For biographers seeking to chronicle the misdeeds of mid-century superstars, James Stewart presents a problem: small-town upbringing; major Hollywood figure for decades; decorated war hero; faithful husband and loving father, untouched by scandal.
Celebrity biographer Marc Eliot faces the challenge with “Jimmy Stewart,” a thorough examination of the actor’s life and career, with not a sniff of sensation.
Peter Bogdanovich had written that Stewart had an affair with Kim Novak while they were making “Bell, Book and Candle” and “Vertigo.” Eliot checked it out with Novak.
“She said she had been in love with Richard Quine, the director of ‘Bell, Book and Candle,”’ Eliot remarked. “She added that Jimmy was married, and there was no way that she would have an affair with a married man.”
Speaking by telephone from New York, Eliot said he had devoted three years to researching and writing “Jimmy Stewart.” He spent a year trying to win over Kelly Stewart Harcourt, one of Stewart’s twin daughters. Finally, she agreed to be interviewed, as long as she would not appear to be authorizing the book.
“I wanted to find out what it was like for Stewart to become a father, and then to have twin daughters, as well as adopting his wife’s two sons,” said Eliot. “As he grew older, he matured, and I think the family was a great help.”
Shy Stewart’s rise to successIn 1949, after being known for years as Hollywood’s No. 1 bachelor, Stewart married Gloria Hatrick McLean, a beautiful divorcee with connections in East Coast society. He was 41.
Why did Stewart wait so long to marry?
“Jimmy was incredibly shy around women, especially Hollywood women,” Eliot remarked. “Marlene Dietrich all but attacked him, and Ginger Rogers was crazy about him. These were not women who reminded him of his mom and what a family life was all about.”
The author believes that Stewart adored Margaret Sullavan; she had worked with him and Henry Fonda in summer theater. But Sullavan married Fonda. Stewart was grateful to Sullavan for helping his early Hollywood career by insisting on him as co-star in her films.
James Maitland Stewart was born May 28, 1908, in Indiana, Penn., where his father ran a hardware store. The Stewarts were “a strong, America-based family with a great military heritage,” Eliot said. Jimmy played the accordion, acted in a Boy Scout play and lived a small-town life.
His father, a Princeton University grad, wanted his son to follow him, and Jimmy did. He majored in architecture but got waylaid by a fellow student, Josh Logan, who enlisted him for college dramatics. After graduation, Logan persuaded Stewart to join Sullavan and Fonda at the University Players in Falmouth, Mass.
“Stewart never faded away from the consciousness of the American moviegoing public,” Eliot said. “When you think about the actors of the 1930s, very few of them remained relevant so long in their careers.”
From his film debut in 1935 as a reporter in “The Murder Man,” he quickly rose to stardom and finished the decade with his stirring role in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The following year, he won an Academy Award for “Philadelphia Story.”
Drafted into the Army in 1941, he advanced from private to colonel, flying 20 bombing missions over Germany. After the war, he was concerned that his studio, MGM, had no plans for him. Then Frank Capra borrowed him for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and his career revived.
‘The purest of actors’
In the decades that followed, Stewart remained a screen favorite in Hitchcock thrillers, comedies, dramas and an abundance of Westerns. Even when the features dwindled in the 1980s, he remained current with TV appearances on the Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Carol Burnett shows, as well as the repeated TV screenings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“In the history of American movies, James Stewart was probably the purest of actors,” Eliot said. “One reason was that he was not interested in directing, producing or having a film company. He was basically an actor.
“Because of that — and with the guidance around him — he was able to focus on his character, which he developed and played with variations. I think the character he played was closer to him, more so than any other actors who developed lifelong personas.”
Richard Schickel, film historian and reviewer for Time magazine, has a different view of Stewart.
“This is one angry man,” Schickel said. “Think of ’It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ A Stewart performance I admire greatly is in ‘Anatomy of a Murder.’ He’s playing a kind of foxy guy, but when he gets in that courtroom he can really rip and snort.
“Everybody thinks of him as this adorable, aw-shucksy kind of guy. What about the Anthony Mann Westerns; those are really smart, tough performances. I think he was very clever in the conduct of his career in that he set aside the aw-shucksy side of his younger years. As he matured, he became a much tougher figure to be reckoned with.”