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Cinema's Third Greatest Actor
by Asa Butcher
2008-05-20 09:31:49
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According to the American Film Institute's 50 Greatest Screen Legends Actor list, he is the third greatest actor of all-time, just behind Humphrey Bogart (#1) and Cary Grant (#2), he starred in four Alfred Hitchcock films, he was friends with an imaginary rabbit, he starred in one of the greatest Christmas movies and today he would have celebrated the centenary of his birth. James Maitland Stewart, a.k.a. Jimmy Stewart, was born 100 years ago today, so let's pay homage to cinema's third greatest actor of all-time.

Born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA, James Stewart didn't make his Hollywood debut until the age of 26 in an uncredited role in the 1934 short comedy Art Trouble, and he wouldn't speak his first line ("Hi, Joe!") until the 1935 film The Murder Man starring Spencer Tracy, and he didn't get his first lead until Edward H. Griffith's 1936 film Next Time We Love. However, it wasn't until his performance as Tony Kirby in Frank Capra's 1939 Best Picture winner You Can't Take It with You that he was finally recognised as a reliable leading man.

You Can't Take It with You was the first James Stewart and Frank Capra collaboration, with the second, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, following one year later. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of my favourite films and tells the story of a naïve man appointed to fill a vacancy in the US Senate, plus it earned Stewart his first of five Best Actor nominations. It wasn't until seven years later that Capra and Stewart would reunite for their final collaboration with the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), which James Stewart considered his favourite.

Following his incredible performance as Mr. Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's popularity soared and he appeared in film after film for a year. He starred with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (remade in 1998 as You've Got Mail) and The Mortal Storm, and then No Time for Comedy with Rosalind Russell. However, it wasn't until the end of 1940 that he finally struck Oscar gold.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) pitched James Stewart alongside Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in another of my all-time favourites, in which Stewart plays a reporter covering a society wedding but becomes a little more involved than planned. James Stewart won his first and only Best Actor for the film and - it just goes to show what a regular guy he was - he sent it to his father, who placed it in his Indiana hardware shop - it remained there for 25 years. The Philadelphia Story was also nominated for Best Picture, but it was beaten by Rebecca, directed by one Alfred Hitchcock.

James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made four films together over a period of ten years beginning with Rope (1948), then Rear Window (1954) with the stunning Grace Kelly, followed by the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with Doris Day and finally Vertigo (1958). Only Cary Grant - Stewart's nemesis, it seems - also appeared in four, yet this only happened because Hitchcock blamed Stewart for the box office failure of Vertigo and chose Cary Grant for the role of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959) - a role Stewart really wanted.

In 1950 James Stewart received another nomination for Best Actor following his portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd who is friends with a six-foot invisible white rabbit named Harvey. Harvey is certainly a strange film that slowly draws you into its surrealism, but by the close of the film you can't help believe that there really is a six-foot invisible white rabbit and this is purely down to Stewart's acting. On a side note, many believe that Stewart was the first star to negotiate and receive a percentage of the gross of his movies.

As Hollywood entered the 1950s Stewart became a greater force and a greater actor, with some attributing this to his time in the Air Force during World War Two. He played Buttons the Clown in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth and we never see him without his clown make-up, then Stewart went from clown to cowboy, primarily thanks to Anthony Mann. Winchester '73 (1950) was director Mann and Stewart's first collaboration, and they went on to make another seven films together.

Thunder Bay (1953) is about shrimpers and oilmen, Strategic Air Command (1955) was one of Stewart's few war films, The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955) are two of the greatest westerns, The Glenn Miller Story (1953) is just what the title say, while The Far Country (1954) and Bend of the River (1952) complete their work together. Stewart's six-foot-three really helped him to become an imposing cowboy, while his trademark drawl was note perfect for the Wild West.

Stewart's performance as aviator Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) may not have won him any nominations, but it notch up a third film in the American Film Institute's 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, two of which are in the top five. They are: The Spirit of St. Louis at #69, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at #5 and It's a Wonderful Life at #1. Stewart received his final nomination for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and finally starred beside John Wayne in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Stewart and Wayne would star together again 14 years later in what became Wayne's final film The Shootist, but the acoustics of the hollow sound stages worsened Stewart's hearing difficulties, making the two legendary actors mess up their lines in the main scene between them. It is said that director Don Siegel accused them of not trying hard enough, so Wayne replied, "If you'd like the scene done better, you'd better get a couple of better actors."

James Stewart was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1985 and told the audience that it was the greatest award he had received, since it showed he hadn't been forgotten after all those years - the audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. Stewart's final film was as a voice in the animated feature An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and after that his health continued to decline rapidly. On July 2nd 1997 James Stewart finally passed away at the age of 89 following a pulmonary embolism.

Jimmy Stewart was an amazing actor who never took an acting lesson, believing that people could learn more when actually working rather than studying the craft. He was a "regular guy" and genuinely disliked the Hollywood glamour, and was once quoted as saying, "I suppose people can relate to being me, while they dream about being John Wayne." Today would have been his 100th birthday, so why not dig out one of his classic films and discover why he lives on in the hearts of his countless fans.

Happy birthday, Jimmy!


   
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Harvey2008-05-20 13:14:45
Not bad, but you forgot to add that James Stewart was a racist who fired actor Hal Williams from his show just for being black, a rabid Republican who actively supported the McCarthy witch hunts, and a hawk on the Vietnam War who actually bombed the country in 1966.


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-20 13:52:24
If we were to judge a man's work or a country's cultural patrimony by their politics we would all be cultural philistines. Fortunately, the works remain even when the behavior of an individual or a country is reprehensible.


Asa2008-05-20 13:56:26
You sound like one of his greatest fans, Harvey!


Clark2008-05-20 14:01:24
I heard that Stewart was very homophobic (which wouldn't surprise me since people who are racist tend to be homophobic as well), but isn't it true that he lived with Henry Fonda for years and didn't marry until he was in his forties? Therefore I believe it may be fair to say that Stewart was probably a self-hating homosexual.


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-20 16:13:16
Some of these comments are redolent of “argumenti ad hominem”! Haven’t we seen that sort of tactic before? If one cannot attack the work of a man without making a fool of oneself, one resorts to attacking what one considers the man’s personal flaws. Paradoxically, in resorting to that kind of thing, one usually ends up making a double fool of oneself. Haven’t we seen that before? I suppose we can go all the way back in history to the attacks of Catilina against Cicero, to which Cicero exclaimed: “o tempora, o mores!”


Matt Garth2008-05-20 16:24:49
Read Donald Dewey's excellent 1996 biography for the truth about the REAL Mr Stewart.


Simon2008-05-20 16:38:50
Sometimes you have to separate the actor from the man, or we destroy all of our screen heroes.


Titus Moody2008-05-20 16:43:44
You may be right Clark, I read in Darwin Porter's biography of William Holden that Stewart confessed, "I enjoyed drinking Hank Fonda's nicotine-laced semen."


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-20 17:01:49
Point proven, if indeed we needed a confirmation.


Jim2008-05-20 17:26:53
A gay actor! Stop the Press!


Jediah2008-05-20 17:56:47
Wasn't Stewart the guy who abused his children? I believe one of them is dead now.


Elisa Jones2008-05-20 18:52:14
Here's the truth about Stewart:

NBC producer Hal Kanter was shocked when Stewart insisted on firing black actor Hal Williams from The Jimmy Stewart Show. Kanter recalled, "One day somebody comes running into my office and says you better get down and see Jimmy, he is absolutely furious. I go down to his dressing room, and he's really hot. The problem was he had just found out that we were casting Hal Williams and he related that to a script for a show in which there was a cop lashing into the professor character. 'Blacks are bossing white people all over the country,' he says to me angrily, 'and now we're going to have the same damn thing on prime time television? A black is going to be lecturing me with millions of people watching? No way. I get casting approval and Williams is out.' I couldn't believe it. Aside from everything else, he'd screwed up the shows, because Williams had been hired to play an FBI agent on another episode. But his anger about the thing was frightening. He acted chagrined when I told him about the mix up he'd made, but both of us knew that he'd let one cat out of the bag that he would have preferred not to. He didn't have an easy relationship with blacks even as fictional characters." Others had seen the cat at least in the bag for some time. Director John Ford had picked on Stewart's Achilles heel during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Readers of interviews over the years may have been struck by everything from his descriptions of the antics of "dusky" housekeepers before World War II, to his complaints during the 1960s and 1970s that motion pictures had fallen under the influence of special interest audiences, among them "teenagers and colored people." Beverly Hills friend Leonard Gershe recalled, "I don't think there's any question that Jimmy was uncomfortable with black people. But I wouldn't lay it all on Indiana, either. This is Beverly Hills, USA. It is possible to go to dinner parties for years and, except for maybe Gregory Peck's home, never run into a black person, even the rich ones like Sidney Poitier and Quincy Jones. When you consider that Jimmy has spent almost his entire life in either Indiana or Beverly Hills, and is of a certain generation, you're not talking about someone who figures to be particularly sensitive to race. Like a lot of people with his kind of mentality, any kind of militancy, like the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, made him very uneasy, were just another threat to the way he was used to living, like admitting women to Princeton."


Clint2008-05-20 20:07:55
Easy up fellas give the man a break after all it is his 100th birthday lets show a little compassion for a man who has lit up my Sunday afternoons TV since I was a kid. Best film Shenandoah with Liberty Valence a very close second.


Emanuel Paparella2008-05-20 22:08:06
And now that you have shabbily cast aspersion on his person and character to your heart's content, how about the truth about his artistic talent about which the article was supposed to be all about?


Harvey2008-05-23 17:53:35
He was quite a good actor, even if he did play many characters who were very similar to each other. I liked the psychological westerns he made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950s, but certainly I look at Stewart in a different light after finding out he was so different from his screen persona in real life.


Mark2008-08-09 20:24:42
Don’t even bother to read "Harvey"'s (or "Clark"'s or "Matt Garth"'s or "Titus Moody"'s or "Jediah"'s or "Elisa Jones"'s)comments… They are all the same person (or freak, which is more fitting in my opinion). His real name is Evan J. Peacock, a teenager from Hilton/New York, whom for some reason has a profound dislike against white actors from Hollywood’s golden era. He’s very active on the IMDb forums under different nicknames, many of which have got banned because of excessive abuse. He’s newest nickname is "EdwardCarter", which he uses to unmercifully attack the veteran actors. He also uses the nickname "sponge417", which is his "mild" persona (He still tries to demean the actors, but he holds back the insults to a near to civilized level so he won’t have his "mild" nickname banned by IMDb’s staff, although he is known to fabricate evidences to support his claims). When he feels he wants to go for more violent attacks (usually when people disbelieve or mock his claims) he switches to his "agressive" nickname. He’s obviously a very sick and immature kid, but fortunately on the internet (different of the real world) a nut case like this one can be simply ignored.


Asa2008-08-10 10:13:49
Thanks Mark,

When somebody really dislikes somebody like that there is often a personal motive that screams a warning to the rest of us.

Thanks for letting us know!


Chuck2008-08-17 22:48:53
I don't think there's any doubt that Jimmy was a racist, but considering he was born in 1908 is it really surprising? Anyway he was still a good actor.


Simon2008-08-20 10:14:55
Careful Chuck! You can't say that everybody born before a certain year is/was racist.


Chuck2008-08-23 21:17:21
Well yeah, but I mean if these stories about Stewart are true all I'm saying is you have to remember that he was a product of a bygone era in which many people held views that would not be tolerated today.


Frank Eldridge2008-09-03 12:17:07
Ava, I'm sorry your tribute to Jimmy got blown to smithereens by these people/person. Do you think it would be a good idea to delete all the comments?


Asa2008-09-05 08:58:43
Hi Frank,

As much as we would all like to live in a 'clean' world and be able to remove the bad, we don't and it would be remiss of me to remove the bad comments. None of what I have read has changed my mind about the man as an actor and that is who I still interact with today.


Frank Eldridge2008-09-05 22:38:49
Yes, I suppose you're right. I had heard some of these things before, I just wish people could separate the artist from his work.


Jacqueline Lincoln2008-12-23 00:04:21
Emanuel, the truth should not be ignored. Yes, he captured the hearts of many and was/is one of the most beloved actors of all time, but we should not turn a blind eye from his flaws.

I think Simon said it best: 2008-05-20 16:38:50
Sometimes you have to separate the actor from the man, or we destroy all of our screen heroes.


Jacqueline Lincoln2008-12-23 00:04:43
Emanuel, the truth should not be ignored. Yes, he captured the hearts of many and was/is one of the most beloved actors of all time, but we should not turn a blind eye from his flaws.

I think Simon said it best: 2008-05-20 16:38:50
Sometimes you have to separate the actor from the man, or we destroy all of our screen heroes.


Bob Davis2009-09-05 05:16:03
Henry Fonda's "semen" was an alcoholic drink. The name was meant as a joke.
Jimmy S. flew just on one flight over Vietnam -- as an unofficial observer.


Rob2009-10-13 23:07:27
Stewart may have been a racist but he was not gay. If anything he was probably homophobic, because I read that he would never work with Rock Hudson again after the younger actor got more applause at the premiere of "Bend of the River".


Sam2009-10-25 02:58:54
Well Harvey, it sounds like you need to get a job and a life and get your 40 year old ass out of your moms basement. Maybe then you wont time to do stupid shit like chase postings about american war heros all over the internet so you can say idiotic, immature and and FALSE things about them. That's you liberal pricks say about all republicans. Anyone who doesn't agree with your communist views is a racist. Go fuck yourself PRICK!!! Jimmy Stewart was not a racist. Any amount of research would have made that obvious. He was a better American than you will ever be, Fuckwadd!!!


Emmanuel2009-12-09 20:32:14
Sam, I don't think Harvey was calling Stewart anti-American, I think he was just critcizing him for being a racist.


Fred Fop2010-03-22 02:55:29
Well Sam, you, although you sound like another miserable, lonely extremist right wing hate monger who pinholes liberals into a little space (much like the hate monger's sad little world), I must agree i think Jimmy Stewart was fantastic.


David2011-03-23 00:08:16
I don't usually comment on posts that are three or four years old, but some of the things that are said on this one are ridicules. First of all, Jimmy Stewart was not from Indiana, he was from a town named Indiana in Pennsylvania. Second, he never bombed Viet Nam, he rode in a b-57 during the war, since he was a general in the Air Force Reserves. He did have a step child who died...when his plane that he was piloting was shot down over Viet Nam. He has two daughters and a step son who are still living, and have never written or said anything negative about their father (your probably thinking of Bing Crosby-he was in Christmas movies too, but different person)

For some reason, there seems to be a vendetta against actors in Stewart's generation to paint them as mean, racist, homophobes. Not sure why. He did live with Henry Fonda. They were young struggling actors. That doesn't mean they were gay. I'm gay, so it would be totally cool if he was gay, but he wasn't. Most people, at some point in their life, have had roommates...and I think it is more homophobic to throw 'gay' around as some sort of weapon than anything you've 'accused' JS with.

Maybe JS had the attitudes of most people in the world at that time, I don't know...but I'm not going to judge him on these stupid innuendos.


Richard2011-11-09 02:32:26
As another poster mentioned Hank Fonda's "semen" was a humorous nickname for an alcoholic drink.

Orson Welles initially suspected the Stewart/Fonda friendship, but later decided they were both completely straight.


Mark2017-12-15 03:36:45
How can Stewart be called a great actor? He was more or less the same from one film to another.


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