James Stewart Goes to Princeton, Plays the Accordion, Becomes a Bomber Pilot, & Knows What He Believes in. So Don't Mess With Him.
Don't Mess With Him: A James Stewart Birthday Tribute
May 20, 2019 Updated May 13, 2022
This is an abridged version of the first article in my series on James Stewart. You can find the full article here.
There’s never been another movie star quite like Jimmy Stewart.
Throughout his lengthy career, and even now, decades after his last film and passing, the world still affectionately refers to Jimmy by his nickname. It’s natural; as if Jim himself told us to skip the formalities.
Jimmy Stewart was as genuinely kind off screen as he appeared to be in his most lovable film roles.
But don’t let that nice guy image fool you.
He could play complicated characters with the best of them. James Stewart was one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and his understated acting style stands the test of time. Whether playing a dancing sailor (Born to Dance); an idealistic young senator (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington); a gunslinging Western Hero (Winchester ’73); or an injured photographer-turned amateur sleuth (Rear Window); Jim is always believable.
I know you’re curious about that Born to Dance movie role of Jimmy’s.
Yes, as the title suggests, he dances in this film.
Watch Jim dance with the great Eleanor Powell below.
I’ll tell you right now, Jimmy Stewart is a cute dancer.
James Stewart: More Than an Actor
Jim appreciated his great success in a profession he loved. But acting wasn’t his life. If you asked Jimmy Stewart what held the most meaning in his life, he’d tell you family, friends, and serving his country as a bomber pilot in WWII.
He may even mention the accordion.
To celebrate Jimmy’s birthday, here are a few facts about this exceptional man you didn’t know:
He Went to Princeton
James Stewart studied electrical engineering at Princeton, and graduated in the class of 1932.
Jimmy planned to earn a masters degree in architecture. He was interested in chemistry and mechanical drawing as a boy, so to both Jim and his father Alex, a career in architecture seemed the logical path.
In fact, even after Jimmy Stewart was an established film star, with a Best Actor Academy Award and several nominations to his credit, Alex was still convinced, and often told people, that acting was just a momentary distraction, and soon his son Jimmy would quit the movie business and go back to architecture.
Well, obviously that never happened, but Jim always retained his architectural eye.
He Loved to Play the Accordion
Jimmy Stewart adored the accordion.
Yes, you read that right.
Jim’s father ran a hardware store, and at one point accepted an accordion as a form of payment from a customer. Young Jimmy’s interest was piqued, and he taught himself how to play.
Well, if you asked friends like Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart only thought he could play the accordion.
Surprisingly, the accordion was Jimmy’s segue into acting: at Princeton, Jim was asked to play the accordion as background music in school plays. And the summer after graduating from Princeton, he joined the University Players, an acting troupe led by Jimmy’s friend, director Josh Logan. Jim officially joined the University Players as their resident accordion player.
It wasn’t long before the accordion was ditched, and Jimmy was onstage acting in the University Players’ productions. But his love of the accordion proved life-long.
Seeing the Accordions of James Stewart
When my husband and I were freshmen at university, we discovered that Jimmy Stewart bequeathed many of his personal possessions to our school back in 1985, including two of his accordions. A trip to the library to see said accordions was actually the first date my husband and I went on.
So Jimmy Stewart (and accordions) will always hold a special place in our hearts.
James Stewart: The Highest Ranking Star in the Military
James Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any star who served during WWII.
Many of Jim’s peers in Hollywood avoided military service though the protection of their studio bosses. Jimmy Stewart could have done the same.
But he didn’t.
Jim even had another out from military service. After being drafted, he failed the army physical: at 10 pounds underweight, Jimmy Stewart was judged unfit to serve his country.
Rather than accept defeat, Jimmy argued with the doctor at his second physical that his slight weight was a family characteristic. It wasn’t, but that’s how determined Jim was to serve his country.
And it worked.
James Stewart Takes on the Air Corps
After entering the army as a buck private in March 1941, Jimmy, passionate about flying, applied for admission to the Air Corps.
But at age thirty-two, a full six years older than the standard age cutoff for the Air Corps, his chances of acceptance were slim. In the end, Jim’s flying experience—he’d earned his private pilot license in 1935, and a commercial pilot license in 1938—was deemed more valuable than his age was limiting. Jimmy was accepted to the Air Corps, and mastered flying the difficult B-24 Liberator.
In November 1943, James Stewart arrived in Great Britain to lead the 703rd Bomb Squadron division, which consisted of a dozen B-24 bombers and 350 soldiers and flyers. During his time overseas, Jimmy flew in 20 combat missions, and accumulated more than two thousand hours of flying time.
By the time of his honorable discharge at the end of the war, James Stewart had achieved the rank of full colonel, the highest military rank of any star who served during WWII.
Watch my video above for all about Jimmy Stewart’s inspiring military service and postwar return to Hollywood.
Like many of our greatest generation who bravely served, Jimmy Stewart didn’t like to talk about his WWII service. But he revealed just how meaningful those years were to him in a late 1980s interview:
“[the] military experience that I had was something I think about almost every day, and one of the greatest experiences of my life. Greater than being in movies.”
Or, watch my video special on Jimmy and It’s a Wonderful Life above.
Don't Mess with James Stewart
James Stewart was a principled guy who knew what he believed in, and stuck with it no matter what. This admirable quality was at the core of his being. We recognize it watching Jim onscreen, and we appreciate it in the way he lived.
As Jimmy’s friend, producer Hal Kanter put it:
“He knows exactly what he’s doing, has strong opinions and can dig in his heels when he wants to. Remember, he’s remained a staunch Republican in a town where most of his friends are Democrats. He’s been a star in Hollywood, where divorce is rampant, but he’s been married to the same woman for almost forty years, with never a breath of scandal. And most importantly, never forget that he served in World War II and was the lead pilot in [almost] two dozen bombing missions.
Something got him through that war; something makes him stand by what he believes in no matter what. There’s a toughness, a stick-to-your-guns kind of courage and strength underneath that genuine niceness. People sometimes think because he’s that nice, he’s easy to manipulate. Believe me, the best advice I can give you is don’t mess with him.”