Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's a Wonderful Grave


James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908.  He was the son of a local businessman who owned and operated the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store, a family business first opened in 1848. 

As a child, Stewart was very interested in the emerging field of aviation.  His father however, wanted him to continue the family tradition of running the store after college.  Like his father before him, Stewart enrolled in Princeton, majoring in architecture.  Once on campus though, the younger Stewart became enamored of the many extra-curricular activities available to him, including the music and drama clubs.

Still inspired by aviation, Stewart wrote his thesis on airport design.  It earned him a scholarship to continue his studies as a graduate student, but he turned it down cold, preferring to join an intercollegiate summer stock company instead.  He moved to Cape Cod and joined the University Players.  I'm sure his father must have been proud.

Stewart made many friends among the company, including fellow graduate Henry Fonda.  The two became inseparable and would remain best friends throughout their lives and careers.  At the end of the season, Stewart, Fonda and some of the other cast members all moved to New York. 

He soon made his Broadway debut in a show called Carry Nation.  Although he had no lines, it led to bigger roles.  Just a few weeks later, he signed on to a production called Goodbye Again, in which he played a chauffeur.  Of Stewart's performance, the New Yorker wrote "Mr. James Stewart's chauffeur...comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause." 

Fame is fleeting however, and his next two productions were less than successful, so much so that he considered returning to graduate school in 1934.  He landed a leading role however in a show called Yellow Jacket and also made his feature film debut in a comedy called Art Trouble, directed by Shemp Howard.  Greater roles on Broadway would follow.

In 1935, Stewart was discovered by a Hollywood agent and signed to a seven-year contract with MGM.  His early roles were minor parts in films such as The Murder Man with Spencer Tracy.  In 1936, he had his first starring role in the film Next Time We Love, which partnered him with fellow University Player Margaret Sullavan, who helped Stewart cultivate the mannerisms that would later define his career.  The film was a box office success and put Stewart on the map.

Having achieved leading man status, Stewart was cast in a number of feature films in the late 1930s and early 40s, including Vivacious Lady, opposite Ginger Rogers and The Shopworn Angel, which reunited him with Margaret Sullavan.  In 1938, he was also cast in Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You, opposite Jean Arthur.  It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In 1939. Capra and Stewart reunited for what many consider to be Stewart's finest film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  The film saw Stewart as an idealist thrust into the world of politics.  It was the most critically acclaimed performance of his career and the third highest-grossing film of the year.  He followed it up with 1940's The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, for which he'd finally win his one and only Academy Award.

As America entered World War 2, Stewart put his Hollywood career on hold, becoming the first movie star to enlist in the armed forces.  He trained fighter pilots at Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque before shipping out to England, where he was attached to the 445th Bombardment Group as pilot of a B-24 Liberator.  He was repeatedly decorated for his service and made history for his frequent promotions, rising from private to full colonel in just four years.

After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his acting career, once again reuniting with Frank Capra for the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.  The film was a box office disappointment in 1946, so much so that Capra's production company filed for bankruptcy.  The film has thrived however as a cherished holiday classic.

The film's failure did little to slow down Stewart's career.  Throughout the 1950s and 60, he'd continue to star in a number of hits, including Harvey (1950), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

In the 1970s, Stewart tried his hand at television, starring in two short-lived series.  The Jimmy Stewart Show premiered in 1971 and saw him as a small-town college professor.  It lasted for one season on NBC.  Then in 1973, he starred in the mystery series Hawkins on CBS.  Click on each title to view the series intro. 

By the 1990's, Stewart's health was in decline.  His wife Gloria died of lung cancer in 1994, and according to one Stewart biographer, it left him "lost at sea."  He became increasingly reclusive, even so with his long-time friends.  Over the next few years, he'd suffer a series of mishaps, including a fall at home and an irregular heartbeat.  He ultimately died of a heart attack on July 2, 1997.  He was 91 years old.

Jimmy Stewart was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.  More than 3,000 mourners attended his service.

Location: Wee Kirk Churchyard, Space #2, Lot #8
Inscription: "For He Shall Give His Angels Charge
Over Thee To Keep Thee In All Thy Ways"
Rest in peace, Mr. Smith.

  • The inscription on Stewart's marker is a passage from the Old Testament.  Psalms 91:11.

  • Indiana, Pennsylvania is home to the Jimmy Stewart Museum, first opened in 1995.  

  • Stewart never wrote an autobiography, but he did publish a book of poetry in 1989.  You can pick up a copy of Jimmy Stewart and His Poems from Amazon.

  • As noted above, Stewart left Hollywood at the outbreak of World War 2 to serve in the Army's Air Corps.  In 1942, he starred in a recruitment film for the service called Winning Your Wings.  You can watch the film in its entirety on Youtube.  Additionally, several books were written on Stewart's service, including Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot.

  • Stewart was offered the lead role in the 1980 film On Golden Pond, but turned it down as he objected to the father-daughter relationship as depicted in the film.  The role went to his good friend Henry Fonda.

  • In 1985, Stewart was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian, "for his contributions in the fields of the arts, entertainment and public service."

  • In his final years, Stewart served as a pitchman for Campbell's Soup.  Though her never appeared on screen, he provided voice-over services for the spots.  Here's one such commercial.

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