Don't Mess With Him: A James Stewart Birthday Tribute

James Stewart Goes to Princeton, Plays the Accordion, Becomes a Bomber Pilot, & Knows What He Believes in. So Don't Mess With Him.
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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

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.

James Stewart
Jim with Cary Grant.

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:

James Stewart
A very young Jimmy Stewart.

He Went to Princeton

James Stewart studied electrical engineering at Princeton, and graduated in the class of 1932. 

Pretty impressive.

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.

James Stewart and Henry Fonda
Jim and Henry Fonda build a model airplane.

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.

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Jimmy with one of his beloved accordions. He bequeathed two of his accordions to my university in 1985. The first date my husband and I went on as students included a visit to the campus library to see these accordions.

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.

With best bud Henry Fonda at the Stork Club.

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.

Rear Window
Jim and Grace Kelly admire one of his beloved accordions.

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
Lieutenant James Stewart of the Air Corps. By the time of his honorable discharge, Jim attained the rank of full colonel.

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.

Two of the greats. Jimmy with Clark Gable, another star who saw combat and bravely served in WWII. Gable was an aerial gunner.

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.

Jimmy Stewart WWII

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.

Jimmy Stewart WWII
Colonel Stewart is awarded the Croix De Guerre from the French Air Force.

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.

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.”

For more about Jimmy Stewart’s military service, read my article on It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or listen to Episode 39 of my podcast.

James Stewart
The Stewarts. Jimmy with the love of his life, first and only wife Gloria.

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:

James Stewart

“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.”

Jimmy Stewart

Happy Birthday, Jimmy!

Those are certainly some good words to close with.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart! 

I’ll be watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) tonight in your honor.


8 Responses

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Tina! You are so right, Jimmy was a great man. I’m always inspired by him and the amazing example he set!

  1. Met him in 1963! Always wanted a gentleman like him.
    Clark Gable didn’t do much (I love him) the studio said he was too valuable.😊☮️❤️🙏

    1. That is absolutely amazing Ruth! You are so incredibly lucky, meeting Jimmy must have been a dream come true. “Gentleman” is the perfect word to describe him. Thanks for reading!

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