Fresh off of the Christmas season, we envision Jimmy Stewart as the emotionally fragile, morally upstanding George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life as an ideal role model for our personal New Year resolutions. (The redeeming message of this outdated film is brilliantly recreated in the Christmas 2016 release of Collateral Beauty, featuring a devastated character played by Will Smith. If you haven’t seen it, you should.)
Jimmy Stewart was far from a saint. Although raised in a religious home and infused with high personal standards of good character, Stewart was thoroughly human, as revealed in the sweeping biography by Michael Munn titled, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend.
As a young man, at Princeton, the Air Force, and in Hollywood, he was a player, effectively working his “boy next door” charm with numerous co-eds and starlets, before finally settling down to a life-long marriage after age 40.
I discovered a kindred spirit in this book. Jimmy was kind-hearted, a loner at heart, friendly toward all, and long on patience…until he’d had enough of someone’s bad behavior. Then, watch out!
Stewart was a patriot, who had a strong thread of devotion to justice and political activism running through his character that was frayed by naivete and a bit of gullibility. (This is so me.) His natural tendency to take advantage of every opportunity served him well while remaining humble throughout- even downplaying his heroic WWII service as a fighter pilot.
Intimately aware of mobster influence in the burgeoning entertainment industry of the early 20th century, he attempted to do everything and anything possible to thwart gangster activities, even working with J. Edgar Hoover in the hopes of eradicating their power and influence. Unfortunately, Hoover’s FBI was using Stewart to hunt for Communists in Hollywood. Stewart made long-term, thorough investigations for the FBI without realizing how Hoover was manipulating his well-intended efforts, and managed to defuse some of the witch-hunts directed at his friends in the industry whose liberal philosophies made them convenient targets.
His serious dedication to the craft of acting sustained his motivation through the ups and downs of his long career. His natural devotion to his own moral compass sustained his motivation throughout the highs and lows of his personal life.
Jimmy Stewart lived his life trying to reflect the best characteristics of every person he met. This may have been the very key to his success as an actor. The fact that it came relatively easy for him makes it no less admirable.