Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jimmy Stewart Birthday May 20, 1908

James Maitland Stewart often is described as “Everyman.” Although it was a role he reprised several times, never was it more obvious than in the films he made under the direction of Frank Capra, including It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

“The part of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington constitutes the quintessential Stewart: the upstanding, all-American, small-town boy, loyal to his family, his country, his church and his ideals; the personification of ‘rock-ribbed honesty’” (Coe 43).

This persona was not a new role for Stewart. It was a role he lived off of the screen, as well as on. Stewart grew up with strong family and religious ties in his home town of Indiana, Pa. Later in his life, this small town dedicated the Jimmy Stewart Museum as part of the Indiana, Pa. Library.[i]

In 1985, a statue of Stewart was erected in front of the museum. It faces the lot where the J.M. Stewart and Co. Hardware store stood before it was razed in 1969.

Stewart biographer Jonathan Coe calls Stewart an “incorruptible American patriot” (9). Stewart was able to further solidify this image when he enlisted in March, 1941, and became an officer in the Army Air Corps and a bombardier pilot during World War II.

Coe has drawn parallels between Stewart’s real life and the life of George Bailey. Stewart signed on to It’s a Wonderful Life on Nov. 5, 1945 (Coe 78). In addition to coming from a background similar to George’s, Coe says Stewart was drawn to the part for another reason:

“There were reasons, in fact, why a story about a hero who feels ‘despondent’ might have exerted a strong personal appeal to him (Stewart) at this time, since he was profoundly shaken by his wartime experiences, which caused him to doubt both his faith and the fundamental worth of his career” (Coe 79).

Coe’s statement does two things. First, it suggests that Stewart’s despondency reflects the country’s feelings immediately following World War II. It could have been the same despondency that prevented It’s a Wonderful Life from being a box office success. Secondly, Stewart’s life at that time reflected It’s a Wonderful Life, with Stewart doubting his own faith and career, as George Bailey does in the film. George always talks about and dreams of being an engineer or an architect, but never about being an executive of a lending company. George constantly doubts his job and its value.

Stewart married Gloria Hatrick McLean. He adopted her two sons, Ronald and Michael Stewart. Together Stewart and Gloria had twin daughters, Kelly Stewart-Harcourt and Judy Stewart-Merrill.

James Stewart died July 2, 1997 at age 89. If he were still alive, he would be 107.

[i] The Jimmy Stewart Museum is located at 845 Philadelphia St., Indiana, PA, 15701. To contact the museum, call (724) 349-6112 or toll-free at 1-800-83-JIMMY, or e-mail Visit online at 

Coe, Jonathan. Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994.

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