Despite the critical appeal Stewart was beginning to develop, he was still a minor star at best, and MGM was hesitant to cast him as a lead in a big movie. They preferred to loan him out to other studios, such as RKO. He joined Hollywood queen Ginger Rogers for “Vivacious Lady,” which included an undisclosed illness and a hospital visit for Stewart. The project was briefly canceled, but following Rogers’s success in a stage musical, the film was put back into production.
While Stewart initially wasn’t a favorite of Rogers, she insisted he return as the leading man. Her intuition was correct: the film was a critical and commercial success and was a tour de force for Stewart, who showed off his talent for acting in romantic comedies. The critical praise increased, and Stewart would soon meet a very important man in his life.
Another Good Year
1936 would continue to pay off for Stewart. He had supporting roles in a pair of winning romantic comedies, “Wife vs. Secretary” and “Small Town Girl.” Coincidentally, in both, he played the original boyfriend of the leading lady who would have to go home empty by the time the credits ran. He was then able to get top billing in the low-budget movie “Speed,” which had him as a mechanic and race driver competing in the then-nascent Indianapolis 500.
This film was a critical and commercial failure, though Stewart’s performance was found to be at least competent. 1936 finished out with three more films, all of them performing well (though his time as the lead in “Born to Dance” made him realize he wasn’t much of a singer or a dancer).
Toward the End of the Decade
Stewart’s time at the movies went through quick ups and downs during this period. His emotional climax in “After the Thin Man” proved he had dramatic acting chops. He joined French actress Simone Simon, just as miscast as he was, in the romantic drama “Seventh Heaven,” a painful commercial and critical failure. He received critical acclaim from “Navy Blue and Gold” in 1937 as a football player in the United States Naval Academy.
It was his best-reviewed film up to that point. Critics noticed that he could hold up against the best of them when it came to acting, but he hadn’t yet moved into the upper echelon of the MGM roster. Thankfully, that would change in 1938, no matter how much MGM dragged its feet.
The Role of a Star
Another one of these loaned-out roles was to a man named Frank Capra, who had been making movies for a little while. Capra wanted Stewart to play the lead role in his 1938 movie “You Can’t Take It With You,” alongside Jean Arthur. Stewart plays the son of a banker who falls in love with a woman from a poor family, yet there is energy and light in her life, unlike in his.
Capra had been looking for a new kind of leading man, and he had been interested in Stewart since seeing “Navy Blue and Gold.” Thanks to this combination of director and star, “You Can’t Take It With You” became the year’s fifth-highest-grossing movie and won the Best Picture award.
A Partnership that Worked
The three films after “You Can’t Take it With You” were all disappointments – commercially, at least. He was in “Made for Each Other” and managed to get favorable reviews, but the other two couldn’t even get that much. After those three, Capra called Stewart up again and asked him if he wanted a role in a little movie called “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Stewart, playing an idealist thrown into the political machine, garnered rapturous critical praise and ended up as the third-highest-grossing film of the year.
Thanks to Stewart’s acting in the film, he was immediately shot to stardom. The part of Mr. Smith was by no means an easy one for an actor of any caliber, and Stewart proved that he could do it all when you put him in front of a camera, except for maybe singing and dancing.