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James Stewart homeBlog2[We] were raised with that small-town Christian Presbyterian ethic that nobody owes you a living…Michael Stewart, son

… high ideals both on and off the screen, with respect and affection of his colleagues.  – Cary Grant on James Stewart

James Stewart (1908-1997) was truly an all-American actor and, sadly, the last of his kind. If the following seems hagiographic, it is because Stewart was able to resist the sins of Hollywood. There was no stain of scandal on him.

Family background

As native Pennsylvanians, both sides of his family had fought in the Revolutionary War, the war of 1812 and the Civil War. Stewart’s father Alex (pron. ‘Alec’) and his mother Elizabeth Ruth ‘Bessie’ Jackson believed in God and country, passing the ideals of service, honour, integrity and self-improvement on to their children James Maitland, Mary Wilson and Virginia Kelly.

Stewart’s grandfather JM Stewart, after whom he was named, owned the hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He founded the shop in 1848, and his son Alex bought a share of the business in 1905. Alex became sole proprietor in 1923. The store was so large that it was a local landmark.

Alex was a graduate of Princeton University. Bessie earned her degree from Wilson College in nearby Franklin County. The couple married in 1906.

Well-rounded upbringing

The local Indiana, Pennsylvania paper once described Bessie as a

lady of regal bearing, dignified and quite proper.

Deeply interested in education and an accomplished pianist, reading and music were part of her children’s lives. Ginny played the piano and Mary the violin. James played both the piano and the accordion, the latter from a hardware store customer as payment against his debt.

The Stewarts ate together and began each meal by saying grace. The children checked with their parents before engaging in play and after school activities. That said, Alex and Bessie adopted a much freer attitude towards childhood than many conservative Protestant parents nowadays. (The same holds true for Cecil B DeMille’s traditional Episcopalian parents.) The children were allowed to put on impromptu plays and magic shows, sometimes for their neighbourhood friends. They were encouraged to develop confidence in their abilities. They were also aware they were expected to do well in school and look towards a future as productive citizens.

The family were members of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana. Alex and Bessie both sang in the choir.

Bessie and JM deeply influenced James in that he acquired his mother’s dignified reserve and his grandfather’s deliberate, considered manner of speaking.

James attended prep school (private secondary education) at Mercersburg Academy, which was originally affiliated with the Reformed Church and later with the Church of Christ. The Stewarts chose this school for its Christian ethics. However, another factor might have been that the young headmaster at the time, Dr William Mann Irvine, was a Princeton graduate just as Alex was. During his dynamic tenure, Irvine successfully expanded the school.

Stewart, although termed shy, was far from retiring. He got involved in many after-school clubs and sports, including the yearbook, the literary society, the glee club, drama, athletics and football.  Mercersburg gave him his first acting role in the play The Frog Prince and also included him as an accordionist with the school orchestra.

The Princeton years

Academically, Stewart immersed himself in mechanical drawing and chemistry. Charles Lindbergh’s memorable flight from New York to Paris in 1927 captured the youngster’s imagination and got him interested in aviation, particularly piloting a plane.

As such, Stewart told his father he would like to attend the United States Naval Academy. Alex refused permission and encouraged him to attend his alma mater Princeton. In an interesting parallel to George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, his favourite film role, Stewart majored in architecture. He did so well that, in 1932, his professors offered him a scholarship to pursue the subject in graduate school. Unfortunately, a fire at the cavernous hardware store and the Great Depression diverted him from future study.

Before we look at how those events changed Stewart’s future, I should mention that in his spare time he was a member of Princeton’s Charter Club and Triangle Club. The former got him interested in jazz. The latter, membership of which would be a logical step for him after having been active in the University Players, was pivotal in his acting career. Stewart was adamant that he could continue to act in the Triangle Club’s shows whilst pursuing graduate studies in architecture. And he hadn’t forgotten his aspirations to become a pilot.

However, back at home, Alex was devastated after a fire ravaged the hardware store in 1929. He devoted his energies to rebuilding the business. Meanwhile, his daughters were ready for college. Mary had been accepted in the arts programme at the prestigious Carnegie Tech. Virginia was accepted at the famous Seven Sisters college, Vassar. James was still an undergrad at Princeton. Alex had a lot on his mind.

Then it was time for James to consider his future. By the time he graduated in 1932, the aftermath of the Crash of 1929 was becoming the Great Depression. Stewart saw that the market for architects was narrowing. He decided to act in the Triangle Club’s productions on Cape Cod that summer.

Through the Triangle Club he met Henry Fonda and his ex-wife, actress Margaret Sullavan. Stewart and Fonda began a lifelong friendship. They roomed together in New York whilst awaiting acting parts on stage. In 1934, Fonda left for Hollywood. Fortunately, things started looking up for Stewart when MGM talent scout Stewart Grady spotted him on Broadway in Divided by Three. Fonda encouraged Stewart to take a screen test and the rest is history.

Hello, Hollywood

Stewart signed on with MGM studios in 1935. Henry Fonda met him at the railway station and took him in as his roommate in studio-supplied housing. Greta Garbo lived next door.

He spent the first year acting in short features, normally shown before the main feature in cinemas. Today, those have been replaced by endless adverts.

In 1936, Stewart began getting bit parts in feature films. He met up again with Triangle Club alum Margaret Sullavan who coached him on techniques for film actors. Stewart felt awkward in front of the camera, particularly because of his height and speaking style. Sullavan taught him how to use these to his advantage. He ended up working six days a week in film. Before the year was out, renowned agent Leland Hayward — Sullavan’s future husband — spotted Stewart and put him on his books.

Stewart met director Frank Capra in 1938. This was the start of a ten-year collaboration. Their first two films together were You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). They also remained lifelong friends.

Stewart acted in many more films before the US entered the Second World War. Two notable movies were Destry Rides Again (1939), in which he starred with Marlene Dietrich and The Philadelphia Story (1940), which earned him his only Oscar in a competitive category, Best Actor.

Military career

When he arrived in Hollywood, Stewart began taking flying lessons. He obtained his Private Pilot certificate in 1935 and Commercial Pilot licence in 1938. He was known for piloting a plane from California to Pennsylvania when visiting his parents.

However, he hadn’t forgotten about serving his country and believed that his pilots certificates could help the US in wartime. Alex had served in the Spanish-American and Great Wars, so James was not about to let an opportunity pass him by to serve his country.

By 1939, Stewart had already clocked up over 400 hours of flying time. He also invested in his agent’s Leyland Hayward and Jack Connelly’s Southwest Airlines.

In 1940, Stewart was drafted into the US Army but was rejected at the physical because he was underweight. Desperate to serve, he spent the next year eating like crazy and working out with MGM’s weight trainer Don Loomis. His perseverance worked. On March 22, 1941, Stewart was inducted into the Army and became the first major American film star to wear a military uniform in the Second World War.

By this time Stewart was 32 years old.

He needed to build up his flying hours at Army Air Corps bases in the United States before he could be posted overseas. The Jimmy Stewart Museum website gives us a concise but full list of his postings, missions and medals. In short:

Stewart’s war record included 20 dangerous combat missions as command pilot, wing commander or squadron commander.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, The Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.  At the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Colonel.  After the war he remained with the US Air Force Reserves and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1959.  His tuxedo and dress blues with all the correct medals are on display at The Jimmy Stewart Museum.  He retired from the Air Force in 1968 (mandatory retirement age) and received the Distinguished Service Medal.  When the war was over, Jimmy returned home to a hero’s welcome in Indiana, Pennsylvania, immortalized by Life magazine cover that showed him posing in full uniform on top of a building with the golden cupola of the Indiana County Courthouse in the background draped with a “Welcome Home Jim” banner and a large lighted wooden “V”ictory sign – his father is said to have put these up.

Postwar career

Any student of American cinema can detect a change in tone in the films made after the Second World War. By the end of the 1940s, the tone — and public mood — had changed from an all-American one, as evinced by Frank Capra and Stewart himself, to a more postmodern one favouring social concerns, giving rise to Marlon Brando and, later, James Dean.

Stewart shared Capra’s concerns as to whether they had a future in Hollywood. It’s a Wonderful Life hadn’t been well received in 1947. Critics and audiences considered that homespun and humble values of America’s recent past had had their day.

In another parallel with It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey’s situation, Alex tried to persuade his son to return to Indiana, Pennsylvania, marry a local girl and — no doubt — inherit the family business.

Stewart remained patient, weighing his options. Leyland Hayward retired from his work as a Hollywood agent in 1944. Stewart ended up working as an independent film actor with no ties to any studios. Hence, he was able to film not only with Capra but also freely accept other roles in comedies, dramas and westerns. Henry Koster’s Harvey (1950) became an overnight classic.

Stewart’s starring role in Anthony Mann’s westerns were big box office hits in the first half of the 1950s.

Alfred Hitchcock also hired Stewart for several films, among them Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

Stewart’s films, many of which are westerns, are too numerous to list. During the 1960s he began to segue into television. His final film in a supporting role was The Shootist (1976), starring John Wayne, although he had bit parts in subsequent movies.

Family life

Although he dated Hollywood stars, Stewart did not marry until the age of 41. Today, that would have provided much grist for the rumour mill.

During the summer of 1948, Gary Cooper and his wife Rocky introduced Stewart to a woman ten years younger than he. Gloria Hatrick McLean was a model but unconnected with Hollywood or the film industry. Not only was she pretty but she was also well educated. She shared his interests of golf and wildlife. They married on August 9, 1949 and remained together until Gloria died in 1994. They lived on Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills. Photos of the house reveal it to be exactly the way you might have imagined James Stewart would live: elegantly yet modestly.

For having been a bachelor for so many years, it might come to some as a surprise that upon marriage he inherited Gloria’s two young sons from a previous union. Ronald was five and Michael three at the time. In 1950, Gloria gave birth to fraternal twins Kelly and Judy. Ronald died serving in Vietnam in 1969, just two months after Gloria and James visited him on a USO tour. Stewart, who favoured Republican politics, also supported the war effort in Vietnam and said that Ronald did not die in vain.

In 1953, Stewart’s mother Bessie died. Alex, still living in the family homestead in Indiana, passed away in 1961.

Despite the many rewards he received from Princeton, the United States Government and diverse charitable organisations, Stewart never forgot God and the Church. He served as an Elder at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church for many years.

Film buffs from around the world mourned his death on July 2, 1997 at the age of 89. We know there will never be another actor quite like James Stewart.

Further reading:

The religion of Jimmy Stewart, actor (Adherents)

James Stewart Biography (Film Reference)

Jimmy Stewart (Deseret News)


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