On this day in 1950, the actor James Stewart stars in Harvey, a drama about an eccentric man whose best friend is a giant invisible rabbit. Directed by Henry Koster and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Mary Chase, Harvey earned Stewart the fourth Best Actor Oscar nomination of his career. Considered one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest leading men, Stewart appeared in some 80 movies during his career, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, and was best known for his portrayals of decent, idealistic men.
Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. At Princeton University, he performed in musical comedies with the Triangle Club before graduating in 1932 with a degree in architecture. There wasn’t a great demand for architects in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, so Stewart turned to acting, landing his first big role on Broadway in 1934 in Yellow Jack. The following year he signed a contract with MGM and made his big-screen debut in The Murder Man, starring Spencer Tracy. He went on to appear in such movies as You Can’t Take It With You (1938); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), in which his performance as an idealistic senator catapulted him to stardom and earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination; Destry Rides Again (1939), in which he played a marshal opposite Marlene Dietrich; and The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. In 1941, at the age of 33, Stewart joined the military as a pilot. Before he returned home in 1945, he reportedly flew 20 bombing missions over Germany.
In 1946, Stewart starred in the director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. According to Stewart’s 1997 obituary in the New York Times: “His archetypal role (and his own favorite) was that of George Bailey, the small-town banker in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Frank Capra’s moralistic fantasy in which the hero is rescued from suicide by a pixieish angel who shows him how much meaner life would have been in his hometown without him. The 1946 feature-length Christmas card was a failure among audiences, who dismissed it as overly sentimental, but in later decades it became one of the most popular movies ever made and a holiday staple on television.”
After Stewart’s acclaimed performance in Harvey, he appeared in such films as The Glenn Miller Story (1954), in which he played the popular big-band leader; Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which he played a wheelchair-bound voyeur photographer; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which featured Stewart as the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. His films during the 1950s also include Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which he starred as a retired detective opposite Kim Novak; and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), for which he earned his fifth Oscar nomination. During the 1960s, Stewart’s movie credits included The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Shootist (1976).
His final movie was the 1991 animated feature An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, in which he voiced the character of Wylie. Stewart died in Beverly Hills, California on July 2, 1997, at the age of 89.