Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart!
You know a movie star is pretty darn special if throughout his stellar career, and decades after his last film and passing, the whole world affectionately refers to him by his nickname: even though very few of us ever met or personally knew Jimmy Stewart, we all feel comfortable calling him “Jimmy”! It is just so natural, as if Stewart himself told us to skip the formalities. Now that is a unique star!
One of a Kind
I think it is pretty safe to say that there never has been, and never will be, a movie star who is so obviously good—I mean, you can just tell Jimmy Stewart is a nice guy in every single role he plays—and simultaneously such a fantastic actor. Even though Stewart expertly brought to life an incredibly wide range of roles, from a dancing sailor in Born to Dance (1936) or a love-struck professor in Vivacious Lady (1938), to a psychologically troubled police officer in Vertigo (1958) or worried father in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), there’s a common thread of goodness that Jimmy brings to all of these drastically different characters. Sometimes it is easy to forget Stewart was acting, he is just such a natural, but there is no doubt he was one of the best.
(I know you are curious about that Born to Dance movie title. And yes, as the title suggests, Stewart dances in this film! Watch him dance with the great Eleanor Powell here! You have to skip through some wacky Buddy Ebsen dancing, but Jimmy comes in at 1:21. And he is a CUTE dancer!)
Today I want to share some of my favorite Jimmy Stewart facts. Hopefully one or two of these will surprise you!
He Went to Princeton
Stewart studied architecture at Princeton, and graduated in the class of 1932. Pretty cool, right?! He planned to earn a masters degree before becoming an architect. He’d always been interested in chemistry and mechanical drawing as a boy, so to both Stewart and his father, a career in architecture seemed the logical path.
In fact, even after Jimmy was an established film star, with a Best Actor Academy Award and several nominations to his credit, his father was still convinced, and would often tell people, that acting was just a momentary distraction, and soon Jimmy would quit the movie business and go back to architecture. Well, obviously that never happened, but Stewart always retained his architectural eye.
He Loved to Play the Accordion
Yes! How random is that??! Stewart’s father ran a hardware store, and at one point had a used accordion for sale. Young Jimmy’s interest was piqued, and he taught himself how to play! Well, if you asked friends like Henry Fonda, Stewart only thought he could play the accordion. (:
In fact, the accordion was Jimmy’s segue into acting: at Princeton, Stewart was asked to play the accordion as background music in school plays. And the summer after graduating from Princeton, he joined the University Players, an acting troupe led by Stewart’s friend, director Josh Logan. Jimmy officially joined the University Players as their resident accordion player. But it wasn’t long before Jimmy’s acting talent was discovered, the accordion ditched, and Logan had him onstage starring in the University Players’ productions. But Stewart’s love of the accordion was life-long.
When Andrew and I were freshman at university, we discovered that Jimmy Stewart bequeathed many of his personal possessions to our school back in 1985, including two of his accordions! A trip to the library to see said accordions was actually the first date Andrew and I went on together. So I guess accordions hold a special place in our hearts, too. (But Jimmy Stewart more so.)
The Highest Ranking Star in the Military
Jimmy Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any star who served during WWII. He entered as a private in 1943, and when he left the service in 1945 (although he remained in the Air Corps Reserves), he had attained the rank of colonel in the Air Corps, with more than two thousand hours of flying time and 19 combat missions to his name. (He flew B-24 Liberators.)
Stewart could easily have avoided service, as several big stars of the time did through the protection of the studio bosses. (This was how John Wayne avoided military service, and he came to regret it deeply.) Jimmy even had another out from military service: after he was drafted, Stewart failed the physical because he was 10 pounds under weight. (Some sources say 5 pounds, but I’m sticking with 10!)
But did he let that stop him? NO. Stewart went out of his way to get a special doctor’s note, stating that his weight was a family characteristic, and not a sign of poor health. To top that, Stewart then argued that the Air Corps was in need of experienced flyers, which he was—he received his private pilot license in 1935, and a commercial pilot license in 1938. In the end, his flying experience proved far more important than an arbitrary weight requirement, and Stewart was accepted in to the Air Corps.
Stewart’s military career could be, and is, a book unto itself, so I will stop here! (If you are interested in learning more about his military career and love of flying, read Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot or Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. But how neat that he put his career on hold to so actively serve his country?
He was Exceptionally Kind and Loyal. (But Don’t Mess with Him!)
I could make this Birthday Tribute even longer by giving endless examples of what a loyal guy Stewart was—whether it was loyalty to his friends, like Henry Fonda, or even to his favorite foods, which his daughter swears remained basically the same throughout his life. But I think this quote from Hal Kanter, who produced the Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972), sums up the admirable Stewart character to perfection:
“He knows exactly what he’s doing, has strong opinions and can dig his heels in when he wants to. Remember, he’s remained a staunch Republican in a town where most of his friends are Democrats. He’s been a star in Hollywood, where divorce is rampant, but he’s been married to the same woman for almost forty years, with never a breath of scandal. And most importantly, never forget that he served in WWII and was the lead pilot in [almost] two-dozen bombing missions…something makes him stand by what he believes in no matter what. There’s a toughness, a stick-to-your-guns kind of courage and strength underneath that genuine niceness. People sometimes think because he’s that nice, he’s easy to manipulate. Believe me, the best advice I can give you is don’t mess with him.”
I think those are some good words to close with. (:
Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart! I’ll be watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) tonight in your honor.