James Stewart started out as a tongue-tied small-town boy from Indiana, Pennsylvania. He studied architecture at Princeton, joined a summer theater troupe in Cape Cod, befriended Henry Fonda, and learned the craft of acting through Broadway before signing with MGM.
While becoming a star with You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and The Philadelphia Story (1940), Stewart appeared before the radio microphones many times. He starred in adaptations of The Philadelphia Story alongside Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and carried the lead role on such prestige programs as The Lux Radio Theater.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in the all-network radio program We Hold These Truths, “dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.”
Stewart, an accomplished pilot, then enlisted for service. He was inducted into the Army on March 22, 1941, months before the U.S. entry to the war, becoming the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.
From 1941 to 1945, Stewart never made a movie. He was busy overseas fighting the good fight. In the summer of 1943, he was promoted to Captain and appointed a squadron commander. In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as operations officer of the 703rd Bombardment Squadron. He continued on numerous bombing missions and was awarded numerous medals for service.
Following the war, Stewart rarely spoke about his wartime service, even when prompted on radio. Upon his return to Hollywood in 1945, Stewart discovered he was no longer welcome at MGM and made a transition to Universal Studios. His first movie for Universal would be his third and final for Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life. On his return from the war, James Stewart had a clause inserted in most of his Hollywood contracts prohibiting the production companies from mentioning his military service in any publicity.
On the evening of November 4, 1945, James Stewart made a triumphant return to radio, co-starring in an adaptation of Destry Rides Again with Joan Blondell. A few days later, Stewart made a guest appearance on radio show The Cavalcade of America in a wartime drama, “The Sailor Who Had to Have a Horse.” On the evening of December 1, 1949, Stewart appeared on Suspense in a post-war drama focusing on the rehabilitation of war veterans, “Mission Completed.”
During the fall of 1953, NBC radio premiered The Six Shooter, a weekly Western starring James Stewart as Britt Ponset, a drifting cowboy during the final days of the Wild West at the turn of the century. The Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company was interested in underwriting the radio program, but under contract James Stewart had first rights of refusal and denied the firm’s participation, believing the habit of smoking cigarettes did not coincide with his public image. As a result, after the 39 half-hour productions concluded, NBC dropped the program. (The Six Shooter did return to television but under a different title and with a different star – The Restless Gun, with John Payne.)
Currently you can visit the James Stewart Museum located in his home down of Indiana, Pennsylvania. On display are a number of items from his radio career including a 16-inch transcription disc for his appearance on Guest Star.
Featured image: Rosalind Russell and James Stewart on CBS’s Sunday Afternoon Silver Theater (public domain, CBS Radio, Wikimedia Commons)
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