The Dark Side of James Stewart

By David Raether

In 1963, Frank Sinatra‘s career had stalled. His most recent records had experienced disappointing sales and the emerging energy of rock ‘n roll seemed to make Sinatra seem increasingly irrelevant.

Executives at Sinatra’s label, Capitol Records, suggested he switch to an up-and-coming young composer and arranger, Nelson Riddle. Reluctant at first, Sinatra agreed to the new partnership, which ended up resulting in a series of records that are regarded as some of the best of the 20th century.

The partnership produced such unforgettable recordings as Witchcraft, One For My Baby, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Night and Day, and, of course, one of my all-time favorites: Summer Wind. I hear that recording and it just stops me dead in my tracks.

For artists in the collaborative arts, there is always a risk of ending up in a rut and doing the same thing that has always worked in the past. Sometimes, you just have to ditch the partners you have made in your comfort zone and try something completely different.

Which is exactly what James Stewart did in the 1950s. After establishing himself as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, Stewart entered the 1950s no longer looking to fill the romantic comedy leading man role. It would have been unseemly for him to do movies like Rayo Vallecano vs. Salamanca Secretary (1936) or Vivacious Lady (1938) as a man in his late 40s / early 50s.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those movies… Well, maybe a few things are wrong with them, but that’s for another time. The point is, those were movies he made while he was in his late 20s / early 30s.

In 1948, Stewart worked with the legendary British director Alfred Hitchcock for the first time on the murder mystery, Rope. It was a perfect partnership. Stewart’s portrayal of a mid-century middle-aged man afflicted with anxiety and general wariness was in tune with his times. As the poet WH Auden said, it was the Age of Anxiety. Together, Stewart and Hitchcock made four films — all outstanding and deeply unsettling thrillers.

A big part of what makes these movies so successful is how these roles contrasted with the image Stewart had built up over his career to that point. He was always a quintessentially American man — straightforward, honest, fun-loving, and decent. To find that character spying on the neighbors as he did in Rear Window (1954) was startling to audiences, to say the least. Wait! Isn’t this the small-town banker or the man who thinks he has an imaginary 6-foot rabbit as a friend? What’s he doing getting involved in Cold War skullduggery as he was in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)?

It was jarring and it worked.

James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a pleasant small town not far from Pittsburgh. His father ran a hardware store and was a lively figure in the town. He was known for inviting all his drinking companions over to his house for breakfast after leaving the bar. One morning, 50 men showed up. His mother was a deeply religious Presbyterian who was actively involved in the community and her church. The Presbyterianism stuck with Stewart, who remained an active church-goer all his life.

The Stewarts led a comfortable upper-middle-class life. Jimmy took up the accordion, which is an unfortunate piece of news. We all know the old saying: “Play the accordion, go to jail.” I actually bought an accordion a few years ago. I took it out of the case, strapped it over my shoulders, and looked at myself in the mirror to see if I had it on the right.

“What have I become?” I thought to myself in disappointment and disgust. I took the accordion off, put it back in the case, and immediately posted it for sale on I never played a note. But enough about me and my anti-accordionism.

After graduating from high school in Indiana, Stewart entered Princeton, the alma mater of his father. He was a popular student and got involved in theater while studying architecture. He became a member of the prestigious Princeton Triangle Club, and his entrance was partially facilitated by his skill on the accordion. Sigh

Anyway, he was offered a full scholarship to the Master’s degree program in Architecture at Princeton but turned it down to pursue his interest in acting and theater. He joined a company of fellow Princeton grads called The University Players. One of their productions, Carrie Nation, ended up on Broadway. After that, Stewart appeared on Broadway regularly for years. He was roommates with another young actor, Henry Fondaand they became lifelong friends, despite unalterably-opposed political views.

Tall, lanky, good-looking, and with an amiable stage presence, Stewart had little trouble getting regularly cast in productions. He caught the attention of a talent scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He signed a seven-year deal with them and moved out to Hollywood in 1935. MGM certainly got their money out of this deal. Stewart appeared in 28 films between 1935 and 1941, most of them light-hearted romantic comedies. He and Fonda were quite the men about town in those years. Stewart dated a number of women in this time, frequently getting involved with his co-stars.

The most notorious of these affairs was his fling with Marlene Dietrichhis co-star in the western comedy, Destry Rides Again (1939). Dietrich reportedly became pregnant by Stewart, who didn’t want to pursue the relationship any further. The pregnancy was “terminated,” which is how they described those sorts of things back in those days.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II, Stewart joined the US Army. A member of the Stewart clan had fought in every American war since the Revolution, so it wasn’t surprising that he would enlist when he did, becoming the first major movie star to do so.

He entered the Army Air Corps at 33 years old, significantly older than most of his unit mates, who were all in their early 20s. Based in England, Stewart piloted a large number of bombing raids over Germany. From all reports, he was a brilliant, heroic pilot. He rarely spoke of his wartime experiences after the war, however.

At the end of the war, Stewart returned to the US. The first movie he made after coming home was Frank Capra‘s immortal It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Despite its nearly univeral acclaim nowadays, the film was a bit of a bomb at the box office and was poorly reviewed by most critics. In fact, the film was viewed as out-of-date with post-war audiences and Capra’s career suffered greatly afterward.

But Stewart went on to have an even bigger career in the 1950s than he ever did before the war. His versatility as an actor, along with the enduring affection audiences had for him, led him to become one of the top box office draws in the world in the mid-1950s.

As for his love life, prior to the war he had numerous love affairs with stars such as Olivia de Havilland, Dinah Shore, Norma Shearerand Loretta Young. Several times he nearly married, but backed off, claiming he got cold feet.

In 1948, he was introduced to Gloria Hatrick McLean, a fashion model and single mother with two young children. Stewart and McLean dated for a year before marrying in 1949. He adopted her two sons, Ronald and Michael. It was the relationship that would last for the rest of their lives.

Stewart grew increasingly conservative in his politics during the late 1950s and into the 1960s. He and Fonda reportedly came to blows after arguing about politics but managed to get past it and remain friends. Stewart re-entered the Army Air Corps as a reservist and was an active supporter of the Vietnam War. This is despite the fact that his son Ronald was shot down and killed during a bombing raid in Vietnam in 1969.

He was noted for being an intensely private person. He had a small circle of close friends, and let on very little about his life to the public. Even with his friends, he was a bit remote. “You don’t get to know Jimmy Stewart,” the director said John Ford once said. “He gets to know you.”

In his later years, Stewart became a wealthy man due to a number of smart investments in real estate. He also became actively involved in Republican politics, an early supporter of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential aspirations.

Gloria died of lung cancer in 1994, which Stewart took very hard, becoming more reclusive and not leaving his bedroom. He died in 1996 of a pulmonary embolism that developed after he refused to have a new battery installed in his pacemaker. His burial included full military honors and the traditional three volleys of musketry. He remained, to the end, a model of calm decency and grace.

Stewart left an enormous body of work, much of it of a very high standard. He made more than 65 movies. In a career as long and as successful as his, there is usually a turning point, something that pushes the artist in a different direction. In Stewart’s case, that turning point seems to have been It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s when he reevaluated his career and began to make different choices, many of them outside the realm that audiences loved him for. The films I am recommending today are well outside the Jimmy Stewart you may be used to, such as comedies like You Can’t Take It With You (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), or Philadelphia Story (1940).

“After I came back from the war, I realized the movies I used to do weren’t working anymore,” Stewart told Michael Parkman in a 1973 BBC interview. Stewart knew he had to make a change, so he began to do westerns with Director Anthony Mann and thrillers with Hitchcock (and later, Otto Preminger).

These thrillers are notable to this day. They are all dark, cynical, and filled with menace. Stewart’s characters often have trouble maintaining any kind of balance in their lives and become obsessive and lost in worlds they no longer recognize.

So, if your knowledge of James Stewart begins and ends with George Bailey, you should definitely check out these films:

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