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Star of the Month: James Stewart
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James Stewart - Wednesdays in November


My friend Linda Stahl, a journalist based in Louisville, KY, had the opportunity to interview fellow Pennsylvania native James Stewart in Washington, D.C. in 1989, when the actor was 81. Linda recalls being thrilled to find herself "face to face with the man I had admired on the screen for many years. His eyes were a bit teary and his hair was white, but he still had a lanky body and that voice with a hitch in it." Finding Stewart to be "sincere and genuine," she later wrote that "why we loved him on the screen was so evident."

Hollywood folklore has it that it was Stewart's longtime friend and frequent costar Margaret Sullavan who convinced him to be "himself" on the screen, letting his own persona shine through with its gawky angularity and those drawling, sometimes stuttering speech patterns. After winning over audiences in his youth with his innocent charm and a sense of Midwestern decency, he was able to move into roles of more complexity and ambiguity.

James Maitland Stewart (1908-1997) was born in the town of Indiana, PA, the son of a hardware-store owner who expected him to continue the family business. Instead, Jimmy became enamored by acting while studying architecture at Princeton University and performed with a summer stock company called the University Players, which also included Henry Fonda and Sullavan. Stewart made his Broadway debut in the play Carry Nation in 1932.

After following his pals Fonda and Sullavan to Hollywood, Stewart made his film debut in the Warner Bros. short, Art Trouble (1934) and then signed on as a contract player with MGM. TCM's definitive tribute includes 19 of Stewart films from the 1930s, the decade he began as a young actor playing second fiddle to such established stars as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Nelson Eddy.

Two breakthroughs came for Stewart in 1936: Born to Dance, an Eleanor Powell vehicle in which he introduced the Cole Porter classic "(You'd Be So) Easy to Love"; and After the Thin Man, with Stewart playing a killer and providing an early display of the intensity of which he was capable. By the end of the decade he was perfecting the Stewart image in such films as The Shopworn Angel (1938), opposite Sullavan; the Western romp Destry Rides Again (1939), with Marlene Dietrich; and two Frank Capra vehicles that crystallized Stewart's disarming appeal: You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Stewart and Sullavan would make a total of four films together, winding up in 1940 with the charming romance The Shop Around the Corner and the stark anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm. Also in 1940, Stewart accepted another co-starring lead, this time with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. It was a wise choice that provided Stewart with a career peak and his only competitive OscarĀ® win (as Best Actor). He was nominated a total of five times and won an honorary award in 1985.

Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, becoming the first major American movie star to serve in World War II. He rose to the rank of colonel and served in combat in Europe, then later became involved with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and retired in 1959 as a brigadier general.

The mature Stewart returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s with the now Christmas classic, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He then began his run as director Alfred Hitchcock's ideal leading man in Rope (1948) and continued with Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). Other outstanding Stewart showcases of the 1950s include Harvey (1950), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

James Stewart Westerns, a genre unto themselves, include such classics as Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Stewart would continue acting in films and television through the 1980s. Married to Gloria Hatrick McLean from 1949 until her death in 1994, he was the father of four (including two stepchildren).

By Roger Fristoe
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