James Stewart - Pre-war Success

Pre-war Success

In 1938, Stewart had a brief, tumultuous romance with Hollywood queen Norma Shearer, whose husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, had died two years earlier. Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can't Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart's minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several popular movies, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs — other recent actors in Capra's films such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, "I think he's probably the best actor who's ever hit the screen."

You Can't Take It With You, starring Capra's "favorite actress", comedienne Jean Arthur, won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award. The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again in the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film, playing an idealist thrown into the political arena. Upon its October 1939 release, the film garnered critical praise and became a box-office success. Stewart was nominated for the first of five Academy Awards for Best Actor. Stewart's father was still trying to talk him into leaving Hollywood and its sinful ways and to return to his home town to lead a decent life. Stewart took a secret trip to Europe to take a break and returned home in 1939 just as Germany invaded Poland.

You hear so much about the old movie moguls and the impersonal factories where there is no freedom. MGM was a wonderful place where decisions were made on my behalf by my superiors. What's wrong with that?

—James Stewart, The Leading Men of MGM

Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, became Stewart's first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career. In this western parody, Stewart is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the dancing saloon girl who comes to love him, but doesn't get him. In the film, Dietrich sings her famous song "The Boys In the Back Room". Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived. Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with irrepressible Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars, but did less well with the public. Newsweek wrote that they were "perfectly cast in the leading roles." Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the Lux Radio Theater's The Screen Guild Theater and other shows. So well-known had his slow drawl become that comedians began impersonating him.

In 1940, Stewart and Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred Stewart and Sullavan as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance but who cannot stand each other in real life (this was later remade into the musical, In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and later as the romantic comedy You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). It was Stewart's fifth film of the year and that rare film shot in sequence; it was completed in only 27 days. The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured the pair as friends and then lovers caught in turmoil upon Hitler's rise to power, literally hunted down by their own friends.

Stewart also starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's classic The Philadelphia Story (1940). His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941), and he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Stewart thought his performance "entertaining and slick and smooth" but lacking the "guts" of "Mr. Smith." Stewart gave the Oscar statuette to his father, who displayed it for many years in a case inside the front door of his hardware store, alongside other family awards and military medals.

During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed the mediocre No Time for Comedy (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr with the Judy Garland musical, Ziegfeld Girl, and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o' Gold featuring Paulette Goddard. Stewart was drafted in late 1940, a situation that coincided with the lapse in his MGM contract, marking a turning point in Stewart's career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.

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