James Stewart - Post-war Success

Post-war Success

After the war, Stewart took time off to reassess his career. He was an early investor in Southwest Airways, founded by Leland Hayward, and considered going into the aviation industry if his restarted film career did not prosper. Upon Stewart's return to Hollywood in fall 1945, he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He signed with an MCA talent agency. His former agent Leland Hayward got out of the talent business in 1944 after selling his A-list of stars, including Stewart, to MCA.

For his first film in five years, Stewart appeared in his third and final Frank Capra production, It's a Wonderful Life. Capra paid RKO for the rights to the story and formed his own production company, Liberty Films. The female lead went to Donna Reed, after Capra's perennial first choice, Jean Arthur, was unavailable, and after turn-downs from Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak and Martha Scott. Stewart appeared as George Bailey, an upstanding small-town man who becomes increasingly frustrated by his ordinary existence and financial troubles. Driven to suicide on Christmas Eve, he is led to reassess his life by Clarence Odbody AS2, an "angel, second class", played by Henry Travers.

Although It's a Wonderful Life was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Stewart's third Best Actor nomination, it received mixed reviews and only disappointingly moderate success at the box office. However, in the decades since the film's release, it grew to define Stewart's film persona and is widely considered as a sentimental Christmas film classic and, according to the American Film Institute, one of the best movies ever made. After viewing It's a Wonderful Life, President Harry S Truman concluded, "If Bess and I had a son we'd want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart." In the aftermath of the film, Capra's production company went into bankruptcy, while Stewart started to have doubts about his ability to act after his military hiatus. His father kept insisting he come home and marry a local girl. Meanwhile in Hollywood, his generation of actors were fading and a new wave of actors would soon remake the town, including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.

Magic Town (1947), a comedy film directed by William A. Wellman, starring James Stewart and Jane Wyman, was one of the first films about the then-new science of public opinion polling. It was poorly received. He completed Rope (1948) directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Call Northside 777 (1948), Stewart had two flops with On Our Merry Way (1948), a comedic musical ensemble in which Stewart and Henry Fonda played two musicians named "Slim" and "Lank," and You Gotta Stay Happy (1949), for which the posters depicted Stewart being kissed on one cheek by Joan Fontaine and on the other by a chimpanzee. In the documentary film James Stewart: A Wonderful Life (1987), hosted by Johnny Carson, Stewart said that he went back to Westerns in 1950 in part because of a string of films that were flops.

He returned to the stage to star in Mary Coyle Chase's Harvey, which had opened to nearly universal praise in November 1944, as Elwood P. Dowd, a wealthy eccentric living with his sister and niece, and whose best friend is an invisible rabbit as large as a man. Dowd's eccentricity, especially the friendship with the rabbit, is ruining the niece's hopes of finding a husband. While trying to have Dowd committed to a sanatorium, his sister is committed herself while the play follows Dowd on an ordinary day in his not-so-ordinary life. Stewart took over the role from Frank Fay and gained an increased Broadway following in the unconventional play. The play, which ran for nearly three years with Stewart as its star, was successfully adapted into a 1950 film, directed by Henry Koster, with Stewart as Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister, Veta. Bing Crosby was the first choice but he declined.

Stewart received his fourth Best Actor nomination for his performance in the film. After Harvey, the comedic adventure film Malaya (1949) with Spencer Tracy and the conventional but highly successful biographical film The Stratton Story in 1949, Stewart's first pairing with "on-screen wife" June Allyson, his career took another turn. During the 1950s, he expanded into the western and suspense genres, thanks to collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.

Other notable performances by Stewart during this time include the critically acclaimed 1950 Delmer Daves western Broken Arrow, which featured Stewart as an ex-soldier and Indian agent making peace with the Apache; a troubled clown in the 1952 Best Picture The Greatest Show on Earth; and Stewart's role as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's 1957 film The Spirit of St. Louis. He also starred in the western radio show The Six Shooter for its one-season run from 1953 to 1954. During this time Stewart wore the same cowboy hat and rode the same horse, named "Pie", in most of his Westerns.

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