A life in pictures: James Stewart

Eleanor Dunn 

With no less than 80 films under his belt, James 'Jimmy' Stewart is an undisputed icon of classic Hollywood. His distinctive 'everyman' charm, relatability and unabashed patriotism inspired his generation and countless more since. Here's his life in pictures. 

"I suppose people can relate to being me, while they dream about being John Wayne."


An all-American boy on screen, and an all-American boy by heart. Jimmy Stewart grew up in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. His parents were of Irish-Scottish descent, and owned and managed a hardware store.

Stewart's love of the spotlight started young; it is said that Jimmy and his two little sisters, Virginia and Mary, would often write and stage their own plays.

While studying at Princeton University, Jimmy joined the Triangle Club, rising rapidly through the ranks to the leading roles in musicals.

Stewart never found much use for his degree in Architecture. Instead, he quickly joined the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts after he graduated.

This would prove to be a wise move. At the Players, Stewart met fellow aspiring actor Henry Fonda, who would become a lifelong friend.


"A James Stewart picture must have two vital ingredients. It will be clean, and it will involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully."

Image via You Can't Take It with You

Jimmy first graced the Broadway stage in Carrie Nation. The show was a bit of a flop, but the young star didn’t go unnoticed. Soon after, he secured a deal with MGM and made his move to Hollywood.

Living in an apartment with Henry Fonda, Stewart began to make his mark in L.A. Tall, slim and baby-faced, Stewart was recognised for his 'Everyman' charisma. 

He starred in musical comedy Born to Dance in 1936, and a major career break came with his role in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning You Can't Take It with You (1938). Jimmy's characters might have been Average Joes, but by now he was a fully-fledged star.

Stewart’s relationship with Capra continued, and he took the lead role in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra’s tale of a young, principled politician earned Stewart his first Oscar nomination; he finally swiped his first ‘golden man’ the following year for The Philadelphia Story.


"We all look the same with our helmets on."

Jimmy Stewart left his beloved country to serve in World War Two from 1941 to 1946. He was part of the U.S. Air Force, eventually earning the title of colonel.

The actor once commented ‘When I got back from the war in 1946 people didn't want the Mr. Smith kind of movie any more… I refused to make war pictures.”

In the rare photo above, Jimmy visits his family's hardware store upon his return to the States. 

Image via It's a Wonderful Life

The profound effect of the war was apparent, and this may have peppered his spectacular performance in the career-defining It’s a Wonderful Life.

Now an undisputed holiday classic, Frank Capra’s drama follows a small-town man brought back from the brink of suicide by a guardian angel, who shows him how the world might have been without him.

Initially waining in the box office, the film is now one of the most iconic stories of our time. Stewart always considered it one of his favourites.

The actor was rapidly winning fans in increasingly high places. After seeing It's a Wonderful Life, President Harry Truman remarked, ''If Bess and I had a son, we'd want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.''


"The fact is that it is the world's greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith."


After Capra's triumph, the roles came in thick and fast for Stewart.

It wasn’t long before he was recognised by Alfred Hitchcock, and the Master of Suspense cast him in several of his finest thrillers including Rope (1948), Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954). 

As if his ever-growing list of film triumphs wasn't enough, Stewart gained the title of highest-grossing actor in the year 1954.

In this behind-the-scenes shot, Hitchcock gives his orders to the cast of Rope.


"Never treat your audience as customers—always partners."


In 1970, Stewart defined good acting as; “If you can do a part and not have the acting show.” It was a quality he had become renowned for.

The star’s career began to shift in the ‘70s; he was given his own TV series with a highly inventive name—The Jimmy Stewart Show. The show ran from 1971 to 1972, and Stewart then went on to star in law drama Hawkins.

Toward the end of his astonishing screen legency, his awards and credentials continued to roll in. In 1984, Stewart was given an honorary Oscar for his ‘high ideals both on and off-screen", and in 1990 he was presented with two lifetime-achievement awards. 


"You have to develop a style that suits you and pursue it, not just develop a bag of tricks. Always be yourself."


Perhaps the proudest of his achievements was Stewart’s relationship with his wife, Gloria; the two had married in 1949 and had two twin daughters. 

The picture-perfect marriage won the hearts of Hollywood.

Jimmy and Gloria's love and devotion to each other became another beacon of Stewart’s apparent honesty and pride.


"I'm going to be with Gloria now."


When Gloria passed away in 1994, Stewart visibly drew back from the spotlight. The loss of the love of his life took a devastating toll. 

On July 2nd, 1997, the actor’s long battle with a lung clot ended when he passed away in Beverly Hills, California.

In his final words, Stewart told his family members "I'm going to be with Gloria now."

"America lost a national treasure today," President Clinton commented on hearing of his death. "Jimmy Stewart was a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot."

Image via Tumblr

Praise and adoration for the actor poured in on the day of his passing, The New York Times calling him “larger than life… something bigger… something mythical.”

We think the paper summed up Stewart’s contribution to entertainment particularly eloquently. He was “instantly recognizable by virtually every American… he epitomized a Middle American ideal in a confusing, sophisticated world.” 

He was the patriotic voice and face of a generation, and his work was a true landmark of American culture. 

In his own moving words, James Stewart would like us to remember him as "someone who was good at his job… and who seemed to mean what he said." 


Read our feature on It's a Wonderful Life

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