Tag Archives: academy awards

Jimmy Stewart – No Ordinary Hero

(It’s really great having a guest blogger like my wife Kimi. Not only does she own my heart, but she also shares my admiration for Jimmy Stewart, the subject of her post for today.)

"Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?" ~ Clarence the Angel to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

As I sit down to write about Jimmy Stewart, I know that my deep love for Jimmy and his work is likely to color the tone of this post. I’m sure this won’t be a problem though, because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Jimmy Stewart.

James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on this date in 1908. Blessed with a happy childhood and solid upbringing, he was a high achiever from a young age.

As a youth, he performed in plays with his sisters for neighborhood children, but always said acting was only for fun. 

At his father’s urging, he attended Princeton University where he excelled in architecture. He so impressed his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies.

When the stock market crash of 1929 made architectural jobs scarce, he accepted a friend’s offer to join a summer stock acting troupe on Cape Cod. While there, he met another a soon-to-be-famous actor named Henry Fonda. They would remain close friends until Fonda’s death in 1982.

(Even after Stewart and Fonda became two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, their children would remember them silently painting model airplanes together.)

A stint on Broadway caught the attention of Hollywood scouts who brought Stewart to the West Coast. He appeared in over 30 motion pictures before his 1939 breakout performance opposite Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.

An Academy Award nomination that same year for his performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington elevated him to true star status.

He would win the Oscar for his performance in The Philadelphia Story the following year. He sent the statuette to his father – who would  proudly display it in the front window of his hardware store for the next 25 years – with a note that said, “It belongs to us both.”

At the outbreak of WWII, Stewart longed to serve his country, but at 6’ 3” and 138 pounds, was turned down by the Air Force for being underweight. Still determined, he reportedly went home and ate everything he could find before testing with the Army Air Corps, where he made the weight requirement without an ounce to spare.

Stewart’s war record included 20 dangerous combat missions as a command pilot, wing commander, and squadron commander.  He was awarded three medals and was honored by Life magazine with a cover photo (below).

Jimmy Stewart was the real deal.

He retired from the service in 1959 with the rank of Brigadier General. (Walter Matthau was a sergeant in his unit.)

In 1949, he married Gloria Hattrick McLean, who he met at the home of Gary Cooper. Their family would eventually include four children – twin girls, and two sons from McLean’s previous marriage. The Stewarts remained happily married until Gloria’s death in February, 1994.

Although he resided in Los Angeles for the remainder of his life, Stewart never lost his love for his hometown. On his 75th birthday, he was in attendance when his statue was placed in the town square.  (I imagine this is what the town of Bedford Falls might have done for George Bailey.)

Like his beloved character George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart touched many lives.

His nickname was “The Ordinary Hero,” but I think it’s clear … there was nothing ordinary about him.

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Coop

Gary Cooper, who began his career in silent films, became a worldwide star in talkies, despite rarely uttering a word on screen.

The quintessential “strong, silent type,” Cooper made 100 films during a thirty-five year career before dying of cancer 50 years ago today.

Cooper, known affectionately as “Coop,” whose High Noon is considered by many to be one of the best Westerns ever made, was a true child of the West.

Frank James Cooper was born in Montana in 1901 to parents who had immigrated from England. His father was a rancher and attorney who later served on the Montana Supreme Court.

Cooper and his brother were sent to England for several years to get an education, returning to their father’s ranch at the outbreak of World War I. When his parents moved to Los Angeles in 1924, Cooper went with them, and earned a living as an extra. The following year he changed his name to Gary on the suggestion of a casting director who felt he needed a name reminiscent of her gritty native city of Gary, Indiana.

He appeared in several silents, including Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award, and became a star in The Virginian in 1929, which was his first talking film. He would remain a top box office draw for the rest of his life, being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar five times and winning twice.

In the 30s he starred in the classics Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and A Farewell To Arms, becoming a close friend of Ernest Hemingway in the process. That same decade, he famously passed on the chance to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.

In 1942, he won the Academy Award for Sergeant York, which war hero Alvin York would only authorize if Cooper portrayed him on film.

Cooper won a second Oscar eleven years later in the role of Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, a film many consider to be the genre’s finest 90 minutes.

A lifelong Republican, Cooper addressed Congress during the Red Scare to help root out Hollywood’s alleged communist infiltrators. Although married to the same woman for nearly thirty years, he engaged in a string of affairs with many of Hollywood’s leading ladies.

Jimmy Stewart accepted an honorary Oscar in 1961 on Cooper’s behalf while his friend was suffering from cancer.

Coop died a month later on May 13, 1961, just a week past his 60th birthday.


The Professor & the Ragman

An American musical genre was created in part by the unlikely pairing of two people in the South during the late nineteenth-century. One of the individuals was a middle-aged Jewish music teacher from Germany, and the other was the eleven-year-old son of former slaves.

The musical world is familiar with the name of the younger of the two, Scott Joplin, who would go on to become “the King of Ragtime.” But only the most ardent Joplin fan is likely to know of the influence Prof. Julius Weiss had on Joplin’s development into a world famous musician and composer.

Scott Joplin was born into a large family in Eastern Texas less than three years after the curtain fell on slavery in America. His talented parents taught their children the rudiments of a variety of instruments, including the piano, violin, and cornet.

Sometime during the 1880s, Joplin’s father abandoned his family, forcing them to resettle in Texarkana. It was here that Joplin’s mother became a domestic servant in the home of a lumber baron. Professor Weiss was also employed by the same family in the role of tutor to the baron’s children.

Weiss had left his native Germany in the 1860s after completing his education at the University of Saxony.  He first settled in the New World in St. Louis, before moving on to Texarkana.

It was here, between tutoring sessions for the baron’s children in German, astronomy, mathematics, and music, that Weiss first heard the 11-year-old Joplin play the piano. Recognizing a prodigy and being fully aware of the family’s meager fortunes, Weiss began tutoring Joplin as well, free of charge. He was even able to obtain a used piano for the boy to practice on.

Weiss tutored Joplin for the next several years, never charging a fee, and helped his young student master sight reading and musical theory, and to develop an appreciation for opera and the masters of European music.

In Weiss, Joplin found a substitute for the father who had abandoned him. Joplin remained his student for several years until the professor lost his employment in the lumber baron’s house and moved away.

Joplin eventually set out on his own, developing a new playing style that was based on syncopated, or “ragged,” rhythms. In 1899, he composed one the the first great ragtime classics in Maple Leaf Rag, which was named in honor of the Maple Leaf Club, an African-American gathering place in Sedalia, Missouri. The sheet music for the song became the first million-seller in history and Joplin earned his spot in American history as our first great African-American composer.

Joplin never forgot his old piano teacher after he became famous, regularly sending him gifts of money. He later used Weiss as the basis for a character in his autobiographical ragtime-influenced opera Treemonisha.

Sometime in the early years of the twentieth-century Prof. Weiss passed away. Joplin died from syphilis on this date in 1917 at the age of 49. Fifty-six years and one day later, The Sting, which helped bring Joplin’s music back to our cultural consciousness, cleaned up at the Academy Awards.

Due to prejudice, Julius Weiss was kicked to the curb of waspish, nineteenth-century American society because of his religion and foreign birth. Scott Joplin, because of his skin color, was kept completely outside of it.

Each on his own would have most likely been forgotten by history. But together, they helped create the soundtrack for an entire era.


The First Cowboy Star

He wasn’t from the West and he couldn’t ride a horse, but this didn’t stop Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson from becoming cinema’s first western cowboy hero.

Anderson, born Max Aronson, entered the world on this date in 1880. He was born to a Jewish family in Arkansas and had he been a more successful cotton broker, would most likely have remained there. Instead, he migrated to New York where he became a contract player for Vitagraph Studios.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter cast Anderson in his landmark 11-minute western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally meant to play one of the robbers, having lied his way into a tryout by claiming that he was “born in the saddle.” But after falling off his horse he was given other duties, playing three non-riding roles in the film. One of these parts was as a passenger who gets shot in the back, making Anderson one of the very first cinematic murder victims.

The phenomenal success of The Great Train Robbery spurred Anderson to learn to ride and to create his own western films. (The film would launch other cinematic careers as well: the Warner brothers started their empire by exhibiting the The Great Train Robbery throughout mining camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

He partnered with moneyman George Spoor to create Essanay Studios, which was named from the “S and A” initials of Spoor and Anderson. Essanay set up shop in Chicago, but Anderson took a production team to California to shoot westerns based around a character named Broncho Billy that he had read about in a magazine. Anderson would star in over 375 Broncho Billy films between 1908 and 1915, making him the first cowboy western star.

In 1912, Anderson set up his own branch of Essanay in the East Bay town of Niles, California (today a district of Fremont). Essanay cranked out hundreds of westerns and Snakeville comedies there over the next few years.

Anderson was able to pull off a coup in 1914 when he hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone Studios to make films for Essanay in Chicago and Niles. The arrangement only lasted a year, and was an unpleasant one for all the parties concerned, especially Spoor, who bristled at Chaplin’s eye-bulging salary of $1250 per week.

In spite of this, Chaplin was able to make his first true classic in Niles called The Tramp, wherein his already established little tramp character was seen as more sympathetic and less frenetic than from his earlier Keystone films.

When Chaplin left Essanay for greener pastures, he took the fortunes of the studio with him. Soon afterwards, the Niles studio was boarded up, and Anderson sold his remaining interest in the company as well as his Broncho Billy character to Spoor.

Anderson produced films for the next 40 years and was awarded a special Academy Award in 1957 honoring his work as a motion picture pioneer.

Broncho Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero who began his career without knowing how to ride a horse, died in 1971.

(In case you’re wondering, Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980) wasn’t based on Anderson, although Burt Reynolds’s character in Nickelodeon (1976) does share some similarities with Broncho Billy.)

 


Remember To Drop the “E”

  

It’s about time for Hollywood to pat itself on the back again at the annual Academy Awards show in a couple of weeks, and this year, like most, sees several first-time nominees in the pack.

It must be incredibly exciting to earn a chance at walking away with Hollywood’s highest honor even once.

But can you imagine what it feels like to be nominated for an Oscar 45 times?

Me neither. And in truth only three men in history know this feeling: producer Walt Disney with 59 nominations, and composers John Williams and Alfred Newman who are tied for second-place with 45 nods each.

Alfred Newman, who died on this date in 1970, was for forty years one of the most respected composers in Hollywood. (It’s easy to find yourself adding the middle initial “E” when discussing Alfred Newman, but as any “Mad Man” knows, the “what me worry” character is actually named Alfred E. Neuman.)

Newman composed scores for over 200 films, and took home the Oscar nine times for such works as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tin Pan Alley, The Song of Bernadette, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Call Me Madam, The King and I, and Camelot. Newman was nominated for an Oscar every year between 1938 and 1957 – an incredible streak of twenty years in a row!

Newman was considered to be a musical prodigy from the age of five when he first took up the piano. He soon began playing on the vaudeville circuit and at the age of 20 began a decade-long career playing on Broadway. Newman followed his friend Irving Berlin to Hollywood in 1930 and was soon working with Charlie Chaplin as the musical director on City Lights. By 1940 he was contracted to 20th Century Fox studios where he conducted the famous fanfare, a variation of which (recorded by his son David) still introduces Fox films to this day. While at Fox Newman also created the Newman System, a method of synchronizing scores to films that is still in use.

Newman continued working until 1970, when he concluded his illustrious career by scoring the film Airport. He died on February 17, 1970, exactly one month before his 70th birthday.

Newman left a powerful lasting legacy of music, both on screen and through his family. His brothers Lionel and Emil scored nearly a hundred films between them, and sons David and Thomas, and daughter Maria, have another couple of hundred scoring credits, with ten Oscar nominations for Thomas. Nephew and I Love L.A. composer Randy Newman has also won an Oscar, and grandnephew Joey has a host of scoring credits to his name as well.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

In case you haven’t heard, the Academy Award nominations were announced this morning with The King’s Speech leading the nods with 12.

While looking over the nominees in the category of Best Actor, I noticed something interesting.

Should Jeff Bridges win for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a role that won the Oscar for John Wayne in 1969, it would be the first time in history the same role would produce two Best Actor winners. (The role of Vito Corleone did win Oscars for two men, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, but only Brando’s award was for Best Actor. De Niro’s came in the Best Supporting Actor category.)

Interestingly, two men were denied accomplishing this same feat by Wayne’s win in 1969. That year, Peter O’Toole was nominated for playing Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a role that won Robert Donat the Oscar in 1939. Richard Burton was nominated for his portrayal of Henry VIII that same year, which had previously won the statuette for Charles Laughton in 1933.

A win would also make Bridges only the third man (along with Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks) to win the award in consecutive years, following his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart last year.

Of course, the other nominees this year – Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco – will be hoping to create some history of their own. None perhaps more than Firth, who was also nominated last year for A Single Man, but lost to Bridges.

The award in the category goes to the best screen actor of the year, not the best person of the year.

This proved lucky for Emil Jannings, the first man to win the award in 1928. The heavily-accented Jannings failed to make the transition to talkies and returned to his native Germany where he became a major supporter of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies entered Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar everywhere to curry favor with the invading troops.

Another interesting piece of Oscar trivia is that Robert Downey, Jr. is the only man to be nominated in the Best Actor category for playing a man who was once nominated for a Best Actor Oscar himself. This happened in 1992’s Chaplin, when Downey was honored for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, who was nominated for a Best Actor award in 1940 for The Great Dictator. (We will be showing Chaplin as the kick-off to ChaplinFest on Friday, February 4 in Newhall.)

Should Bridges win for True Grit, it may help to remove some of the stigma attached to John Wayne’s Oscar, which was thought by many  to have been awarded to honor Wayne’s entire body of work, rather than his actual performance in the film.


The First Female Casualty of WWII

Carole Lombard 1908 - 1942.

By mid-January 1942, America had been fighting World War II for just over a month and had already suffered the loss of thousands of men during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these casualties were unknown outside of their units and families.

It was a far different story when America lost it first woman in the conflict. Her name was Carole Lombard, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and the wife of superstar Clark Gable.

Lombard, one of the most gifted screwball-comediennes at the time of her death, was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Indiana. Young Carole moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was six after her parents divorced. She began her acting career in silent films at the age of 12 after a director spotted her playing baseball. She would retain a tomboyish personality spiced with bawdy humor that contrasted sharply with her classic beauty.

She co-starred with future husband Clark Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own in 1932 and saw her career take off in 1934’s Twentieth Century. She was nominated for an Oscar two years later for her role in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey in which she co-starred with her ex-husband William Powell (awkward!).

Later successes included Made For Each Other, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and To Be Or Not To Be, which was released after her death.

Lombard began an affair with Gable while he was still married to Rhea Langham. Louise B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was able to land Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind by giving him a contract that would pay him enough money to divorce Langham and wed Lombard. The couple was married during a break in filming in Kingman, Arizona, with Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent, in attendance. They lived together on a ranch in Encino for the next three years.

In 1942, Lombard, accompanied by Winkler and her mother, flew to Indiana on a mission to sell bonds for the war effort. The trip was very successful, with Lombard selling over $2 million worth of bonds in a single day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, the plane they were in crashed into Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas, killing all 22 people on-board.

A grief-stricken Gable, who was rumored to have been engaged in an affair with Lana Turner at the time of Lombard’s death, flew to the crash site. He purchased three adjoining crypts in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery for the couple and Lombard’s mother, where all three are now interrred.

Lombard’s final film To Be Or Not To Be (1942) was in post-production at the time of her death. After the crash, the producers cut out a line of dialogue in which her character rhetorically asks, “What could happen in a plane?”

Lombard was posthumously honored by the U.S. government with the launch of a Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard, and with the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war.

The question arises: Was Lombard really the first American woman to die as a result of World War II?

Most certainly not. There were previous civilian female casualties at Pearl Harbor, but like their male counterparts, they were unknown to the general public. As a well-known personality, Lombard’s death was used by the media and the War Department to personalize the conflict, and to strengthen America’s resolve.

This plaque at Lombard's crash site was stolen in 2007.