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James Stewart Biography
Who Was Jimmy Stewart?
“Be nice to people!”
This is the advice Jimmy Stewart offered his twin daughters as they prepared to leave for college.
Many people believe that is how James Maitland Stewart lived his life. Soft-spoken, extremely polite and shy manner, with a very recognizable drawl in his voice was his trademark. His riveting scene as a small-town newlywed who gets into trouble in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is now a perennial Christmas classic.
Who is this man, this tall, rather common looking “average-American-man”, who women seemed to want to “mother”? He had a way of – even at a lanky 143 pounds and 6’4” – keeping his head down and looking up at you! He created his own style of unique mannerisms and used his boyish charm naturally.
Homespun, Old Fashioned Values
James often played honest, average middle-class “Joes,” characters who just happen to be unwittingly drawn into some kind of crisis, not of their own making. His homespun old-fashioned values were evident on the screen. From the beginning of James Stewart's career in 1935 through his final theatrical project in 1991, he appeared in 92 films, television programs and shorts. Stewart left his mark on a wide range of film genres, including westerns, suspense thrillers, family films, biographies and screwball comedies.
What is it that this man had that enthralled moviegoers for seven decades in Hollywood ? Jimmy Stewart had a kind of specific in-articulation. Although he could talk naturally, he enjoyed drawling out his words in small-town Christian Presbyterian fashion. This came naturally to him, as he was born in the heart of quaint America , in 1908 Indiana , Pennsylvania (May 20, 1908). Tidy Amish communities, historical covered bridges, and picturesque winter scenes created a happy environment in which to grow. He only left there to attend and then eventually graduate Princeton University in 1932, with a degree in architecture.
His Distinctive Style of Speaking
Jimmy sprinkled his distinctive, deliberate way of thinking and speaking with constant interruptions and discussions with himself. He spoke in half-sentences, his childhood Amish-neighbors’ influence apparent. “I don’t s’pose you’d... m’by... shlow down on yer way through Fort Dawdge an’ m’by... drawp by?” said in a slow drawl, as he’s taking his hat off to enter the room. Or, “... never been much of a talker.”
“That’s the great thing about the movies... After you..., after you learn – and if you’re good and Gawd helps ya and you’re lucky enough ta ‘ave a personality that comes across – then, then, what-you’re-doin’-is – you’re givin’ people little... tiny... pieces, little tiny pieces of time... time that they ... never... forget!”
James Stewart Military Service
His American-isms came naturally to him as the family had deep military roots. Both grandfathers served as infantrymen in the Civil War and his father - who James considered his most influential on his life – served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. However, when World War II occurred, Jimmy chose to serve as a pilot.
As a child, Stewart enjoyed quiet time alone in the basement working on his model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry, with the hope of going into aviation. However, he was expected to continue his father's hardware business, which had been in the family for three generations.
Stewart was the first movie star to enter the service for World War II, joining the Army eight months before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Served overseas for 21 months, where, as a pilot with the 445th Bomb Group, 703rd squadron, he flew 20 combat missions. The Air Force rejected him because he weighed 5 pounds less than the required 148 pounds, but he talked the recruitment officer into ignoring the test. He worked his way up to Colonel - active duty - then Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve, and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and 7 battle stars. In 1959, he served in the Air Force Reserve, before retiring as a Brigadier General. (Incidentally, the actor, Walter Matthau, was a sergeant in his unit).
Back to the Movies
The movie It’s a wonderful Life (Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life, 1946) was James Stewart's first film after four years of military service during World War II. He did not talk about his experiences of low-level bombing raids over Ploesti oil fields. “After flying those B-29s,” Frank Capra said, “Jimmy didn’t feel quite right being back in pictures. In the middle of It’s a Wonderful Life, he told me – he said he thought maybe being an actor was not for decent people. That acting had become silly, unimportant, next to what he’d seen. Said he’d do this picture, then quit.” Nevertheless, thankfully for us, he went on to do more great work.
Jimmy Stewart Eagle Scout
Jimmy Stewart was the perpetual Boy Scout, an all-American dreamer and whimsical man of integrity. In real life, he was a lifelong supporter of Scouting. He achieved the rank of Second Class as a youth, although many believed he had achieved Eagle rank. Perhaps this was due to his many advertisements for BSA, as well as one of his characters (Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939) playing the part of leader of “Boy Rangers.”
James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award
In 2003, the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation and the Boy Scouts of America instituted the James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award. The award is presented to "a Boy Scout or Scouter who has exemplified the characteristics necessary to live the life of a Good Citizen." The requirements of receiving the award are 1) Write an essay of 500 words of more, 2) Take the Jimmy Stewart Museum quiz, and 3) Do a Good Citizen project in their local community which honors James M. Stewart.
Third Greatest Male Star of All Time
Many of Jimmy Stewart’s film roles illustrate leadership and ethical decision-making. Upon his death, the American Film Institute - an independent non-profit organization - named him the “third Greatest Male Star of All Time”. Stewart was again named “Number 3 on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends Actor list”. The organization continues to identify him as “one of the finest actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood."
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson founded the American Film Institute, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).This national arts organization seeks to preserve the legacy of America ’s film heritage, educate the next generation of filmmakers and honor artists and their work. Each year, AFI releases lists of honorees of most outstanding films and artists.
When Stewart passed away at the age of 89, in 1997, the Institute’s tribute to him was that James Stewart is an actor “so beloved by the movie going public that they call him “Jimmy”, just like a member of the family.” Hence, our “Jimmy” is very much like a member of the family. We still need heroes we can look up to in our complex world, and Jimmy Stewart fits the bill, even now.
James Stewart Movies
See a list of Jimmy Stewart movies.
Over the course of his formidable career of seven decades in Hollywood , James Stewart (which is what he preferred, rather than the more informal “Jimmy”) starred in many films that are widely considered classics. As a major MGM contract star, he was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one in competition and receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. Premiere Magazine voted him the “9th Greatest Movie Star of All Time”.
As previously stated, he was also a veteran of WWII and Vietnam-era military action who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve. He rarely discussed his wartime service, since he preferred to be seen as a regular soldier rather than as a celebrity. However, he appeared on the TV series “The World at War” to discuss the October 14, 1943 , bombing mission to Schweinfurt , which was the center of the German ball-bearing industry.
This mission is now known in USAF history as “Black Thursday’ due to the high casualties it sustained. Out of 291 B-17’s dispatched to the town of Schweinfurt and back, 60 aircraft were lost which included a devastating loss of life. During the documentary interview, Stewart requested to be identified only as, "James Stewart, Squadron Commander”.
Stewart cultivated a versatile career by portraying characters in such classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Harvey”, “It's a Wonderful Life”, “Rear Window”, “Rope”, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and “Vertigo”. On the AFI's (American Film Institute) “100 Years... 100 Movies” listing (10th Anniversary Edition), James Stewart is the most represented leading actor. His name is still listed on their “10 Top 10 Lists”. Entertainment Weekly presented his name as being “the most represented leading actor on the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time list”.
Jimmy Stewart Museum
The Jimmy Stewart Museum, located in his home town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, I dedicated to telling the story of his life and making sure that his values and contributions are never forgotten.
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