Winchester ’73 changed the course of Jimmy Stewart’s career.
His first serious Western, the film demonstrated that Jim was a versatile actor who could expertly bring dark, complicated characters to life on screen; characters completely different from the Jimmy Stewart persona pre-war audiences knew and loved. With Winchester ’73 director Anthony Mann, Jim redefined the Western hero.
Beyond Winchester '73
Winchester ’73 also made Jimmy Stewart an extremely wealthy man: by accepting a percentage of the film’s profits instead of a large upfront payment, Jimmy made $1 million in 1950 alone.
But to Jim, more important than the fame, money, and artistic respect he enjoyed at this stage of his career was the entrance of Gloria Hatrick McLean into his life, the woman who became the one and only Mrs. Jimmy Stewart. In a town ripe with divorce and infidelity, the amazing love story of Jim and Gloria is an inspiration. The Stewart marriage would be one of the few happy and forever marriages in Hollywood.
We’ll go through the plot, meet the spunky Gloria Hatrick McLean, and detail Jim’s and Gloria’s courtship before going behind the scenes of this revolutionary Western.
It’s 1876. Lin McAdam (Jimmy Stewart) and ‘High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) arrive in Dodge City, where the skilled Lin enters a shooting contest. The prize for the contest winner is a coveted Winchester 1873 rifle. Lin will have to wait for the actual contest to do any shooting however, as Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) immediately confiscates the guns of all who arrive in Dodge City.
This proves frustrating for Lin when, on entering a bar before the contest, he spots the old rival he’s been tracking, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). The two men attempt to draw guns on each other by instinct, only to quickly remember that Wyatt Earp has their guns. So both men live to challenge each other in the contest for the Winchester.
During the shooting contest, it’s a close call between Lin and Dutch for the rifle. But Lin proves the victor after shooting through the center of a stamp on a gold coin mid-toss. The Winchester is his.
But Dutch doesn’t play fair. He ambushes Lin in his hotel room. Dutch and his men steal the Winchester, and bolt out of town. They head for Riker’s, a hotel far enough away from Dodge City for them to trade for more guns, and plan their upcoming robbery of a bank in Tascosa, Texas. But at Riker’s, Dutch loses the Winchester to trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire).
The Changing Owners of the Winchester '73
Although we still don’t know why Lin originally sought revenge on Dutch, when Dutch steels the Winchester, it gives Lin more motivation to find him. Lin and High Spade are hot on Dutch’s trail, but barely miss him when they arrive at Riker’s.
Lin and High Spade continue after Dutch, but are soon thwarted by a Native American tribe led by Young Bull (Rock Hudson. YES. You read that right), who scalped Joe Lamont for the Winchester, and is now in possession of the rifle.
Lin and High Spade team up with a Calvary Sergeant (Jay C. Flippen) and his men in battle against Young Bull and his men. Before the battle, Lin realizes that Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), a woman he briefly met in Dodge City, and her cowardly fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake), are also among those in the Calvary camp. A few sparks fly as Lola realizes that Lin has the courage her fiancé lacks.
Lin and the Calvary defeat Young Bull and his men, and a Calvary soldier (Tony Curtis) retrieves Lin’s Winchester from the battlefield. But Lin and High Spade have already set out after Dutch Brown again. The Calvary decides to gift the Winchester to Steve and Lola, who are on their way to their new home.
A Mysterious Connection
When Lola and Steve arrive at their new home, Steve’s old outlaw acquaintance, Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) is using their place as protection during a shootout with the local law enforcement. Waco wants Steve’s Winchester, and kills him for it. Waco then leaves the shootout with the Winchester and Lola, as protection against enemy fire.
Waco and an unwilling Lola arrive in Tascosa and meet up with Dutch. Lola sees a picture of Dutch and Lin at the hideout, and realizes that the two men are somehow connected. Dutch sees that Waco now has the Winchester, and threatens to kill him for it. Waco hands over the rifle, intending to get it back after the bank robbery.
But before he can, Waco runs into Lin and High Spade at a bar, where Waco is acting as lookout while the bank heist goes down. Lola sees Lin, and apprises him of the situation. When Lin asks Waco to take him to Dutch, Waco tries to shoot him. But Lin is the faster draw, and kills Waco.
Lin then sees Dutch and his men leaving the bank, and chases after him.
The two men end up in a shootout on top of a mountain. We learn that Dutch and Lin are brothers, and that Dutch killed their father, shooting him in the back when he refused to shelter Dutch after a robbery. Lin has chased Dutch with intent to kill ever since.
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After a harrowing series of close-calls and ricocheting bullets, Lin is the victorious brother. He shoots Dutch, who falls off the mountain to his death.
Lin, finally reunited with his Winchester, returns to Tascosa, where High Spade and Lola anxiously await his return. The three look down at the rifle, and out to the future.
And that’s the end of the film.
A Disappointing Comeback
After four years of military service, Jimmy Stewart returned to the screen in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
But it was not the successful career booster he’d hoped for.
It wasn’t until 1949’s The Stratton Story that Jim had his first, bonafide post-war hit. Based on the life of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, Jimmy almost didn’t get the role, which Louis B. Mayer, still underrating Jim’s talents, intended for Van Johnson.
It was Jim’s reputation for tenacious character study that eventually got him the part. As Van Johnson remembered:
“I got on really well with Monty Stratton, and I think he liked me, but I just couldn’t pitch the ball in a way that pleased him. He said to me he hoped I wouldn’t be offended but he was going to ask Mr. Mayer if Jimmy Stewart could play the part. I wasn’t offended because I didn’t want to look ridiculous on the screen, but I said, ‘How do you know Jimmy Stewart can pitch a ball?’ He said, ‘I don’t…but Jim will practice time and again until he can.’”
A Good Performance Rewarded
Jim pitched the ball so convincingly that The Stratton Story became MGM’s highest earning film of the year, bringing in over $4 million at the box office. Jim’s performance also earned him Photoplay magazine’s Gold Medal for Most Popular Male Performer of 1949.
It was this diligence in mastering every last detail of a role that would soon bring Jimmy’s gun slinging Lin McAdam to life in Winchester ’73.
But first, Jimmy met and married the woman who would be the one and only Mrs. James Stewart.
Gloria Hatrick McLean was born March 10, 1918 in Larchmont, New York. Gloria’s was a privileged upbringing. Her father Edgar was the general manager of Hearst Metrotone News.
The beautiful, slender, green-eyed, Gloria attended the Finch School in New York, and worked as a model, dance instructor, and fashion designer before marrying Edward Beale McLean, Jr. in 1943. With McLean—the son of Washington Post owner Edward Beale McLean, Sr., and Evelyn Walsh McLean, the last private owner of the Hope Diamond—Gloria had two sons, Ronald and Michael.
But it wasn’t a happy marriage.
This was due in large part to McLean’s infidelities, of which Gloria was well aware. When Edward McLean asked Gloria for a divorce so he could marry his mistress—who, incidentally, was a Vanderbilt—the independent-minded and witty Gloria decided to have a little fun with her philandering husband.
As the gutsy Gloria later recalled [aff. link]:
“I didn’t want to make things too easy for him when he told me he was leaving. I was doing a crossword, and he was trying to tell me his intentions. I would say, ‘5 Down, ‘philanderer’ seven letters, the first letter is ‘b’ and the last letter is ‘d.’ Now just what could that be?’ Finally he said, ‘Look, I’m going to divorce you.’ I said, ‘Just as long as you’re the one who goes to Reno.’ As long as I got a good settlement so I could raise my two boys, he was free to go. And I was free too.”
Gloria Hatrick certainly had spunk.
A Spunky Single Mom
So, at age 31 in 1948, Gloria was a young, beautiful divorcée with two small boys to raise. It was a unique situation for the 1940s.
Gloria remembered that:
“It wasn’t easy being a single mother with two boys aged two and three. Most single mothers didn’t go out. I DID. I was not going to miss out on a life, but I also made sure that my boys were okay. If I went for dinner to a restaurant, they came too. I took them to some parties, and everyone would dote on them.”
Gloria says she and Jim first met at a party hosted by actor Keenan Wynn. But Jim and his buddies were…inebriated when they crashed the party at Wynn’s house. As a result, Jim would have absolutely no recollection of the first time he officially met his future wife.
Gloria later humorously related that:
“I was somewhat underwhelmed by what I saw that day. A few weeks later I was having lunch at Romanoff’s restaurant with my two sons, and in walked Jim with some friends, and he never even acknowledged me—which is not surprising since he couldn’t remember meeting me the first time because he was so drunk.”
Hard to imagine Jimmy Stewart drunk, but there it is.
It was their third meeting, in the summer of 1948, at a party hosted by Gary and Rocky Cooper, that Jim and Gloria finally made lasting positive impressions on each other.
Third Time's the Charm
Stewart biographers like to haggle over whether the party occurred at the Coopers’ home or a restaurant, and whether Ronal Reagan was in attendance or not.
Because those are super crucial details (?).
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that, thanks to Gary and Rocky Cooper, Jim and Gloria finally had a chance to sit down together and fall in love. The Coopers deserve full credit for bringing Jim and Gloria together for what would be one of the few lasting and truly successful marriages in Hollywood.
As Gloria remembered of starting to fall for Jim at the Cooper party:
“What took me by surprise was how shy he was. He hardly said a thing. And that’s what first attracted me to him. After dinner, Leland Hayward [Jim’s friend and sometime agent] insisted Jim and I go to Ciro’s with him for a little dancing. Jim was a very good dancer. He seemed more at ease dancing than he was talking. I knew he was getting interested in me when Leland tried to cut in and Jim waved him off.”
She Eats, Too
A golfing date was set for the next day, and many more followed.
Gloria helped speed the courtship along when she reminded the slow-moving Jim that:
“You know, I eat too.”
Things escalated from there. Jimmy’s good friend Burgess Meredith says he knew immediately that Gloria was special, different from the other girls Jim had dated over the years:
‘He was always taking about her, how great at golf she was, what a great dancer she was, what great kids she had, and how this huge dog she had always jumped on him with glee when he arrived [at her house].”
Gloria was equally effusive in her praise for Jim.
He was a good man, and she knew it:
“A single mother with two children doesn’t get the best of the catch usually…but I did. I got Jim. When he found out I had children, he wanted to meet them. And he was great with them right from the start.”
45 Happy Years
Jim reportedly spent his birthday that year nervously rehearsing his proposal to Gloria. As Jimmy later remembered:
“I thought to myself, ‘Jim, you might never find a better one than this girl’…and I was right. So I decided I’d better ask her to marry me.”
He did, and Gloria said yes.
The wedding took place August 9, 1949 at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Jim and Gloria began their life together honeymooning in Hawaii, and remained happily married for the next 45 years.
A Revolutionary Deal
Around the time of his marriage to Gloria, Jim’s agent, Lew Wasserman, approached him with a revolutionary, though not unprecedented, picture deal.
Sources differ on the key points of the deal that Wasserman brokered for Jim, but here’s what we know for sure: Lew Wasserman came to an agreement with William Goetz, head of Universal Studios, for Jimmy to star in Harvey (1950), a film Jim was anxious to make, and one other film of Goetz’s choosing. Rather than a large upfront payment for each film, Jim would receive a percentage—most sources say 50%—of each film’s profits.
The risks Jim took by accepting the deal were of course, that he might not like the second film project Goetz chose, and that both films would bomb at the box office. But Jim would have accepted just about any deal to star in the film version of Harvey, which he’d already successfully performed on Broadway after taking over the Elwood P. Dowd role for Frank Fay.
With all parties in agreement, Wasserman’s picture deal for Jim moved forward.
The second film Goetz chose for Jimmy to star in was Winchester ’73.
Though Winchester was clearly the film Jim had to make in order to star in the film he wanted to make, Jimmy himself accurately and succinctly summed up how things ultimately turned out:
“Wincherster ’73 was a desperation move that proved a lifesaver.”
A New Jimmy Stewart
Filming of Winchester ’73 began in February 1950. In addition to the percentage deal, Lew Wasserman negotiated for Jim to have an enviable amount of control over the production. Jimmy not only enjoyed sole star billing on Winchester, he also had casting approval of his co-stars, and choice of director. His choice of Anthony Mann to direct proved wiser than Jim could have imagined at the time.
Winchester ’73 marked the start of the successful and prolific Mann/Stewart partnership. Over the next five years, the two men made eight films together, five of which were Westerns. Mann, with his film noir background, tapped into Jimmy Stewart’s dark side in ways no previous director—with the exception of Frank Capra in the darker moments of It’s a Wonderful Life—had done before.
In Winchester ’73, Jim still has elements of his lovable, nice guy goodness from his earlier roles. But his Lin McAdam is a man on a mission of revenge, seeking to kill the brother who murdered their father, and willing to do just about anything to accomplish the task. Jim’s character is motivated not by altruism, but anger.
So very not Jimmy Stewart.
Or at least not the Jimmy Stewart most fans thought they knew from his prewar films.
But Jim was ready for the challenge, and the opportunity, to play such a different character. As Jimmy later said:
“I liked the script of Winchester ’73 straight away. I had a tough character to play for once. I liked the idea of a man who was driven. It gives the character shades light and dark.”
The Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership
Despite preconceived notions of the Jimmy Stewart film persona, he is completely believable in the role. Jim brings an underlying rage to Lin McAdam; he’s a man on edge who’s liable to lose his cool at any moment. Jimmy’s years as a bomber pilot during the war, in his own words, “matured him,” and lent to his great ability to portray darker emotions in Winchester ‘73. Coupled with the skillful direction of Anthony Mann, Jimmy’s intriguing character with “shades of light and dark” was expertly magnified and brought to life onscreen in gritty realism. As producer Aaron Rosenberg said of the remarkable Mann/Stewart partnership:
“[Anthony Mann] brought out something in James Stewart that hadn’t really been seen before. It was an almost manic rage that would suddenly explode…there was an underlying toughness that hadn’t been seen much before…Stewart’s character would just go into a violent rage which was a fresh approach, not just for Stewart, but also for the Western. Here was a hero with flaws.
Tony Mann said he liked the idea of making the audience wonder if there was something that was latently psychotic about the Stewart character…”
This new “latently psychotic” Jimmy Stewart shocked preview audiences of Winchester ’73 , who initially balked at the idea of nice guy Jim in a serious Western.
But these audiences soon changed their minds. As screenwriter Borden Chase recalled:
“When the picture was given a sneak preview, there had been some titters in the audience at seeing Stewart’s name in the opening titles of a western…But once he smashed [Dan] Duryea in the bar, there was no more snickering.”
Shooting Like a Pro in Winchester '73
In addition to the emotional depth Jim brought to Winchester ’73, his dedication to mastering the physical aspects of the role further made his portrayal of Lin McAdam convincing for audiences.
Much as he had learned to expertly pitch a baseball for The Stratton Story, Jimmy now turned his attentions to becoming an expert marksman.
Or appearing to be one anyway. As Jim put it:
“It’s always important to me to get the technical things right. If you play a character who’s an expert with a rifle, you better at least look like you’re an expert.”
Jimmy practiced firing a rifle for hours every day, until his knuckles were sore. For weeks he took lessons from Herb Parsons, an expert from the Winchester Arms Company, who also doubled for Jimmy’s “trick shots” in the film. Jim even observed how Parsons held the gun. By the time of filming, Jim held the rifle naturally. So naturally in fact, that the New York Herald Tribune wrote that it looked:
“as if he had been doing nothing else [but Westerns] throughout his illustrious career.”
Jimmy's Winchester '73 Hat
Another reason Jim looked like such a natural in the role was his realistic wardrobe. One article in particular contributed to his gritty look: his hat. As producer Aaron Rosenberg said:
“The most important part of Jimmy’s wardrobe [in the film] was the hat. Many people think a cowboy hat is a cowboy hat. But there are many shapes and sizes, and a hat can say a lot about the personality of the person wearing it.”
It reportedly took Jimmy and Tony Mann two months to decide on the hat Jim eventually wore in the film. But the thought behind the decision was worth it. Jimmy, in his own words, viewed the hat as “a kind of good-luck piece,” and wore it in all his Westerns thereafter.
Jim and director John Ford would butt heads over the hat a decade later when Ford directed Jimmy in Two Rode Together (1961). Jim insisted on wearing his Winchester ’73 hat. Ford grudgingly allowed him to, but not before teasing Jim that if they ever made another picture together, he’d have to have “hat approval” written into his contract.
The curmudgeonly Ford was only half kidding.
Jimmy Stewart and Pie: Winchester '73 and Beyond
Another first on Winchester ’73 that remained a constant on the Westerns Jimmy made over the following two decades was his horse.
Jim later swore that from the group of horses he had to choose from for the film, he felt an immediate connection with Pie, the horse he decided on. Jim sensed an intelligence, even a personality in Pie:
“I just fell in love with the horse. He would do things I just have never seen in a horse. We were friends. I swear he knew what he was doing…He listened to everything I said to him too—I could tell by the way his ears moved…It’s such a tremendous advantage in Westerns, if you can get the feeling that the horse and you are partners.”
Jimmy Stewart and Pie do project a feeling of partnership in Winchester ‘73 , and continued to do so in all of Jimmy’s Westerns, until 1970’s The Cheyenne Social Club . By this time, Pie was too old for location filming, and Jim had to use a double horse. But thanks to Henry Fonda, who painted a watercolor portrait of Pie, Jim’s fond memories of his beloved horse remained clear, even after Pie’s passing.
Winchester '73 Co-Stars on Jimmy Stewart
To an interviewer in the 1980s, Shelley Winters comically said of her role in Winchester ’73 that:
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in that picture. I always figured that there were all these guys running around trying to get their hands on this rifle who should’ve been trying to get their hands on me. That’s what the film should have been about as far as I was concerned. But that doesn’t make for a good Western, I guess. In the end, nobody remembered me being in it. Except you.”
Shelley may have felt her role in Winchester ’73 was forgettable, but she brings an element of realistic romance to the film. Shelley adored working with Jimmy Stewart, thanks in large part to Jim’s gentlemanly treatment of her.
Both Jim and Shelley had, as Shelley puts it, “good left sides.” In other words, Jim and Shelley each believed that their left profiles were more attractive than their right profiles. As such, each star preferred to have the left side of their face on camera.
For any other leading man, this would have presented a problem.
But not for Jimmy Stewart.
In just about every photograph, and scene Jim and Shelley share in the film, Jim has his right side forward, and lets Shelley be the beautiful one.
A true gentleman indeed.
Tony Curtis had equally positive memories of working with Jimmy on Winchester ’73.
As a new Universal Studios contract player, Tony met Jimmy his second day on the Universal lot. Tony asked Jim—the first movie star young Bernie Schwartz had ever met—to take a picture with him. Jim graciously did.
On the first day of Winchester filming, Tony was shocked when Jimmy Stewart remembered their earlier, brief meeting. As Tony recounted in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link]:
“Winchester ’73 was the first big-budget picture Universal put me in…I was thrilled to play in a picture with Jimmy Stewart…Jimmy was an incredibly nice person; in his case there was no difference between his lovable film persona and the man himself. When he showed up on the set for Winchester ’73, he came right over to me and said, ‘Hi, Tony, how are you?’ You could almost hear the other guys standing around wondering, ‘Why would Jimmy Stewart know this guy?’ They weren’t aware that I’d met Jimmy on my second day on the Universal lot…Most guys would have forgotten all about a minor moment like that, but not Jimmy Stewart. He was a class act all the way.”
Winchester '73 Over-Performs
It came as a shock to Lew Wasserman, Jimmy, and the heads of Universal when Winchester ‘73, the modest Western produced in 30 days at a budget-friendly $918,000, over-performed at the box office.
With his percentage deal, Jimmy Stewart earned $600,000, the equivalent of about $6.5 million today, on Winchester ’73. Combined with his other earnings that year, Jim made an impressive $1 million in 1950.
As Bob Hope comically said of his friend’s enviable financial situation:
“I didn’t think that Jimmy Stewart could move that fast. He had that slow way of talking, but he could sure talk fast if the money was right.”
Winchester '73: Changing the Western Genre & the Career of Jimmy Stewart
Winchester ’73 ushered in a new era of Westerns, with imperfect heroes motivated by darker emotions. Clint Eastwood later paid Jimmy the highest compliment by citing him as inspiration for Eastwood’s own portrayals of flawed Western heroes.
The film changed the course of Jimmy Stewart’s career, demonstrating that Jim could project much more than his nice-guy image onscreen. As Jimmy said of his segue into the Western genre:
“I had to toughen up. And I found that in Westerns I could do it and still retain what I was.”
With the depth and versatility of his performance in Winchester ’73, it was clear that Jimmy Stewart was a versatile actor with staying power.
His partnership with Alfred Hitchcock a few years later in 1954’s Rear Window would drive that point home.