Smith (39).

After the war, Stewart’s screen personality matured and his roles became more diversified.  He played detectives, Western heroes, and other masculine types and only occasionally returned to the shy, absentminded characters he had played in the past.

In the early 50s, he became one of the first Holly stars to elect to work for a percentage of the profits, a decision that proved fortuitous when he appeared in several box office hits by Hitchcock and other leading directors.

Stewart was cited again by the NY Film Critics in 1959 for his perf in Preminger’s Anatomy of Murder.

He was nominated for an Oscar five times, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life (his favorite role), Harvey, Anatomy of Murder

Stewart’s career as a leading man extended into the 70s, when he made a bRoadway comeback, in Harvey, and headed the cast in two TV shows, the comedy series The James Stewart Show (1971-2) and the drama series, Hawkins (1973-4)

But he sustained the adulation of the public many years after, his fans increasing in numbers with the proliferation of videotape releases and TV screenings of his old films.

He was honored with Life Achievement Award by the AFI in 1980, by the Kennedy Center in 1983, and by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1990.

During the 1985 Oscar ceremonies, he was honored with a special Academy Honot, “for 50 years of meaningful performances, for his high ideals, both on and off the screen, with the respect and affection of his colleagues.

That same year, he received the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

A super-patriot, he was a hawk on Vietnam and has allied himself with various conservative groups on political and economic issues as well.

Well-liked by the press, Stewart managed to keep his personal life shielded from adverse publicity

After many years of being Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, he married at the age of 41 and remained an exemplary husband until his wife’s death in 1994.  Together, Stewart and Gloria they had four children

In 1989, he became a published author with Jimmy Stewart and His Poems.

Despite every hint of the darker side of Stewart, Hitchcock’s Vertigo was a surprise.  A masterpiece by any terms, St’s portrayal of the detective who loses his nerve and then becomes entranced by the two forms of mythic Kim Novak is frightening in its intensity, a far cry for a man who talked to rabbits.

But as if to assert versatility, Stewart then returned with Novak to middle-aged comedy in Richard Quine’s Bell, Book, and Candle (58)

One of his last major role, and one played with comfortable fraudulence, was the country lawyer in Preminger’s “Anatomy of Murder” (1959)

Thereafter, mannerism, laziness, and indifference set in, perhaps encouraged by John Ford, who tolerated self-indulgence in Two Rode Together (61), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (62);

As Wyatt Earp in Cheyenne Autumn (64)

Otherwise, St tried to revive his 30s comedy character in some very dull movies

After that, Stewart made Afurika Monogatori (Susumu Hani, 1981) and Right of Way (George Shaefer, 1983), opposite Bette Davis.

Stewart lent his quivery voice to the role of Sheriff Wylie Burp in American Tail, and then appeared in Fievel Goes West, directed by Phil Nibbelink in 1991.