The Extraordinary Hero This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

July 6, 2014
My fascination with classic film started when I was fourteen years old and since then, I have been introduced to a wide variety of actors, actresses, genres and great classic masterpieces but perhaps no actor has touched my life the way that Jimmy Stewart has.

Almost every American can identify Jimmy Stewart. He was the tall, underweight, friendly, drawling man who starred in classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That much is known and when most people think of Jimmy, they think of a pleasant, innocent small-town American. But what many people do not realize was that Jimmy had variety as well. His good friend, Henry Fonda once stated that Jimmy was the most underrated actor when it came to variation of roles and I completely agree with him. Jimmy did everything-drama, comedy, romance, western, suspense and adventure. He was a chameleon who could change to fit the genre he was involved with. I feel that if you looked up the word “actor” in the dictionary, next to it should be written “Jimmy Stewart.”

And yet, at the same time, I am afraid to call Jimmy Stewart an actor because he never looked like he was acting. He looked like he was simply Jimmy Stewart being himself. And yet he still could portray the character as well. He could split himself into two people-one half was the character and the other the man playing that character. It is something I had never seen in an actor before and have yet to see again. Whether playing the naïve, idealistic senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the pleasant, mild-mannered man of Harvey, the tormented and obsessed detective of Vertigo or the generous yet frustrated small-town banker of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart was always himself as well as the character.

I rarely, if ever use the word “perfect” to describe anything and I know that in the finer details, nobody is perfect but when I watch Jimmy onscreen and read an overview of his life, I feel that he truly was just that-perfect. He had a happy childhood, an Ivy League education, handsome looks, great talent, a loveable voice and a pleasant disposition both onscreen and off-and seriously, how much more of a people-friendly name could you have than “Jimmy Stewart?” He is the only actor-wait, scratch that-the only human being I have ever known about where I could try to think forever of a problem I have with him and not come up with one.

But more than that, even though Jimmy died seven months before I was born, I feel like I have known him because I have a very personal feeling about him. My mother’s entire family came from rural Pennsylvania-Jimmy did as well and I have always felt a very intense loyalty to the Keystone State. He is also my father’s favorite actor and like Jimmy, my paternal grandfather was a veteran of World War II. He did not serve in the Air Force like Jimmy did but I still feel as though they served alongside each other because they were both fighting for the same great cause.

I first was introduced to the great Jimmy Stewart when I was about eight years old-but I did not know it. I remember watching Harvey but I had no clue, and really at that age, did not care who was in it. I just remember enjoying the movie.

I continued in this manner for the next five-and-a-half years until December of 2011. One night, my father and my grandmother watched a Jimmy Stewart movie. I sat down and sort of watched it but I was bored with the film and did not understand it. Halfway through, I walked out of the living room and went upstairs-I hated the film. That film was called It’s a Wonderful Life. A year later, however, dad asked me on his birthday which Christmas movie I wanted to watch. Out of the blue, I chose It’s a Wonderful Life, I had figured that a year of maturity would allow me to more fairly give it another shot. We watched it and I enjoyed it but the film did not really hook me until the whole suicide/wish-I’d-never-been-born part.

Then in January, my creative writing class watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It did not blow me away initially-it was difficult trying to remember what had been happening where we had left off every time I began to watch it with each class. But I still thought of it as a fine film. Then came Vertigo, a movie that I initially thought had a title that perfectly described the feeling one got when watching it. I just thought of it as bizarre but at the same time, a spark appeared.

For reasons unknown, I requested that I watch Harvey again after a roughly seven-year hiatus and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film I had only caught fleeting glimpses of.

Harvey left me with what is probably one of the happiest feelings ever at the end of it. I had tears in my eyes and my first words after the film had ended were, “Oh, my God, that was so beautiful!” A few days later, I watched it again and I was sad to see it go back to the library.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was probably the turning point in my overall opinion of Jimmy. I had only wanted to watch it for the famed climactic filibuster scene but the film in itself was great as well. But getting back to the filibuster-that was the turning point I referenced earlier. It was my “wow” moment-“wow” is the only way I can describe it. I was so glued on him in the scene that when his character fainted, it scared me and I jumped. That was when I decided that James Stewart was one of the greatest actors I had ever watched in my life.
A little over a week later, it was the one-hundred-fifth anniversary of Jimmy’s birth. TCM did a marathon but I still was not satisfied. We only owned one of his movies on DVD-It’s a Wonderful Life. I wanted to give it one more viewing to see what I thought of it now. Long story short, I had a warm feeling at the end of it.

More movies came and my fascination with Jimmy Stewart only grew. I watched all of these with dad. There were a few that he had not seen and so we “exchanged” films. He introduced me to Shenandoah and The Spirit of St. Louis and I introduced him to Anatomy of a Murder and Rear Window (which he absolutely loved) and the movies we were both new to were You Can’t Take It with You, Call Northside 777, and the film with Jimmy’s Oscar-winning performance, The Philadelphia Story.

On July 6, 2013, I stepped out of the SUV into a parking lot and a clear, warm summer morning. Dad and I walked down the sidewalk to the historical marker sign and we took a quick picture of it. Then we went around the corner and looked at the façade of the building. Off to the right was an entrance and above it was a sign that read: THE JIMMY STEWART MUSEUM. We were in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a small town of about fifteen thousand people located fifty miles east of Pittsburgh. But it was more than that. For the moment, it was my Mecca, my Canterbury, in short, my ultimate destination. I had been dreaming of this trip for two months.

The museum contained only six rooms but it took me two-and-a-half hours to walk through. I skim-read everything and learned quite a bit.
Of course we had to stop in the gift shop. There were two curators present and there were no other visitors in the museum at the time so dad and I talked with them for quite a while. The lady in particular had many stories to share. I remember one where Jimmy visited a school classroom and spoke with the kids. But she had also known Jimmy-when she told me that, I couldn’t see the look on my face but I could imagine it! With the way that statement made me feel, they might as well have just introduced me to Jimmy Stewart himself. I bought plenty of souvenirs and then dad and I laughed through the museum’s screening of Jimmy’s 1962 film, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. In the guestbook, I had written under the “comments” section, “a wonderful museum dedicated to a wonderful man.” But our visit was not over yet.
We walked up the street where the museum was, Philadelphia Street. We took pictures of the front of the museum, the site of the Stewart family’s hardware store, the courthouse statue and a clock tower that was in the background of a photo of Jimmy that appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1945. I had noticed that the Indiana crosswalks had vocal aids for the blind. What I didn’t notice at first was that it was Jimmy’s voice narrating the countdown.

Then we went up Vinegar Hill to see Jimmy’s boyhood home. The house had been virtually unchanged since the Stewarts had lived there. I fell in love with the humble-looking residence. We snapped two photos, one of me standing in front of the house and one of just the house itself.

Then we left Indiana. I had not just fallen in love with the house, I had fallen in love with the town of Indiana as well. Everything about it made me feel, how else?-wonderful inside. Even the people acted the way you would expect the people in Jimmy Stewart’s hometown to act-pleasant and cheerful just like its most famous resident, even right down to the little girl who held open a door for us and squeaked, “you’re welcome!” when I thanked her. The ride back to my grandmother’s house was one filled with happiness but also with even more respect for the man that had taken me to Indiana.

The next day, we had to leave to go back home, or as I put it “back to Bedford Falls”-we live just forty-five minutes from the town that Bedford Falls was based on. During the trip home, I wore the baseball cap I had gotten at the museum and watched my two movies-Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While I watched them, I suddenly realized-I saw where that man was born. It gave me an eerie feeling but also a proud one.

And I have had many more opportunities to feel proud of what I saw. The whole entire time I was in Indiana, I never once thought, “I’m where a famous person was born.” I just thought, “I’m where Jimmy Stewart was born” because once again, I saw Jimmy not as an actor and a famed movie star but instead as a red-blooded, God-fearing American man, one I could have met in the deli that I stopped at for lunch in Indiana, my perfect little Capra-esque town.

Even though James Stewart has passed on, even when watching the nearly seventy-five-year-old “Mr. Smith,” I feel that he never truly left the world. As I put it, “there are some times when I watch his movies that I remember he’s dead.” I think that it should be listed that Jimmy Stewart died too young-if ever there was a human being who deserved to live forever, I think it was him. But when one watches him onscreen, whether in the grips of his dramatic filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his anecdotal story in Harvey or his joyous sprint through the whirling snow of Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, he still looks very much alive and well. He is still alive. His soul is preserved in the celluloid of the great classics that have and will be enjoyed by many generations. There are so many accolades I could give Jimmy Stewart-I am tempted to use the word “wonderful” but that would be too obvious. I think that there are truly no words that could accurately describe Jimmy Stewart as an actor or as a man. His nickname was “the Ordinary Hero” but Jimmy Stewart was really extraordinary. I never shared the same lifetime with him but I still believe it is a lesser world without him. But thankfully, we still have his films to bring warmth, comfort and valuable lessons to our lives and I will go ahead and use the word “wonderful” anyway. James Stewart truly was a wonderful man with wonderful talent and a wonderful personality and he lived a life that can only be described as, what else?-wonderful.

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