A Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart: the actor was great, but the man was even better

A tall, lean man towers over his leading actress, enchanting her with his large, round eyes and speaks with his slow, distinctive drawl: “You want the moon? I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”

Endearing his audience with his quirky style gracing the screen, Jimmy Stewart (or how he was always billed as, “James Stewart”) was one of Hollywood’s golden age acting kings. To his audience, he was Jimmy Stewart: an ordinary, every-day man, a natural actor.  But not as well-known (and more impressive than his acting skills) was Jimmy’s strong dedication and service his country and family.

Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1908 to two hard-working staunch Presbyterians, James Maitland Stewart lived the quintessential American childhood. His father, Alex Stewart, was a well-respect hardware store owner and Spanish-American War and World War I veteran. His mother, Elizabeth Stewart, was a kind and affection homemaker, always encouraging her “Jimsy” in whatever sparked his interest.

Young Jimmy never imagined he would grace the screens in Hollywood. In fact, with the Wright brother’s new invention, the young boy was fascinated with the new technology of airplanes and dreamed of little else. At the age of 17, he enthusiastically followed Charles Lindberg’s flights, unaware that he would one day play the historic figure in a biopic on the pilot’s life.

But something happen to him on the way to the airfield.

In exchange for supplies from the hardware store, one customer bartered with an accordion. His father gave the boy the instrument and told him to learn how to play. Little did he know, the quirky wind-box would, strangely enough, be key to his future acting career.

Owing to his tall and lean frame, his slow drawl and his bad grades in class, many of his classmates made fun of him, jokingly referring him as the class dummy. As a former Princeton man, Alex Stewart wanted his son to follow him in his footsteps to his alma mater. Jim’s grades, however, threatened to diminish a chance at Princeton. In order to boost his grades, his father sent him to a prestigious boarding school called Mercersburg. After his son was rejected from Princeton, Alex, undeterred, marched to the admissions department and garnered enough recommendation letters to successfully admit Jim to the Princeton class of 1932.

While at Princeton, Stewart studied architecture; but his true joy was found in the student theatre group. Thanks to his astute ability to play the accordion, he was able to land a few small parts in the school play. It was at Princeton that Jimmy met and became lifelong friends with fellow actor Henry Fonda.  Later, Fonda reflected on his friendship with Stewart: “I just liked him. There was nothing not to like about him. He had this wonderful but quiet sense of humor. We just clicked. He’s never criticized me for my mistakes and he never lectures me. He’s really a very non-judgmental kind of guy, and that’s because he knows that he’s not a perfect man. He doesn’t pretend to be. He’s just there for me when I need him. What more do you want from a friend?”

 

Through the acting troupe, Stewart also met the beautiful Margaret Sullivan, with whom he was instantly smitten and remained emotionally attached to for years. Unfortunately, Fonda also was enamored with the actress and they married. But the marriage quickly ended in a bitter divorce. Out of respect for his best friend, Jim did not approach Margaret, despite his growing attraction to her.

After a brief summer of touring with the acting group, Jim became enamored and exchanged his plans of graduate school for Broadway. Newly graduated, Fonda, Stewart and a few others from the group rented a small apartment in New York City. While Jim was able to land a few small roles in a few plays with minimal speaking lines, Fonda had difficulty in finding a job and moved to Los Angeles. While performing on Broadway, Jim attracted the attention of an MGM talent scout and was offered a 7-year contract for $350.00 a week (about $5,700 a week in today’s money). He flew out to Los Angeles, once again rooming with Henry Fonda.

When producers and directors recommended Stewart gain a little weight in order to land better roles, Stewart hired a personal trainer to help bulk his scrawny physique. But when the weight lifting became unbearable, Stewart complained to his trainer, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to die. And then what will Mr. Mayer think? [Mayer, the CEO of MGM]. His trainer replied, “Mr. Mayer doesn’t even know you.” Jimmy replied, “Good point. But think how you’ll feel when I drop dead.” Thus ended Stewart’s weight lifting career.

When Stewart first arrived in Los Angeles, he was surprised to find that the Mafia largely controlled Hollywood. One mob leader in particular, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal from New York City was especially notorious for coercing Hollywood producers. Everyone in Hollywood feared Bugsy because those he didn’t like had a mysterious tendency of turning up dead. Everyone, that is, except for Jimmy Stewart. Knowing that Stewart had a connection with actress Jean Harlow, Bugsy asked him to set him up on a date with the actress. Harlow expressed indifference, yet did not wish to contradict the powerful gangster. Standing up for the actress, Jim promptly told him, “Why don’t you go to hell.” Siegal replied, “What have you got to lose?” Towering over the scoundrel, Jim growled, “My temper. And believe me, you don’t want to see that.”

Despite multiple death threats from Siegal, Stewart refused to be intimidated. Once he attempted to be on good terms with Jim by saying, “Look, Jim…” but Stewart interrupted him and said, “It’s Mr. Stewart to you,” so great was his strict refusal of keeping company with bad men. Later upon reflection, Jim remarked, “To me those men were cowards. When they made threats, you had to stand up to them because if you were weak…that was what they wanted-weakness. I wasn’t taught to be weak in the face of any kind of evil.” Little did he know, his refusal to abide evil in his youth prepared him for his dark days ahead in war

Tall, bony and awkward on camera, he quickly discovered finding roles he was suited for was proving difficult. His lack of experience showed painfully once on set when co-actress Joan Crawford, frustrated by Stewart’s inability to deliver the line, said “shall I change his diapers too?” It wasn’t until he was placed in a movie with his sweetheart Margaret Sullivan that he gained confidence.

Instead of cutting him down, Sullivan took him under her wing and mentored him in screen acting. Suddenly, Stewart had the confidence and moved with grace. When asked the secret to his acting art, Stewart said: “It’s not an art. It’s a craft. And the only way to learn it is to do it. All you need is to learn the skill. You get that by working with others. You discover what works and what doesn’t. If my acting looks natural, it’s because I’ve worked hard to make it look like that,” so great was his determination to work hard. Once he gained the confidence, Stewart was dedicated to perfecting his craft.

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In one of his more well-known movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart’s character delivers an impressive 24-hour filibuster. Stewart, however, felt his voice lacked the raspy quality of a character speaking for a long period of time, despite his attempts to mimic a hoarse voice. Fully committed to excellence in his work, he went to the doctor and asked for a sore throat. The doctor said, “all Hollywood folk are kind of crazy, but you take the cake,” before he gave him a drop of dichloride of mercury to achieve the desired effect. Although his audience may or may not have known, his voice really was hoarse in the filibuster scene. The controversial choice proved to be successful, as his performance earned him a nomination for an Oscar, thereby putting him in the rank of star status.

From there, Stewart continued to be successful in Hollywood. In 1940 he was nominated for Best Actor in The Philadelphia Story co-staring Katherine Hepburn. At first he wasn’t planning on attending the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony, but changed his plans last minute. It was providential that he attended, for he won the 1940 Best Actor award. On his success, he said: “I have my own rules and adhere to them. The rule is simple but inflexible. A James Stewart picture must have two vital ingredients: it will be clean and it will involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully.” Indeed, all of his films followed the staunch formula and succeeded wonderfully. Stewart, and his audience it would appear, loved to see the triumph of evil, as would soon be apparent in his involvement in the war.

One month after receiving his Oscar, Stewart registered with the Army Air Corps (almost two years before Pearl Harbor). At the health inspection, he was initially rejected due to not meeting the weight requirement. He was 6’3” but weighed only 138 pounds, five pounds under the required weight for his height. Not one to be turned down from serving his country so quickly, Stewart went home and ate everything he could get his hands on then returned for another health inspection. He told the officer not bother with the weigh-in, he had it taken care of. He tipped the scales barely enough and was finally admitted.

Upon hearing that his friend and fellow actor was leaving Hollywood, Clark Gable told him, “You know you’re throwing your career away, don’t you?” But for Stewart, serving his country was more important than a golden statue. Despite taking a massive pay cut from $3,000 a week to $21 a week, Stewart was determined to serve, whatever the cost.

Not only was he ready to serve, but he was also prepared for such a time as this. Years before joining the Army Air Corp, he earned his Commercial Pilot’s license and had over 400 hours of flying experience on his record. He also recognized a need to train pilots if the US became involved in a war, so he bought and created the Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona for a pilot training school. Later the Army Air Corps used the facility to train over 10,000 pilots during WWII.

When he first joined the Air Corps, he was frustrated to find that his star status had reduced him to a mere recruitment tool rather than an active soldier. Not wanting their lead actor to be lost in the battlefield, MGM saw to it that Stewart remain in pilot training positions. He persistently begged his commanders to be put on active duty.

Finally, he was promoted to commanding the 445th Bomb Group of the 703rd Bomb Squadron division. As a leader, he was strong and fearless. Rather than befriending his men, he kept a respectful distance. On the topic of his style of leadership, Stewart commented, “It’s just the practical and proper way to run a command. You can’t make the men you command into your friends. Comrades, yes, but not friends. You might have to chew a man out for some indiscretion, and you can’t do that to a friend. I was their commander and I think they understood that.”

Needless to say, his men respected him deeply. Although Stewart was petrified, he did not let it show, lest his fear be contagious and spread to his men. He understood this when he said, “The fear is always there, lurking in your mind. Not in the back of your mind, but at the front, like a curtain of fear which you have to keep pulling aside so you hope not to see it.”

The lurking fear was always present when he was stationed in Norfolk, England and commanded combat missions to Germany. Under Stewart’s command, not one man in his squadron was lost, a miracle in itself. In the span of 4 months, Stewart led 20 missions. For perspective, anything over 14 missions was considered the statistical maximum number anyone could fly before the odds favored death. His astounding valor was not unnoticed as Stewart was one of the few Americans to ever rise from private to colonel in only four years, having earned it, during World War II. He would eventually attain the rank of Brigadier General.

 

With the end of the war in 1945, Stewart was hesitant to return to Hollywood. After the horror and atrocity he witnessed while serving, he couldn’t imagine participating in the frivolous and fleeting lures of Hollywood. Henry Fonda remarked on the sudden change in his friend: “the war changed him, no doubt. I asked him what he was feeling and he said, ‘I’m feeling that so much is just so superficial.’” He considered returning to Pennsylvania to be with his family, until director Frank Capra approach him with a screenplay about an angel saving a man from suicide who shows him how worthwhile his life has been.

For his first film in over 5 years and the first film since the war, Jimmy Stewart took the role of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. Although today the film is considered one of the most beloved movies in cinema history, strangely, it was not a success in its day. Despite the five Oscar nominations, the movie did not do well at the box office. Stewart later reflected on the success by saying, “I don’t think it was the type of story people wanted right after the war. They wanted a war-related story or a pure slapstick, Red Skelton type of comedy. Our movie just got lost.” Only by the reoccurrence of TV replays was It’s a Wonderful Life appreciated by later generations.

Although Stewart had only one marriage (an anomaly by Hollywood standards), before his marriage he had a bit of a reputation. Along with Henry Fonda in their bachelor pad, they were known to date frequently. Stewart’s innocent boyish charm certainly did not fit the playboy persona, but nevertheless, he achieved much success with winning over the ladies of Hollywood.  Whether still emotionally attached to Margaret Sullivan or simply not wanting to be tied down in a serious relationship, Stewart avoided any romantic commitment for most of his adult life.

That was until he met Gloria Hatrick. As a recent divorcee from an unfaithful marriage, Gloria was hesitant to be involved with an actor. Jim’s dedication and loyalty, however, melted away any fears of infidelity. Although he played characters romantically linked to beautiful women such as Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, he paid special attention to his wife.

As she recalled later in life, “I can honestly say that in all the years of our marriage Jimmy never once gave me cause for anxiety or jealously. The more glamorous the leading lady he was starring opposite, the more attentive he’d be to me.” For a Hollywood actor he certainly was an aberration. Along with Gloria’s two sons from a previous marriage, the little family grew to include twin girls. Although Jim continued to make films in Hollywood after the war, remained with the military until he retired in 1968 after 27 years of service. 

Like every other Hollywood icon his star dimmed a little over time. He continued to act into old age but experienced only moderate success. His third act, if you will, came in the form of serving his country yet again. In the winter of his life he founded the American Spirit Foundation whose mission was to mobilize industry resources to educate the emerging democracies, which had sprung forth as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union. On the first Christmas after the fall he made arrangements to show It’s a Wonderful Life to 200 Million Russian’s who were now free to immerse themselves in American culture for the first time in their lives. Here in the U.S., to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Constitution in 1987, Stewart worked tirelessly to enhance the public’s understanding of what an extraordinary gift our founder’s bequeathed to us.

In December of 1996 the battery in his pacemaker was due to be replaced but he refused to have the procedure, as he wanted his death to come as it would otherwise. He also was pining away for his wife, Gloria who had died a few years before.  Marvelously in accord with his love of freedom, the great American passed away on July 2nd 1997, the anniversary date on which the Continental Congress voted  Independence from Great Britain.  

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he responded, “As someone who believed in hard work and love of country, love of family and love of community.” Indeed, friends and fans continue to remember the man with famous drawl immortalized on the screen; his dedication and commitment to his craft, his valor in battle, and his loyalty to his family. Jimmy Stewart truly lived a wonderful life.

 

 

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