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Article 2

Jimmy Stewart: Everybody's All-American

by Debbie Papio, September 13, 1997

Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. It was a slogan that summed up the basics of an All-American picture. Yet a deep and profound piece is missing from this picture. James Maitland Stewart is that piece. He is as All-American as you can possibly get. Jimmy Stewart will go down in history as being one of the greatest and most beloved actors in the movie industry. Loved for his "aw shucks" lanky mannerisms and his down to earth honesty, Stewart represented everything that was good and right in this world. Even on those rare occasions when he was playing a bad guy, you couldn't stay mad at him. He just had this compelling way of drawing his audience in with his adorable stutter and kindly blue eyes.

Stewart's history in Hollywood is rich. Best friends with Henry Fonda and loved by all of his peers, he was by no means considered the most talented actor but he commanded great respect from everyone. Some leading ladies, including gorgeous cool blondes like Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, claim that he was the sexiest leading man they'd ever worked with.

Certainly, Stewart didn't possess the intense dark looks of Tyrone Power or the debonair manner of Cary Grant but what was so overwhelmingly sexual about him was his honesty and integrity. Although shy by nature, Stewart was a very attractive man who held a lot of appeal. It wasn't so much a physical thing. He was awkward at times and quiet and comfortable and that is what everyone loved about him. He was like Hollywood's version of Abe Lincoln. He was dependable and he could be everyone's buddy. And he was, even for those people who were never lucky enough to meet him. Everyone could relate to him on one level or another. Even through his acting, it wasn't hard to see that Jimmy Stewart the man was as "everyday" as some of the characters that he's played.

A very versatile actor, he's done it all--comedy, romance, westerns, suspense, mystery and adventure. He's played a clown, a senator, doctor, shopkeeper, a cowboy and a whole slew of other characters. Many of those characters are trademarks of Stewart's, what he is best known for and what he will always be remembered for. John Wayne is the all-time great cowboy and Charlton Heston will always best be remembered for his amazing portrayals in religious epics such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Stewart's best remembered characters cannot be categorized into one specific type. They are a wide range of individuals from all walks of life.

He has starred in his fair share of westerns, such as The Shootist and Destry Rides Again. He has also portrayed many famous personalities, such as musician Glenn Miller and baseball player Monty Stratton. But he will mostly be remembered for his portrayal as the everyday man. What follows are descriptions are some of my favorite Stewart characterizations.

As the lovable drunk Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, Stewart's best friend is a six foot invisible rabbit. Everyone thinks that Dowd is completely off his rocker but we as the audience are truly led to believe that Harvey does exist. Dowd is such an innocent buffoon that you can't believe that he could possibly be insane in any way. We know Harvey exists. And we want to believe that he does because Stewart makes it that way. He so utterly charming and polite as Dowd, even if he is a drunk. At the end of the movie, Harvey is as real and as lovable as Dowd himself.

As L.B. Jeffries, the peeping tom who gets involved with murder, mayhem and Grace Kelly in the classic Rear Window, Stewart finds that he has too much time on his hands. Laid up in a stuffy apartment while recovering from an injury, "Jeff" spends his days and nights staring out at the back window at the courtyard. As a photographer who is constantly on the go from one assignment to the next, Jeff hates being cooped up in the hot, steamy apartment. At first he is bored out of his mind but then one of his neighbors commits murder, or at least Jeff swears he does, and the rest of the movie takes us on an adventure that's more thrilling than any of his photography assignments. Is it Jeff's overworked imagination that leads him to believe that somebody on the other side of the courtyard offend his wife? Is it his boredom that makes him imagine things? While Kelly provides the love interest, Thelma Ritter provides comic relief and Raymond Burr provides the knives and saws. While Stewart's acting is physically limiting in this movie (he is wheelchair bound), this is one of his finest roles and one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films. Stewart proves that even in a wheelchair, you can't keep a good man down.

One of Stewart's most breathtaking performances is as Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As his portrayal of a young, naive senator who takes on corrupt politicians, Stewart is phenomenal in this film. His filibuster scene is one of the greatest on celluloid, a fiery performance that shows the passionate and pissed off side to James Stewart. It's a scene as remarkable as the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, albeit in a different manner. Stewart sticks up for the "little guy" in this movie and he wins. He shows us that no matter what kind of power other people think they have over you, you can beat them. You just have to stick to your morals and your beliefs and he has taught us that lesson throughout his entire career.

James Stewart will best be remembered as George Bailey, the lost soul who thinks about taking his own life on Christmas Eve. It's a Wonderful Life is Frank Capra's best film and while it never received good reviews when it first came out, it is now one of the most beloved and watched movies ever. Some people have claimed that this movie saved them when they had thoughts of suicide themselves. This movie is one reason why Stewart is considered to be a national treasure.

George is saved from suicide by his guardian angel Clarence who is sent down from Heaven on that snowy Christmas Eve. George contemplates jumping off of a bridge but Clarence jumps in first knowing that George will save him. Clarence is a clumsy and bumbling guardian angel, no doubt, but he finally earns his wings when George realizes what a mistake he would have made. George realizes how big of a hole there would be in the world if he would have never been born. Clarence shows how the lives of the people that George loves the most would be changed and that despite his financial woes, life goes on. And it does. This movie teaches all of us a valuable lesson and that is no matter how overwhelming life can be sometimes, there is still someone there who will always love us and care about us. We can always turn to somebody and pray to our guardian angel at the same time. If there is one movie that James Stewart will definitively be associated with, It's a Wonderful Life is it.

James Stewart truly had a wonderful life. A great actor, a war hero, a loving husband and devoted father, he had it all. And although I have never met him, I've considered him to be one of my closest friends.

My father gave me an appreciation for the classic movies that is deep and passionate. Stewart has been my favorite actor for as long as I can remember. He has always been my idol, the one person in the world I wish I could have sat down to have dinner with, just to be in the presence of his greatness. I started corresponding with him several years ago when my grandmother was able to obtain his home address for me. When he wrote back to me, sending a beautiful autographed 8"x10" photograph and a very nice letter, I was so overjoyed with happiness that I broke down into tears. I called every single person in the world that I knew. I could not believe that this legend, this larger than life hero to me had actually taken the time to lick a stamp for me. And so pushing my luck, I kept up a correspondence with him for years, sending him a birthday card every year and cards at every holiday. At first he'd personally write back himself but then as he became ill, his secretary was kind enough to reply to me for him. When his wife Gloria died, I sent a sympathy card. And I wish I could have been there to comfort him, to hug him and tell him how sorry I was for his loss. James Stewart had it all but everyone knew the deep love and devotion that he had for his wife. Nothing really mattered to him as much as she did.

On the day that I found out that James Stewart had died, I'd been writing at my computer and had not yet heard of the sad news. My mother called from her job to tell me and my sister had taken the phone call. When my sister came to tell me, I broke down into tears. My sister cried with me too because she understood my pain and devastation. I cried the whole day and the day after that as well. And I'm certain that I was hardly alone in my tears. I felt as if I had lost a dear, close friend. And my dream of one day meeting him had died with him. My family cried with me because they had admired him too but they had cried for me because he had meant so much to me. My friends all called me to express their sympathies to me. It was as if Jimmy Stewart had really been a close friend of the family. Everyone in my world knew what he had meant to me and I know that there are so many people out there who feel this same way about him.

James Stewart is an American icon, a Hollywood legend who was more than just a talented actor. He was our friend, our father, our grandfather. He made us laugh and he made us cry. He gave us so much and we are eternally grateful that we have our memories of him to treasure forever. If there is any one person in this world who showed class and dignity throughout his entire life, it is James Maitland Stewart. He's had a wonderful life and he helped to make all our lives a little more wonderful as well. And perhaps someday, I will realize my dream and finally get to meet him. Until then, I know that he is happy in Heaven, reunited with his wife Gloria. And perhaps, maybe he is being a guardian angel to us all.

© 1997 Debbie Papio

(Send your comments on this article to the author, Debbie Papio, at Thanks.)

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