Sunday, 18 May 2008

happy early birthday, jim

originally uploaded by stagedoorjohnny.

"I'd like people to remember me as someone who was good at his job and seemed to mean what he said."

The BBC's started celebrating James Stewart's 100th birthday a couple of days early (it's May 20th), and good on them. Often voted to be one of the best actors of all time, he's also one of my personal favourites. Mr. Stewart said of his own career, "I have my own rules and adhere to them. The rule is simple but inflexible. 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." -- while that nice-guy formula does feel a bit tired after you've seen so many movies, Jimmy Stewart always got away with it because you got the impression that he was a genuinely nice fella.

Aside from being a successful actor, attending Princeton (he graduated with a degree in Architecture) and making a career out of being a nice guy (his IMDb biography boasts that he stayed faithful to his wife Gloria all throughout their 45-year marriage), he was the first moviestar to enter the service for World War II, in 1940. During the war he served in the Army Air Corps, and eventually rose to the rank of colonel; after the war he continued serving in the US Air Force Reserve, and he became Brigadier General, making him the actor with the highest active military rank of any actor -- only John Ford (Rear Admiral in the US Naval Reserve) and Ronald Reagan (Commander-in-Chief) outranked him, but Ford became a director (he was an actor from 1914 to 1917) and Reagan made his last TV appearance as an actor in 1965.

All his life long, Stewart was a conservative Republican, causing him to clash with his best friend, actor Henry Fonda, who was a liberal Democrat. Stewart said of his friendship with Fonda, "Our views never interfered with our feelings for each other, we just didn't talk about certain things." -- the two men met at acting camp and lived together when Fonda first came to Hollywood, during which time they earned a reputation of being two of Hollywood's biggest playboys. According to their children, after both men married and settled down, their favourite pasttime was to paint model airplanes together.

In 1947, Fonda and Stewart nearly fell out over an argument over blacklisting in Hollywood. Fonda, like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and John Huston, was of the opinion that the House Un-American Activities Committee should stop its anti-Communist investigations. Stewart was a strong supporter of J. Edgar Hoover -- Gloria Stewart: "Jim went barefoot up the mountain and saw the burning bush - only God's name was J. Edgar Hoover. When Hoover realized Jim was willing to fight he played on it. Jim would have done anything to get those gangsters out of town. But he was concerned about how it would turn out for friends like Cary Grant, who'd developed friendships with these people."

He was also a very strong supporter of the Vietnam war, even after his adopted son Ronald (the oldest of Gloria's two sons from a previous marriage) died in action. Years later, he went on to say this about teenagers who escaped their draft notices: "I hate them! I absolutely hate them! Whether right or wrong, their country was at war and their country asked them to serve, and they refused and ran away. Cowards, that's what they were."

Anyways, here are some more interesting facts (not necessarily fun) from his IMDb biography:
When he left to serve in WWII, his father gave him a letter which he kept in his pocket everyday until the war ended.

Deliberately exaggerated his accent in films after he returned from World War II, because several directors told him he needed to create a persona in order to sell his films to the public, particularly with the rising popularity of television.

His hair began receding during World War II. By the early 1950s, he was wearing a toupee for all his movie roles, though he often went without it in public. His baldness was made less obvious by wearing a gray toupee for many movie roles.

Stewart and Richard Widmark both wore toupees and had hearing problems. On the set of Two Rode Together (1961) director John Ford became frustrated with the two stars being unable to hear his instructions and exclaimed, "Fifty years in this goddamn business, and what do I end up doing? Directing two deaf hairpieces!"

Upon accepting his Honorary Oscar in 1985, the audience gave him a ten-minute standing ovation.

Often incorrectly noted as having achieved the highest rank in Boy Scouting, Eagle Scout, while in his youth in Indiana, Pennsylvania; he was a scout for four years, attaining Second Class. He appeared in a series of award-winning commercials promoting the Boy Scouts, and served as a volunteer with the Orange County and Los Angeles Area Councils. He was awarded the Silver Beaver, the highest adult award.
You can get a special James M. Stewart Good Citizenship-boyscout patch at the Jimmy Stewart Museum shop.

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

· the Jimmy Stewart Museum
· SFGate: Why Jimmy Stewart was the best movie star ever
· YouTube: Jim Carey's James Stewart imitation

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