Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Tribute to Jimmy Stewart

Hard to believe but 109 years ago today, James Maitland Stewart entered this world and, eventually, a major movie star would be born. I say it's hard to believe because Jimmy Stewart seems timeless.  Ageless.  Despite many of his most successful films being made sixty or more years ago, he remains that charming, courteous gentleman that we'd all like to know, to friend, to marry, to parent.

I don't recall a time when I was not a Jimmy Stewart fan and I don't recall the first movie or program I saw him in.  As his own studio, MGM said in 1938, he was "no Gable and certainly has none of the qualities of a Valentino," and yet that very fact made him who he was and led to him being an enduring star, even today.

Male or female, Jimmy Stewart appeals.  His polite nature, his slow almost awkward drawl, his long legged skinniness and "aw, shucks" personality all combined to make him popular with men and women.  That he married only once, and stayed happily married for forty-five years until his wife Gloria passed away, prove that he wasn't your usual Hollywood star.  In fact, his reported last words were "I'm going to be with Gloria."  If that doesn't get you, I don't know what will.

Jimmy became the first Stewart to go into show business and he made a huge success of it, first on the stage, then the screen (television would eventually follow.)  He became good, if not best, friends with Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper.   Unlike many actors of the period, no scandal would follow or taint Jimmy.  He kept his private life very private.

At the height of his career, and only a week after he won an Academy Award for his performance in The Philadelphia Story, he was drafted to serve his country - - something he did proudly.  Can you imagine?  One week at the Oscar ceremony picking up the coveted award and seven days later, donning a uniform - - the first major American actor to do so. But that was Jimmy.  He peeled potatoes and then, an avid flyer with both private and commercial pilot licenses, trained other pilots without complaint.  He eventually went into active duty, flying bombing missions into Germany and France, receiving the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French Air Force.  He would remain in the Reserves until retiring out as a Brigadier General, the highest ranking actor in military history.

His career hit a slump upon his return from service yet he never wavered in his insistence that he not use his military service to secure roles or interviews.  He would never appear in a combat film nor would he ever discuss his missions.  Eventually his career would get back on track and Jimmy Stewart would find new fans.

One of my favorite stories about Jimmy Stewart regards a film that was considered a turkey when it was released.  So bad, in fact, that it very nearly bankrupted Fox.  I'm talking about It's a Wonderful Life.  Frank Capra had worked with Jimmy in the past and had gotten brilliant performances out of him.  Newly returned from the war, the story goes that Frank met Jimmy at a bar to discuss a new project. There was no script as of yet so Frank went about explaining to Jimmy about George Bailey, Bedford Falls and Clarence the Angel.  Frank reportedly felt that he had sunk the entire thing and that Jimmy (or anyone) would be crazy to sign on to the mess he had just described.

Jimmy Stewart, however, saw something.   It's said he listened to Frank Capra thoughtfully (because didn't Jimmy do everything thoughtfully?), nodded his head and replied "Well now, that sounds just fine."

Not well received back in 1946 - - what genius thought to release a holiday themed movie over the summer? - - today It's a Wonderful Life is considered to be one of the best films ever made and a Christmas classic.  If you've only seen one Jimmy Stewart film, chances are it's this one.  No one else could possibly have played George Bailey because in many ways, Jimmy Stewart and George Bailey were one and the same.

Jimmy Stewart had a nearly sixty year career, spanning from films to television.  He was professional on every set.  Not a bad word was said about him from his co-workers, nor did he have a bad word to say about them.  He was genuinely happy when fellow entertainers succeeded and never hesitated in telling them so.

In many ways, Jimmy Stewart was the quintessential American man - - patriotic, happy to do his duty, devoted to his wife and children, unfailingly polite and kind, a true gentleman.  

Happy Birthday, Jimmy.

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