Guest Author - Vance Rowe
James Maitland Stewart was and still is a true Hollywood icon. He has been in more than sixty movies in his career but that isn’t what makes him an icon. James Stewart has also been in plays, had his own television show and radio show and has been on many different television shows, including being a regular on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast and was even roasted himself, in 1978, on the show. His legacy isn’t just television, radio and movies either. James Stewart was also a decorated Air Force pilot in World War II and in the Viet Nam War as well.
James Stewart attended Princeton University in 1928 and really shined as an architect. He shined so well that his professors were so enamored with his thesis on airport design that he received a full scholarship for graduate studies. However, he eventually became more interested in the university’s drama and music clubs including the musical-comedy theater troupe, the Princeton Triangle Club. Stewart was also a head cheerleader at the university and was a member of the Princeton Charter Club.
After graduating from Princeton in 1932, James Stewart was invited to join the University Players in West Falmouth, Massachusetts, a town on Cape Cod. The University Players was an intercollegiate summer stock company. Henry Fonda was also a part of the troupe and after Fonda’s divorce from Margaret Sullivan that year, he and Stewart became roommates. They struggled together until the fall of 1934 when Henry Fonda was in a play called The Farmer Takes A Wife and his success in the play got him a ticket to Hollywood. In 1935, Fonda came to New York to see a play called Divided By Three, a play that starred Stewart. Also in attendance were such people like Irving Berlin and MGM scout, Bill Grady. Grady loved Stewart in this play and Henry Fonda convinced James Stewart to come to Hollywood to do a screen test. In 1935, Stewart did go to Hollywood, took the screen test and in April of 1935, signed a contract with MGM for seven years and earned three hundred fifty dollars a week as a contract player and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1940, James Stewart starred in the now classic movie, The Philadelphia Story and his role as a fast talking reporter in the movie earned him an Oscar win for Best Actor in 1941. He didn’t feel his role in that movie was as impressive as his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and he gave the Oscar statue to his father who put it in the front window of his hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania alongside of other family trophies.
James Stewart would soon be drafted into the Army at the start of World War II but was denied entrance because he failed to meet the height and weight requirements for new recruits then. After finding help from a Hollywood fitness trainer who had helped stars gain and lose weight for certain roles in movies, Stewart attempted to join the Army Air Corps. However, he again failed to meet the weight requirement and after talking to the recruiter for a new test, he passed and enlisted as a private. James Stewart was already a private pilot as he got his license in 1939 and by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he had more than four hundred hours of private flying time. James Stewart was the first Hollywood star to join the military in World War II. However, he had been relegated to training pilots and making recruitment films. One recruitment film caused more than one hundred fifty thousand new recruits to join the military. It wasn’t until 1944, that he was allowed to start flying combat missions and although the official count is twenty missions, he flew more than that. He was given the rank of Major when he flew missions over Germany and before the war’s end; he was promoted to the rank of Colonel. After the war was over, Stewart joined the US Air Force Reserve and by the time he retired in 1959, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
It was this day in history, July 2, 1997, due to complications from a blood clot and embolism on one of his lungs, at the age of 89. On the day he died, President Bill Clinton said of Stewart: “America lost a national treasure today. Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot.” No truer words could be said about James Stewart. James Stewart died in his home in Beverly Hills, California and has left us with such great movie remembrances like It’s a Wonderful Life, Anatomy of a Murder, Rear Window, Winchester ’73, and Shenandoah. James Stewart is gone, but like many great actors, he will certainly never be forgotten.