Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

James Stewart
1908 - 1997

Forest Lawn Glendale

During his 60-year film career, Jimmy Stewart appeared in more than 100 films, from light comedies and drama, to Westerns and action-adventure, even musicals, and became one of the most popular, even beloved performers among his fans and within the entertainment industry. With his gangly good looks, thoughtful drawl and overriding sense of small-town decency, Stewart could bring depth and complexity to any role, even though, as most film critics point out, he wasn't really playing a character; he was just being himself.

Born in Indiana, PA, Stewart attended Princeton University, receiving a degree in architecture in 1932, but he was still not sure what he would do with the rest of his life. He joined a theatrical club at the university, and decided to pursue an acting career rather than accept a scholarship for a master's degree in architecture. Stewart went to New York City, and appeared in several plays, on and off Broadway. He made his film debut and was paid $50 for his role in a comedy short titled "Art Trouble" (1934), starring Shemp Howard, better known as one of the Three Stooges. His first role in a feature-length film was playing a newspaper reporter, ironically named Shorty, in "The Murder Man" (1935), starring Spencer Tracy.

Stewart appeared in more than two dozen films over the next four years, playing a wide range of characters, from a murder suspect in "After the Thin Man" (1936), to singing and dancing with Eleanor Powell in "Born to Dance" (1936). Stewart also appeared in "Wife vs. Secretary" (1936), "Small Town Girl" (1936), "Navy Blue and Gold" (1937), "The Last Gangster" (1937), "The Shopworn Angel" (1938), "Vivacious Lady" (1938) and "You Can't Take it With You" (1938), Stewart's first film with director Frank Capra.

Stewart became a major film star with his performance as a naively heroic young senator, Jefferson Smith, in Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), for which Stewart received the first of five nominations for the Academy Award as Best Actor. The same year, Stewart appeared in his first Western, playing the gun-shy marshal who tamed a town -- and Marlene Dietrich -- in "Destry Rides Again" (1939). For his performance in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), co-starring with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, Stewart was again nominated for an Academy Award. When he won the Best Actor statuette, he sent the Oscar back home to Indiana, PA, to display in the window of his father's hardware store, where it remained for many years.

Stewart was the first Hollywood star to enlist in the military for World War II, joining nearly a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was initially refused entry into the U.S. Air Force because he weighed five pounds less than the 148-pound minimum requirement, but Stewart convinced the recruiting officer to ignore the weight requirement. Stewart's war record included 25 combat missions in Europe as a command pilot. He rose to the rank of colonel -- the highest-ranking actor in military history -- and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars. In 1959, while serving in the Air Force Reserves, he became a brigadier general, and the Indiana County Airport in his hometown was re-named the Jimmy Stewart Airport. He retired from the Reserves in 1968.

When Stewart was first sent to Europe to fly bombing missions, his father gave him a letter in which he wrote, "Jim, I'm banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad." Stewart carried the letter with him for the rest of his life, and the words from the Psalm that his father gave him are written on his grave marker: "For He shall give his angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways."

When he returned from the war in 1945, Stewart discovered that many studios wanted to hire him, but they wanted him for war films, to capitalize on his war record and reputation, which Stewart did not want to do. Instead, he went to work for Capra on "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), the classic holiday film about a man from a small town who doesn't feel that his life has had any purpose, and the wingless angel who shows him how much he has touched the lives of those around him. Stewart's performance earned him another Academy Award nomination.

Stewart continued to play a wide range of characters, including the suspicious teacher in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948); the crusading reporter who frees an innocent man in "Call Northside 777" (1948); Monty Stratton, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who returned to the mound after losing a leg, in "The Stratton Story" (1949); a circus clown wanted for murder in "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952); a cold-blooded bounty hunter in "The Naked Spur" (1953); a voyeuristic photographer-turned-sleuth in Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954); the beloved Big Band leader in "The Glenn Miller Story" (1954); Stewart's boyhood hero, Charles Lindbergh, in "The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957); the obsessive romantic in Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958); a cynical marshal in "Two Rode Together" (1961); and a lawyer trying to bring civilization to a lawless Western town in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). Stewart also received Academy Award nominations for his performances as the eccentric tippler Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" (1950), and the easygoing but slick defense attorney in "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959).

In 1971, Stewart played a college professor in the television series, "The Jimmy Stewart Show," which lasted one season. In 1973, he returned to television in another short-lived series, "Hawkins," playing a shrewd country lawyer. In 1980, the American Film Institute awarded Stewart its eighth Life Achievement Award and, in 1984, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award, "for his fifty years of memorable performances, and for his high ideals both on and off the screen." The following year, Stewart received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

When Stewart died in 1997, President Bill Clinton said, "America lost a national treasure. Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot." In 1998, the American Film Institute released its list of "100 Greatest American Movies," in commemoration of the first 100 years of American cinema. The list contains five films starring Stewart -- "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Philadelphia Story," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Rear Window" and "Vertigo."

Stewart typically portrayed the soft-spoken, slow-speaking guy next door, a common man of honor and dignity, just trying to do the right thing, often in the face of overwhelming opposition. So it seems appropriate that, when so many of the celebrities at Forest Lawn-Glendale are hidden in inaccessible mausoleums or padlocked gardens, Stewart's grave is out in the middle of an open lawn, close to the main entrance, in an easy location for fans and friends to pay their respects.

Buried next to Stewart is his wife, Gloria Hatrick Stewart (1918 - 1994). Her grave marker contains the inscription, "In our most loving memories, she will always be with us. She made life better." In an industry where people change spouses as often as they change hair-styles, the Stewarts were married for nearly 45 years -- one of the most enduring marriages in the history of Hollywood.

Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, PA. He died on July 2, 1997, in Los Angeles, CA.

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