Jimmy Stewart: A wonderful life

By Alex Speakman

Just over twenty years ago the world lost one of the most distinguished actors of all time; James “Jimmy” Stewart. Known for such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around the Corner, he was one of Hollywood’s leading men for decades. But, in reality, we lost more than just a great performer – because, for Stewart, it seemed that acting was to some extent an outlet for a greater passion – a belief in the importance of kindness.

While undoubtedly a versatile actor there was one role that Jimmy Stewart excelled in playing above all others – that of the honest man in crisis. Whether playing a naive senator fighting for his honour in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the family man down on his luck in It’s a Wonderful Life, he never failed to convey a sincere humanity that endeared him to all.

Pinning down the source of Stewart’s unique affability is a hard task – but it could lie in the strong link between his character on-screen and his personal life. The boyish charm that comes across in so many of his performances is mirrored by his pursuits in the real world. A lifelong supporter of the boy scouts, model plane enthusiast and philanthropist, Stewart was really not all that different outside of Hollywood.

Watching Stewart perform with this in mind, you see that often he’s not really acting. Rather, Stewart is completely himself, using his role to express his own ideals. Even he admitted “Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation myself” – his character in reality and in film were never too far apart. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington through his impassioned speeches as Senator Jefferson Smith:

I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.

Seeing him in action here, there is no doubt in my mind that this is Stewart, not Smith. The catch in the voice, the glistening of the eyes – there is something so genuine in his nature that just makes it impossible to be insincere.

He never failed to convey a sincere humanity.

In many respects, the parts Stewart plays throughout his career reflect changes in his private life. There is a marked difference between his pre-war and post-war roles for example – an indication perhaps of his battle with post-traumatic stress. During the war Stewart rose to become Brigadier General, the highest ranked actor in military history. But the scars left by the horrors of warfare are evident. His later career shows a much more troubled man, reflected by his selection for film noir classics such as Vertigo and Rear Window.

Nonetheless, Stewart never lost his amiable magnetism. In fact, his candid and open presentation of himself only made him all the more relatable. It was this transparency, more than any of his abundant talents, that fostered his connection with his audience. Above all, he was a straightforward and genuinely kind man like any other. So, do yourself a favour this Christmas and buy a ticket for It’s a Wonderful Life – hopefully I’ll see you there.

Image: James Stewart via Flickr

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