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’s just so natural, as if Stewart himself told us to skip the formalities.
Now that’s a unique star.
James Stewart: 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 detective in Vertigo (1958) or a 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 [aff. links].
Sometimes it’s easy to forget Stewart was acting, he’s just such a natural. But there’s no doubt he was one of the best.
I know you’re curious about that Born to Dance movie role of Jimmy’s.
Yes, as the title suggests, he dances in this film!
Watch Jimmy dance with the great Eleanor Powell below. I’ll tell you right now, Jimmy Stewart is a CUTE dancer!
Today I want to share some of my favorite James Stewart facts. And I bet one or two of these will surprise you!
He Went to Princeton
James Stewart studied electrical engineering at Princeton, and graduated in the class of 1932. Pretty cool, right?! Jimmy planned to earn a masters degree in architecture. 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??! Jimmy’s father ran a hardware store, and at one point accepted an accordion as a form of payment from a customer. 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, Jimmy 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.
It wasn’t long before the accordion was ditched, and Jimmy was onstage acting in the University Players’ productions. But his love of the accordion was life-long.
When my husband and I were freshmen 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.
So I guess accordions hold a special place in our hearts, too. But Jimmy Stewart more so. 😃
James Stewart: The Highest Ranking Star in the Military
James Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any star who served during WWII. Jimmy entered the service as a buck private in March 1941, and when he left active service at the end of WWII (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 20 combat missions to his name. (He flew B-24 Liberators.)
Jimmy could easily have avoided service, as several big stars of the time did through the protection of the studio bosses. (This is 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.
But did he let that stop him? NO.
Jimmy 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, Jimmy’s flying experience proved far more important than an arbitrary weight requirement, and he was accepted into the Air Corps.
If you’d like to hear more about Jimmy’s years as a bomber pilot, be sure to listen to Episode 39 of my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood, or read my article on It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
How incredibly admirable is it that Jimmy put his film career on hold to 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.