In the history of motion pictures it would be difficult to find any actor more beloved by screen audiences, or an actor with a more impressive a body of work, than Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997). Jimmy Stewart is the subject of the 90 minute film, “James Stewart: A Wonderful Life,” that airs Friday, February 12th at 8:30pm on KQED 9. This documentary was produced in 1987, and although several of the Hollywood notables who appear in this tribute are, like Stewart himself, now deceased, this still holds up as an excellent retrospective of the great star’s career. Johnny Carson serves as the program’s host, and included are interviews with Carol Burnett, Clint Eastwood, Katharine Hepburn and Ronald Reagan, as well as many film clips showing highlights from a 55 year movie career.
After a moderately successful stage career in New York , Jimmy Stewart, at the urging of fellow actor and best friend Henry Fonda, agreed to a screen test, which earned him a spot as an MGM contract player in 1935. In 1938, Stewart caught the eye of director Frank Capra, who saw in Stewart the everyman quality that eventually would make him a screen legend. Capra used Stewart in “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and again the following year in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939), which earned Stewart his first of five Best Actor Academy Award nominations. In 1941, Jimmy Stewart won the Oscar for his role in “The Philadelphia Story”(1940), beating out his old buddy Henry Fonda, who was nominated for “Grapes Of Wrath.” Drafted in 1940, Stewart was originally turned down by the military for being too light for a man of his height (6’4), but, undeterred, he ate his way to the necessary weight, and entered the army in March of 1941, the first major star to join the armed services in World war II. Stewart flew as a member of the 445th Bombardment Group in several missions over Nazi-occupied Europe , and was awarded numerous awards and medals, eventually rising to Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve.
After a five year absence, Jimmy Stewart returned to the screen under the direction of Frank Capra in one of his greatest roles, starring in the memorable “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946). Although nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, the picture was not as popular as it would become in later years, where it became classic film and a holiday favorite. Stewart’s performance as George Bailey might be considered his signature work, if not for the many other memorable parts he played throughout his career, including Elwood P. Dowd, his role in “Harvey ” (1950). During the 1950’s, Stewart showed his versatility by staring in several westerns, teaming with director Anthony Mann in such films as “Winchester ‘73” (1950), “Bend In The River” (1952), and “The Man From Laramie”(1955). Also notable were the Alfred Hitchcock directed classics “Rear Window”(1954), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), and “Vertigo”(1958).
Jimmy Stewart would continue to entertain audiences well into the 1970’s, and in 1985, was presented an Academy Honorary Award. His legacy to films is that of portraying common men, who, when necessary, can achieve extraordinary things. It might be said that, while John Wayne was who we would like to be, James Stewart was who we hoped we actually were.