James Stephenson

James Stephenson


Birth Place
Selby, England, GB
April 14, 1889
July 29, 1941
Cause of Death
Heart Attack


A tall, often mustachioed character actor with clipped phrasing and a dignified, intelligent manner, James Stephenson was a typically crisp British type and had acted onstage in his native land for a number of years before being signed by Warner Bros. in Hollywood. He had played in films in England produced by Warner Bros.' subsidiary First National, including such modest fare as "The Ma...

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A tall, often mustachioed character actor with clipped phrasing and a dignified, intelligent manner, James Stephenson was a typically crisp British type and had acted onstage in his native land for a number of years before being signed by Warner Bros. in Hollywood. He had played in films in England produced by Warner Bros.' subsidiary First National, including such modest fare as "The Man Who Made Diamonds," "The Perfect Crime," and "Transatlantic Trouble" (all 1937) before performing in his first US release, "White Banners" (1938). For several years he played supporting roles in programmers and star vehicles like the Dick Powell musical, "The Cowboy from Brooklyn" (1938) and "B" pictures including a Dick Foran Western, "Heart of the North" (1938), a minor but enjoyable astrology-themed mystery, "When Were You Born?" (1938) and a failed attempt to launch a film series around a well-known cartoon heroine, "The Adventures of Jane Arden" (1939). Stephenson played smooth professional types like doctors and businessmen, alternately sympathetic and criminal, acquitting himself competently in routine roles, though not well-cast in Westerns given his accent.

Stephenson came closest to playing a lead in a "B" film toplining fading glamour queen Kay Francis and rising gangster star Humphrey Bogart, "King of the Underworld" (1939). Stephenson was nominally paired with Francis at the close, but the film did none of them any good. At least Stephenson was starting to also appear in a classier breed of Warners fare, with parts in "The Old Maid," "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," on loanout to Paramount for "Beau Geste" (all 1939) and "The Sea Hawk" (1940). His real break, however, came when Jack Warner suggested him to director William Wyler for a Bette Davis vehicle, a steamy remake of the Malaysian-set melodrama, "The Letter" (1940). The story was that after Warner found out how important Stephenson's role was to be, he opposed the casting, but Wyler so admired the actor's test that he fought for him. It turned out to be his most shining victory in film. As lawyer Howard Joyce, discerning that his client Leslie (Davis) has committed a crime of passion rather than one of self-defense, Stephenson artfully delineated the conflicts of a man risking his career and bending his morals to protect Leslie's deceived husband (Herbert Marshall). He is especially memorable as Howard and Leslie go to purchase an incriminating letter, and when he tells her that he doesn't want to know anything "except what is necessary to save your neck."

"Virtually stealing thesp honors in the pic" was how VARIETY praised Stephenson. His superb performance justly won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. His competition, however, included the better established likes of Jack Oakie and the winner, master scene-stealer Walter Brennan, a former extra with two wins under his belt who won a lot of nods from voting extras. In his fifties, Stephenson was pretty obviously a character type and continued playing supporting roles in "Flight from Destiny" (1941) and what would be his last film, "International Squadron" (1941), as Ronald Reagan's flight commander. Stephenson did enjoy one leading role in the light of his triumph, in Irving Rapper's modest and sentimental but fairly well-done debut film, "Shining Victory" (1941), Stephenson brought sincerity and dignity to his role as a dedicated researcher who at first doesn't notice the love of his assistant (Geraldine Fitzgerald). One cannot say what other work Stephenson might have done since he died abruptly at age 52, but enough of his work was polished enough to suggest that he was more than a one-performance actor.



Cast (Feature Film)

Shining Victory (1941)
Dr. Paul Venner
International Squadron (1941)
Squadron Leader Charles Wyatt
Flight from Destiny (1941)
Dr. Lawrence Stevens
A Dispatch from Reuters (1940)
The Sea Hawk (1940)
River's End (1940)
Inspector McDowell
Calling Philo Vance (1940)
Philo Vance
The Letter (1940)
Howard Joyce
Wolf of New York (1940)
Hiram Rogers, also known as Hugo Stout
South of Suez (1940)
Inspector Thornton
Murder in the Air (1940)
Joe Garvey
Beau Geste (1939)
Major de Beaujolais
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
British military intelligence agent
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Sir Thomas Egerton
We Are Not Alone (1939)
Sir William Clintock
The Old Maid (1939)
Jim Ralston
Espionage Agent (1939)
Dr. Rader
Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939)
Mr. Mansfield
On Trial (1939)
Gerald Trask
King of the Underworld (1939)
Bill Stevens
Devil's Island (1939)
Colonel Armand Lucien
The Adventures of Jane Arden (1939)
Dr. George Vanders
Secret Service of the Air (1939)
Jim Cameron
Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938)
Professor Landis
When Were You Born (1938)
Libra, Sep 23-Oct 23 [Philip Corey]
White Banners (1938)
Thomas Bradford
Heart of the North (1938)
Inspector Stephen Gore
Boy Meets Girl (1938)
Major Thompson
Nancy Drew: Detective (1938)
The Man Who Made Diamonds (1937)
You Live And Learn (1937)
The Perfect Crime (1937)

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Amateur (1994)

Cast (Special)

Poison Arrow: An American in Africa (2001)

Cast (Short)

The Monroe Doctrine (1939)

Life Events


Film acting debut in Britain


Hired by Warner Bros. as a contract player


Earliest US film credits include "White Banners" and "When Were You Born?"


Earliest romantic lead in Hollywood, "King of the Underworld," opposite Kay Francis and Humphrey Bogart


Played his best-remembered role, that of attorney Howard Joyce, in the melodrama, "The Letter"; received Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor


Starred as the detective in "Calling Philo Vance"


Played first and last leading role in Hollywood, "Shining Victory"; received top billing alongside Geraldine Fitzgerald


Last film, "International Squadron"

Photo Collections

King of the Underworld - Movie Posters
Here are a few original release movie posters for Warner Bros' King of the Underworld (1939), starring Humphrey Bogart and Kay Francis.


Movie Clip

Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) Terribly Cold-Blooded Plot thickens as lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) debriefs first Withers (Bruce Lester) then Leslie (Bette Davis) and all depart for court, leaving Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) lurking behind in The Letter, 1940.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) What Are You Getting Out Of This? Smarmy native legal assistant Ong (Sen Yung) puts his self-interested squeeze on his boss Howard (James Stephenson), arranging the blackmail deal in William Wyler's The Letter, 1940, starring Bette Davis.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) Who Has The Letter Now? Acquitted killer Leslie (Bette Davis) and her lawyer and reluctant co-conspirator Howard (James Stephenson) finally tell her loyal husband Bob (Herbert Marshall) the truth in The Letter, 1940.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) Mrs. Hammond Wind chimes augment the near-silent Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) as she demands her money and something more from Leslie (Bette Davis), lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) and his aide (Sen Yung) in The Letter, 1940.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) Justice Will Be Done Lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) is notably hesitant as he closes his arguments in a Malay courtroom for the acquittal of Leslie (Bette Davis) in William Wyler's The Letter, 1940.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) To Save Your Neck Director William Wyler uses trademark long takes as lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) reveals damning evidence to his client, accused murderess Leslie (Bette Davis), in The Letter, 1940, from the play by W. Somerset Maugham.
Letter, The (1940) -- (Movie Clip) It's Too Awful! Leslie (Bette Davis) in a portion of her account of killing Hammond, for husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) and official Withers (Bruce Lester) in William Wyler's The Letter, 1940.
Beau Geste (1939) -- (Movie Clip) Brother For Brother Prologue and director William A. Wellman's gripping opening, Major Beaujolais (James Stephenson) dispatching his bugler Digby (Robert Preston) to the fort manned by dead legionnaires, in Beau Geste, 1939.


Boy Meets Girl - (Original Trailer) Two wacky Hollywood writers drive their boss crazy while trying to help a pregnant waitress in Boy Meets Girl (1938) with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien.
Dispatch From Reuters, A - (Original Trailer) An entrepreneur (Edward G. Robinson) builds an international news agency.
Cowboy from Brooklyn, The - (Original Trailer) A singing cowboy (Dick Powell) turns out to be a tenderfoot. Co-starring Pat O'Brien, directed by Lloyd Bacon.
Devil's Island - (Original Trailer) Boris Karloff in one of his rare sympathetic roles as a doctor unjustly accused of aiding traitors and sent to Devil's Island (1940).
When Were You Born? - (Original Trailer) An astrologer (Anna May Wong) tries to help the police catch a killer in When Were You Born? (1938).
White Banners - (Original Trailer graphics) A mysterious woman tries to help her son's foster family without revealing her true identity in White Banners (1938) starring Fay Bainter.
Shining Victory - (Original Trailer) A psychiatrist (James Stephenson) sacrifices everything for his research. Co-starring Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Nancy Drew...Detective - (Original Trailer) A teen-aged sleuth investigates a wealthy woman's disappearance in Nancy Drew - Detective (1938), starring Bonita Granville in the title role.
Calling Philo Vance - (Original Trailer) James Stephenson essays S.S. Van Dine's detective in Calling Philo Vance (1940) based on the book The Kennel Murder Case.
South of Suez - (Original Trailer) A murder defendant (George Brent) falls for his alleged victim's daughter South Of Suez (1940).
Murder in the Air - (Original Trailer) Brass Bancroft, Agent 207, (Ronald Reagan) goes undercover to protect the U.S.'s new death ray in Murder In The Air (1940).
Secret Service of the Air - (Original Trailer) Ronald Reagan in the first of the "Brass Bancroft" series, joins the Secret Service of the Air (1939).