The year 1954 was a big year for James Stewart: He starred in no less than two films that have shaped the image of the Hollywood actor to this day. In The Glenn Miller Story, Stewart slipped into the role of swing composer Glenn Miller, who shaped the genre of swing like no one before and who disappeared in 1944 in the turmoil of war under circumstances that remain mysterious to this day.
Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock also celebrated the high point of their ten-year collaboration in 1954: in Rear Window, Stewart played Jeff, a professional photographer who is temporarily confined to a wheelchair by an injury and solves a murder in the neighborhood with his partner Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly).
When one thinks of great actors of the 20th century, the name James Stewart inevitably comes up. Cary Grant once said about him that he was one of the first actors who had the ability to speak in a film as in a real conversation.
Actually, James “Jimmy” Stewart studied architecture – he successfully graduated, but never worked as an architect. As a student, Stewart discovered his penchant for acting: as a member of student theater groups, Stewart was often seen on stage.
One day James Stewart was invited to the theater group Falmouth Players: There he met his friend and later Hollywood actor Henry Fonda, with whom he shared a room for some time. Stewart is said to have known early on that architecture was not his destiny: he was magically drawn to acting.
In October 1932, James Stewart made his Broadway debut: like many other Hollywood stars, Stewart began his career on Broadway in New York.
With the play Yellow Jack, a drama about soldiers abused for yellow fever experiments, James Stewart came to the attention of the theater world in March 1934. Playing the role of the idealistic Sergeant O’Hara, James Stewart’s performance was noticed for the first time.
It wasn’t long before the film world took notice of James Stewart: On the recommendation of Hedda Hopper, an influential society columnist, MGM Studios invited him for screen tests. In the movie The Murder Man (1935), James Stewart appeared on a screen for the first time: The film’s star, Spencer Tracy, immediately recognized James Stewart’s talent, although he was given a small role and thus hardly noticed. Apparently MGM Studios also recognized Stewart’s talent: in 1936 he shot a total of eight films, in the following years it was a similar number.
James Stewart had his final breakthrough in 1939 with the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: James Stewart plays the Boy Scout leader Jefferson Smith, who is hoisted into office as the successor to a deceased U.S. senator. The choice of Jefferson Smith was no coincidence: In his naivety the scout leader is to cover up the machinations of the governor and the party leader. Smith’s favorite project, the establishment of a national Boy Scout camp, is to be misused as a cover for the economic interests of his home state’s politicians.
But Smith is unwilling to give way the corruption: He realizes that he has been manipulated and does everything he can to uncover the machinations. Eventually, a commission of inquiry is formed in which Jefferson Smith faces the entire Senate as his enemy: Only the secretary of veteran Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), played by Jean Arthur, is on his side. To delay the vote, Smith delivers a 24-hour filibuster speech that took three weeks to shoot.
The long filibuster speech, which took a lot out of James Stewart physically, is still one of his trademarks today. But the role also took its toll on him psychologically: Jean Arthur later said that Stewart never drove faster than 8 km/h to the studios at that time – out of fear that something might happen to him.
As one might expect, the film caused great outrage in the U.S.: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is perhaps the most explosive film Stewart ever made. The head of Columbia Studios even received offers in order to tuck the film away someplace safe in exchange for a sum of several million dollars. But the director Frank Capra lobbied for the film to continue to be shown: Thus, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is still one of the most famous movies with James Stewart.
Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn
In his next film, Destry Rides Again, Stewart played the idealistic Western hero Tom Destry, who never wants to use gun violence. Marlene Dietrich played the role of the bar singer Frenchy. The movie helped her to change her image after she had appeared in numerous flops: to this day, the scene in which Marlene Dietrich fights with James Stewart in a saloon is famous.
Katharine Hepburn had chosen James Stewart for one of the leading roles in her film project The Philadelphia Story (1940): the project became a phenomenal success. The film broke all audience records at Radio City Music Hall in New York and was nominated for an Oscar in six categories.
But in the end, only one of the actors took home an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story: James Stewart. Originally, Stewart had not planned to attend the ceremony – out of disappointment that he had not received an Oscar the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But in the end Stewart decided to attend the ceremony. Everyone present agreed that Stewart actually received the Oscar for Mr. Smith, which had not won an award twelve months earlier – James Stewart himself later confirmed this assumption in an interview. Stewart sent the Oscar statue to his father in Indiana, who displayed the statue in his hardware store.
As the United States’ entry into World War II drew closer, James Stewart felt an increasing desire to join the armed forces: he wanted to serve in the Air Force – flying had been a hobby of the Hollywood star for some time. Stewart’s desire was rooted in the fact that there was a long tradition in his family of serving in the armed forces. During his time with the armed forces, Stewart refrained from any form of publicity – he joined the armed forces to follow a family tradition, not to be hailed as a hero for his actions back home.
The end of World War II marked a watershed in James Stewart’s life – now he was forced to trade the security of his life as a senior officer for the uncertainties of civilian life….
Simon von Ludwig
Main sources: Dewey, Donald: “James Stewart – Ein Leben für den Film [German version, original title: “James Stewart. A Biography”]”, 1997 Henschel Publishing and Coe, Jonathan: “Jimmy Stewart – A Wonderful Life”, 1994 Arcade Publishing