The legendary actor, perhaps if not Hollywood’s virtuous voice of reason, was most certainly one of its beloved stars through the golden age of cinema, writes Tom McParland.


He was indeed a Hollywood rarity. Whilst a major star and despite failing the medical twice for being underweight, he managed to get himself drafted as a private in the United States Army to serve his country one year before the WWII Pearl Harbour attack. After combat missions in Europe he rose to the rank of colonel. At the war’s end he remained on the United States Air Force Reserve and in 1959 was promoted to brigadier general, the highest-ranking actor in history.

Stewart was born in Indiana – not the state, but the little town of Indiana Pennsylvania in 1908 (population 5,500). He was of Scottish Ulster-Scots ancestry, the eldest and only son in a family of three. His father James, a devout Presbyterian, ran the local hardware store that he hoped son James might run after his attending Princeton University NJ.

It was in Princeton as a member of the university’s Triangle Club that Stewart got the performing bug, playing bit parts in the University Players productions during the summer of 1932, his graduation year as a Bachelor of Science. Among the other Players actors, James Stewart met his lifelong friends, married couple Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan.
Stewart played dates around the northeastern United States circuit including a run on Broadway. The end of the season also meant the end of the Fonda’s 15-month marriage (divorced 1933). As the Great Depression deepened, it was not until 1934 that Stewart followed his newly single friend Henry Fonda to Hollywood.

Although in 1934 Hollywood talkies were only seven years old, to the public they made unreality seem real. For a few cents movies could temporarily banish the reality of the Great Depression from their lives. No wonder daily coachloads of Hollywood hopefuls arrived convinced that they could become the next Clark Gable or Jean Harlow.

Whilst self-praise was a worthless recommendation, by 1934 James Stewart had some acting experience behind him which at least gave him a ten-thousand-to-one chance over the crowded competition. As Stewart once recollected, ‘an unknown actor’s life consisted of endless trips around agents and studios, trying for this-or-that bit part and being grateful for anything that moved the needle one notch nearer recognition’.

For Hollywood fiction wasn’t fable. Anyone without a soupçon of talent could and did make it. Hollywood’s business wasn’t the making of actors but the creating of stars.
James Stewart’s first movie was Art Trouble, a 24-minute nonsense about two brothers ignoring parents’ instructions to go study art in Paris but sending two house painters in their stead. Besides unbilled Stewart it also had Shemp Howard (prior to his Three Stooges appearances) and Mary Wickes, a wisecracking maid in later 1940 comedies. It was a small beginning for Stewart but at least a start.

His luck held when he signed a seven-year contract with MGM for his second, Murder Man, which also debuted MGM’s Spencer Tracy and the already 35-movie-veteran Virginia Bruce. Stewart played over-enthusiastic reporter ‘Shorty’–supposedly lampooning his 6ft-3ins lanky frame. This movie ran a respectable 69mins.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own