Many of the stars of the silver screen in twentieth-century Hollywood became national icons, larger-than-life figures held up as paragons of American virtues. Unfortunately, the private lives of actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Errol Flynn rarely lived up to the idealistic roles they portrayed. However, James Stewart was known as the underdog fighter in many of his films and in real life. He was highly decorated for his bravery during his time as a bomber pilot during World War II and was adored for his earnest and kindly persona.
Here many unknown sides of Stewart are revealed: his explosive temper, his complex love affairs, his service as a secret agent for the FBI, his innate shyness, and his passionate patriotism. Munn’s personal touch shines through his writing, as he was a friend of Stewart and his wife, Gloria, and interviewed them as well as their colleagues and friends. This definitive biography reveals the childhood ups and downs that formed this cinema hero, explores the legendary Fonda–Stewart relationship, and recounts Stewart’s experiences making acclaimed films that include The Philadelphia Story, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend (Amazon US) (Amazon UK) (AudiblePlus)
Audible recommended several books to me from the Hollywood set, including this book on Jimmy Stewart. It was free with my Audible Plus membership, so I took a chance.
I remember working in the newsroom when Jimmy Stewart died in 1997. I immediately knew which film clip I wanted to use in the newscast I was producing. It was from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. From the age of 17, when I saw that movie for the first time, I was a huge Jimmy Stewart fan.
There are some revelations in this book that were surprising, and some that weren’t. Michael Munn says that Jimmy Stewart was a racist, which I believe just giving the fact of the era in which he grew up, and where he grew up (rural Indiana). But he also says that he treated his fellow black actors equally, so it was more of a casual racism brought about by upbringing. He wasn’t running around saying the N-word, but he still had beliefs that wouldn’t fly today.
One of the other revelations in the book was how Jimmy Stewart worked with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as sort of a secret agent to ferret out Communist sympathizers and other undesirables in the Hollywood community. On one hand, it was surprising, but on the other, it wasn’t because I knew Stewart was a lifelong Republican, and at the time, they were firmly on the side of law and order.
There’s a lot of time spent discussing Stewart’s film work, including some of my favorite movies of all time: The Hitchcock trio, Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo, as mentioned earlier, Mr. Smith, The Philadelphia Story, Anatomy of a Murder (filmed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula–one summer my mother, aunt and I visited several spots where they filmed the movie). I wasn’t a big fan of Stewart’s westerns, but they proved him a viable actor post-World War II when the business of film making changed.
Much time is also spent on Stewart’s military career, especially during World War II. He was a skilled pilot who went on dozens of bombing missions over Germany. By the end of the war, he was ranked as a Colonel. Eventually, he became a Brigidier General as a reserve officer. I’d always admired those stars who interrupted their careers and served their country during war; they were taking a huge chance because of a fickle public moving on to the next up and coming stars, but Stewart’s star remained bright following his European tour.
I’m glad I had a chance to listen to this audiobook, although the narrator attempts a Jimmy Stewart impersonation throughout and doesn’t do that great of a job, and that got kind of annoying. However, the content of the book made that minor inconvenience worth it to find out more about one of my favorite film actors.
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