There are few—if any—actors in the annals of American film like Jimmy Stewart. In films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Harvey,”–even his darker films, like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and “Rear Window,”—audiences felt like they knew the man, like he stood for something good.
And James Stewart was a legitimate American hero. In addition to bringing so much entertainment to us over the years, he fought valiantly in World War 2. He didn’t wait to get drafted, then go on a cushy, safe, morale-boosting tour. Stewart volunteered even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He knew the United States would soon be entering the war, and he intended to serve his country, just as men in his family always had.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force as a Private. By the end of the European war, he’d earned his way up to Colonel, flying dozens of bombing missions over Germany. He was decorated for his valor, and ultimately promoted to Brigadier General as a Reserve Officer.
Stewart was definitely a ladies man when he was young, but once he got back from the war, parties and serial dating lost its appeal for him. He found and married Gloria, and the couple would remain faithful and loving till she passed away at 75. Stewart died soon after.
Michael Mann’s excellent biography, “Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend,” doesn’t dwell much on the sad end of Stewart’s life, but the whole great, magnificent ride of this true American hero.
We follow Jim from his idyllic childhood in Indiana, Pennsylvania, through Princeton, and how he stumbled into a stage career—he’d been planning to be an architect. In his New York and Hollywood years, he was best friends with Henry Fonda. They were roommates on a few occasions, and after the war, Stewart lived in a small play house Fonda had built for his children. Stewart played Santa Claus one year, and nearly fell off the roof.
Mann also takes us behind the scenes of some classic James Stewart films…and a few absolute bombs.
What makes this biography such a wonderful tool to understanding James Stewart—the man and the actor—is that Mann has interviewed hundreds of film stars and directors during his career, and he actually became friends with Jimmy and Gloria Stewart (especially Gloria). It’s one thing to read that Stewart is a generous, kind person. However, it elicits a stronger reaction when you’re hearing it from Fonda, Burgess Meredith, George C. Scott, or any number of Stewart’s other friends and co-stars, in their words, with their anecdotes.
To be honest, I was reticent to read “Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend.” I’m always a little leery starting a biography of somebody I really like. I’m afraid they’ll turn out to have been heroin addicts who were mean as hell and absolute terrors when the camera was off.
Michael Mann’s biography reinforced my view of James Stewart as being a genuinely decent human being.
My favorite image from “Jimmy Stewart” is of Stewart and Henry Fonda. Early in their friendship, they realized that they were complete opposites, politically. Thus, they forged a pact not to discuss politics. What they did was build model airplanes. For hours, they’d sit quietly, not talking, other than for one to ask the other for a specific model part or more glue.
That’s the kind of man James Stewart really was. When he was a young star, he dated around and attended his fair share of Hollywood parties. But there was always some part of him that was happiest just sitting by himself, daydreaming, thinking, keeping his own counsel. “That’s just the way he was.” It seems like every friend or costar he ever had used some variation of that quote.
Michael Mann has written a wonderfully readable, informative, and entertaining biography. Drawing on his various interviews with other stars shows just how beloved James Stewart truly was among his peers.
By the end of “Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend,” I was relieved. Michael Mann, through his research and interviews, confirmed my beliefs about James Stewart. He was a good and kind man, a true American hero who left us with some timeless film classics, and he was the rare nice guy in a business filled with egomaniacs.
Oh, yeah. He was also one hell of an actor.
Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss)