CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: James Stewart

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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

 Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.

One familiar face on television screens this time of year is that of Jimmy Stewart in the annual holiday traditional airing of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

But many people do not know that this 1946 film was a commercial failure upon release and there were many other Stewart-led movies that received much greater attention.  The time period of the “Wonderful Life’s” release marked a low-point in this legendary actor’s career as he seriously considered retiring from film-making altogether, as Stewart found very few roles offered to him.

James Maitland Stewart, the son of a hardware store owner, initially did not want to become a movie star when he left home to attend Princeton University and was planning on returning to his hometown of Indiana Pennsylvania to take over the family business.

But future movie stars Margret Sullivan and Henry Fonda would play huge roles in his life and his decision to “play around” in the theatre while on the East Coast. 

According to his biography by Marc Eliot, Stewart had a crush on Sullivan and continued to pursue her from afar by continuing to act on stage with her in various theatrical productions.

Slowly, Stewart began the foundations of his lasting “everyman approach” to acting and started to get starring roles in the theatre.  This eventually led to a casting call in Hollywood. where he once-again roomed with Fonda and the two became life-long best friends.

Sullivan was well-aware of Jimmy’s shyness/lack of ego and desire for the spotlight, and would ask directors to cast Stewart opposite her in leading roles, in films like “The Shopworm Angel,” The Mortal Storm” and “The Shop Around The Corner” (later remade in the more contemporary “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan).

Other leading ladies like Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Deitrich and Ginger Rogers would also request the unassuming Stewart to play opposite of–guaranteeing them of top-billing.

But soon it was Jimmy that was becoming the major star, with featured performances in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You,”  “Destry Rides Again” and “The Philadelphia Story,” in which he won the Academy Award for Best Leading Actor.

Stewart was well on his way to earning the title of the third greatest American Male Actor of all time as ranked by the American Film Institute.

But that’s when World War II broke out.

Stewart enlisted in the Air Force as a pilot and led several successful bombing raids in defeating the Axis Powers.  He eventually was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and was awarded the United States Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.

After becoming a decorated war hero, Stewart was anxious for his triumphant return to Hollywood to resume his acting career…but Hollywood wasn’t quite ready for him after the war.  We’ll have more on the life of James Stewart next week here at the Showplace.

In the meantime, you can see Stewart’s early work in films like “Made for Each Other” and more on RCN TV.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.

Chris Michael About Chris Michael

Chris handles play-by-play for RCN sports events, including baseball, football & basketball games and produces/hosts the station’s 60-minute live call-in show. Among Chris’s other responsibilities include reporting on local news & sports stories, conducting “Take 5” interviews with community and political leaders, producing commercials, voiceovers and promos; and generating blog entries and videos on the internet. Click here to listen to the weekly Sports Talk podcast.

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