Case History: Jimmy Stewart

Vision Stage

Jeff Cunningham
Dec 24, 2020 · 15 min read

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Everyone knows how the Jimmy Stewart story ends, but few realize how close he came to not having a wonderful life.

The famous actor was nominated for six Oscars, winning twice, starred in some of the most famous movies in Hollywood history, and pursued a film career that was extraordinary by any measure. Among his co-stars were Donna Reed, Grace Kelly, and Doris Day. He appeared in films like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Yet, his climb to the top wasn’t smooth, and he endured long periods of danger, rejection, and depression beginning with flying B24 bombers over Germany in World War II before he was forced to restart his film career with few prospects and even less hope. It begs the question, was it such a wonderful life?

Stewart’s war record isn’t well known as his film credits, but he was as good an aviator as an actor. For heroism in combat, Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. and promoted to the rank of full colonel. But joining the war effort was harder than winning one of his Oscars. What makes Jimmy Stewart so fascinating is that he proved he could do anything, but it looked like he would end up doing nothing, somewhat like George Bailey, the character in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Too Skinny

Two things would go wrong.

At 6’3", Stewart only weighed in at 138 pounds. The recruiters didn’t know whether he needed to be fed or trained to fight. He was too thin for combat, that’s for sure and was rejected. Stewart did what some of us can only dream about, he put himself on a diet of fattening foods. After eating everything in the larder that had a high sugar and butterfat content, he returned to the recruiting station and tipped the scale by one ounce.

Jimmy Stewart could join the Army Air Force (as it was called).

The way he saw things, he was a natural. He was a college graduate with a degree in architecture from Princeton, and his thesis on airport design was so impressive his professors awarded him a scholarship for graduate school. To better understand the inner workings of an airport, Stewart took flying lessons and obtained his pilot’s license, a special credential in those early days. Flying in the 1930s was like software coding today, and Stewart was a nerd, obsessed with mechanics. The problem was that as he had been rejected by the Army the year before, he turned 33 in the meantime, making him too old for Aviation Cadet training — the typical path to becoming a flight officer.

It meant Stewart could not fly. So he joined as a buck private.

The irony is that Stewart’s passion for flying was not because he was looking for a bit of bronze to brighten a resume. He was already one of the most famous men in America. Stewart graduated from Princeton (his father’s alma mater) and was a rising superstar in a new West Coast medium called Hollywood.

Then the world changed. The Pentagon realized Germany had more pilots than we did, and anyone with a pilot’s license, regardless of other qualifications, was fit to fly. It meant Stewart could get his Air Corps commission as a second lieutenant and head into the wild blue yonder. To make sure he would be assigned to combat, Stewart asked his commanding officer to make special arrangements (his movie star status would be used to prevent him from getting into trouble). The next thing, he joined up with the 445th Bombardment Group as a B-24 Liberator pilot, a mission as highly decorated as it was dangerous.

Stewart flew 20 combat missions and rose to Chief of Staff of the 2nd Combat wing. He was made a full colonel by 1945. He was also named presiding officer of a court-martial of a pilot who accidentally bombed Zurich. In 1959, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general in the US Air Force Reserve and eventually flew missions in Vietnam, finally retiring in 1968. For bravery, Stewart received the Distinguished Service Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre.

In 1945, Stewart returned to the United States to resume his old movie career. He rarely spoke of the war or his heroic accomplishments in the years ahead. The one exception was some commentary in Lawrence Olivier’s magisterial 26 episode documentary, World at War. If Colonel Stewart did little else for the rest of his life, his story would have made quite a movie.

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Colonel Stewart receiving the Croix de Guerre with Palm in 1944 (Wikipedia)

Grounded

Stewart was grounded in other ways. By August of 1945, Stewart lost the will to do anything with his life. The 38-year-old former actor by now could always turn to the family business. Matzen says, “He came back looking like hell. There’s a before-and-after photo in the book that shows him in 1942 looking all youthful and then in 1944 looking like hell.” The other problem was he had been away for nearly five years, and Hollywood doesn’t stop for anyone, not even a war hero.

Economic Reality

By the time Stewart left Princeton, enthusiasm for building skyscrapers had dimmed. As a result, he turned down the graduate school scholarship his professors arranged, and during the summer of 1932, joined a summer stock troupe called University Players on Cape Cod. Stewart’s job had nothing to do with acting. He was an architect and thought he could help design sets. One other thing, he knew how to play the accordion and could accompany the actors offstage.

The reason Stewart became so adept at the instrument goes back to his days growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania. When Stewart was a young boy, one of his father’s hardware store customers could not pay his bill and offered an accordion as collateral. Stewart’s father accepted and gave it to his son, who took lessons from a local barber. He would accompany his mother on the piano at family gatherings, and it became part of his repertoire.

Discovery

Later that year, Stewart was under contract to Columbia Pictures. They made him available to a director who would have the most profound effect on Stewart’s life (Stewart said as much in his 1985 acceptance speech for his lifetime Oscar). He teamed up with legendary director Frank Capra in “You Can’t Take It With You,” and according to Capra, Stewart was a natural who “understood character archetypes intuitively and required little directing.”

The film became the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Stewart’s co-star was actor Lionel Barrymore who he would team up with after the war. Then, shortly before America entered World War II, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story was released in 1940, cementing Jimmy Stewart’s legend. Stewart played a gossip reporter trying to get the scoop on the upcoming marriage, Katharine Hepburn, aided by a wily ex-husband, Cary Grant. Stewart would win an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Going Home

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Stewart (right) and Alexander Stewart (high center) in front of the J.M. Hardware store in 1930 (Wikipedia)

After the war ended, Stewart was once again living with his parents in Indiana, PA, an out of work actor. His father, Alex Stewart, ran a hardware store, The J.M Stewart Hardware Store, named for Jimmy Stewart’s grandfather and his namesake. Maybe it was time to call it quits. There was Stewart at age 38 living at his parents and working in a hardware store, a former Hollywood superstar with an Oscar winner whom no one seemed to remember, a war hero forgotten, and no prospects for the future.

But as he recuperated, he realized he had to face his demons and recapture his career. Was there a future other than nails and screws? He decided, “I have to go back and face Hollywood. I’ve been away for five years; other people are taking my roles.” People like Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck were winning over his Hollywood audience, and Stewart didn’t know whether he still could make it.

Nothing fades as fast as reputation in Hollywood. The only job offer Stewart had was, Louis B. Mayer, his old boss at MGM, said, “Let’s do ‘The Jimmy Stewart Story’ — we can show you flying over Frankfurt, we can show you as a military hero.” Stewart said no. He wouldn’t talk about the war. He wanted to move past the trauma, to do a comedy. He said, “The world has seen too much horror and suffering.” The phone rang. Frank Capra was calling with a movie idea about a small-town banker about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.

Capra recorded in his diary that the meeting with Stewart was a flop. “You want me to do what?” Stewart said as he stormed out of the meeting. That was when his agent, Lew Wassermann, turned to Stewart and asked, “You got any other offers?”

Capra’s Comedy

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Francesco Rosario Capra circa 1930s

Frank Capra was a legendary director of Hollywood movies of the 30s through the 50s. In 1938 alone, he received six Academy Awards Oscar nominations for Best Director during his lifetime, winning three of them: It Happened One Night (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). But his rise to the pantheon of movie directors was a tale of rags to riches or more likely rags to petty crime and then to fame, every bit as incredible as Stewart’s.

It was Stewart’s luck that he and Capra were cut from some of the same cloth. Francesco Rosario Capra was born near Palermo, Sicily, in 1897. His family traveled steerage on the ship Germania when they came to America, and an experience Capra recalled vividly: “You’re all together — no privacy. Nobody takes their clothes off. There’s no ventilation. It stinks like hell. They’re all miserable. It’s the most degrading place you could ever be.” [6]

The Capra family made its way to California, where his father worked as a fruit picker, and Frank sold newspapers. Instead of working after high school, Frank enrolled in Cal Tech, much to his father’s chagrin, and to pay for tuition, and he plays the banjo at a bar in Pasadena. Here is a coincidence that bears mention. Our two characters thus far are educated at two of the finest educational institutions in the world. By chance, Capra studies chemical engineering like Stewart’s love of architecture, both of which turned out to be a dead-end.

While doing odd jobs around Los Angeles, Capra reads an article about a new motion picture studio opening near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. He makes his way to Columbia Features (no relation to the better-known studio Capra would eventually work for). According to biographer Joseph Page, he barges into the producer’s office brashly announcing, “I’m Frank Capra from Hollywood.” He was from Hollywood in the same way George H.W. Bush was from Texas, nothing but a zip code on his resume. No experience, no references. But with that as an introduction, the producer lets him direct a film. There was one problem, however. Capra was a crook, not a director.

He planned to take the advance money and head up to Reno, Nevada, to gamble it away. He had previously made money by pushing gold mining stock scams and illegal distilleries (where his chemical engineering degree came in handy). To his surprise, Capra fell in love with movie-making. He ends up writing comic gags for pictures like Our Gang, also known as The Little Rascals. But mostly, his movie career was over before it began. Then something unexpected happened to Capra’s career.

Movies started to talk.

When Hollywood switched from the silent film era to ‘talkies,’ people didn’t give it much of a chance. Most studios thought talking movies were a passing fancy and weren’t willing to put money into the technology. Capra happened to see Al Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer in 1927, which movie historians consider the first talkie, and Capra was hooked: “It was an absolute shock to hear this man open his mouth and a song come out of it. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”

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Al Jolson in 1929

Why did Capra see what others missed? He had an engineering degree and could appreciate the future of technology. It was the big break he was waiting for, recalling, “I wasn’t at home in silent films.” He knew he was on thin ice, there was no way to prove this new medium would take off, but he had a hunch it was the next thing: “You had to bluff to survive. When sound first came in, nobody knew much about it. We were all walking around in the dark. Even the sound man didn’t know much about it. Frank was one of the few directors who knew what the hell they were doing. Most of your directors walked around in a fog — — they didn’t know where the door was.”

Movie studios like Columbia began thinking in terms of a broader range of talent and how to improve the quality of movies, and Capra’s films made him a “bankable” director. Capra was also given credit by placing his “name above the film title,” a first in the movie industry. Critic Alistair Cooke observed that Capra was “starting to make movies about themes instead of people.”

The name Capra refers to a “goat” in Italian, where our word “capricious” comes from “evoking the animal’s obstinacy and skittish temperament.” For Capra, it was a talent that played a role in wooing Jimmy Stewart back to the screen. Capra directed Stewart before the war in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for which Stewart won his first Oscar.

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Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in It’s a Wonderful Life (1948) (photo: Wikipedia)

The Comeback

That didn’t sound like the comedy Stewart had in mind. Capra persisted and told Stewart the rest of the story. Bailey’s problem is that he can’t see any reason for being alive until an angel from heaven asks him to reimagine the world as if he never existed. Capra thought the story was going to be a hit. It reminded him of both Stewart’s and Capra’s youth. But Stewart had doubts, which was when Capra told him, “This is our last shot. Hollywood went on without us, we’re not getting any younger, and if this bombs after we’ve both been away for five years …”

NBC claims It’s a Wonderful Life is their best-selling movie. It explains the similarities between the angst and suffering of Jimmy Stewart and the on-screen George Bailey. The rage that Bailey exhibits throughout portions of the film and the raw emotional bite it takes was so intense, and fellow actors weren’t sure if the film was going to work or that audiences would enjoy it. Donna Reed, who plays Stewart’s wife, remarked, “This was not a happy set.” The tension everyone was feeling was palpable, yet there was a sense that they would figure it out. Stewart and Capra would go off and huddle, according to Matzen, “Should we try this? Should we try that?”

During the filming, Stewart expressed his concern to fellow actor and antagonist in the film, Lionel Barrymore, that Hollywood roles seemed superficial compared to what he had been through in Europe. Barrymore replied, “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” It was a realization for Stewart, who said to himself, “I do have an important role, and there are things to be done.”

Coda

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Cary Grant with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955)

Fate had a different ending mind, however. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Stewart’s third Best Actor nomination. In the decades since its release, It’s a Wonderful Life has grown to define Stewart’s film persona and is widely considered a Christmas classic. According to the American Film Institute, it is one of the 100 best American movies ever made. Stewart later named the film his personal favorite out of his filmography.

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Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo, 1958

In later years, Stewart would not just resume his Hollywood career but rocket past his former glory. He starred in hit films like Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo, and according to Quigley’s annual poll, was one of the top money-making stars for 1950, 1952–1959, and 1965. He was the highest-grossing fox office star in 1959.

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Cary Grant in North by Northwest 1959

Success would be an uneasy friend, even for a film icon. After Vertigo was released to the public, the critics panned the movie, and Hitchcock blamed it on Stewart’s age. He was fifty years old at the time and had begun wearing a hairpiece in his movies. Afterward, Hitchcock cast Cary Grant in his next film, North by Northwest, a role Stewart wanted; Hitchock said although Grant was four years older than Stewart, he photographed younger. As Jimmy Stewart knew from his earliest days to his journey over wartime Germany, you flew your course and headed back home when it was over. What happened in between was called experience.

General Jimmy Stewart passed away on July 2, 1997, at the age of 89.

But what makes Stewart’s role so memorable is the scene in which Stewart’s character of George Bailey decides suicide is the only way out of his financial troubles, and an angel named Clarence tells him how much he means to the lives of people. The technical term is ‘counterfactual,’ a version of reality as if one didn’t exist, and it changes his mind about himself and life. They take an existential tour down Main Street, literally, and Bailey's epiphany is that his life matters because he never realized he had such an effect. Much the same could be said of Jimmy Stewart.

“I’d like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said”

— Jimmy Stewart

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

All you have to do is dream

Jeff Cunningham

Written by

Author of “Be Somebody — Extraordinary Lives” (published 2021); 2019 Telly Award for Documentary @IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher @Forbes

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

The ordinary habits of extraordinary people

Jeff Cunningham

Written by

Author of “Be Somebody — Extraordinary Lives” (published 2021); 2019 Telly Award for Documentary @IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher @Forbes

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

The ordinary habits of extraordinary people

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