By 1949, Jimmy Stewart hadn’t made a genuine hit in nearly a decade.
Sure, he’d spent much of that time away fighting World War II, but audiences are fickle and too long away from the spotlight is deadly to any career.
He was 41, and a few more mediocre films would be the end of him.
He needed a hit.
He got one with The Stratton Story.
The film tells the true story of Monty Stratton, a Chicago White Sox baseball pitcher whose promising future is destroyed when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg while hunting on his farm. His leg is amputated below the knee, and his baseball career is over.
Or is it?
Stewart portrays Stratton with depth and nuance—he’s always been an affable, look-on-the-bright-side kind of fellow, and he reminds himself that he still has his wife (June Allyson) and son. But his new physical limitations are a hard pill to swallow for a man used to playing baseball and working his farm.
Just to twist the knife on the audience, the last thing Monty does before his accident is secretly take dancing lessons so that he can dance with his wife. Monty and Ethel dance the night away before he goes on his fateful hunting trip.
At first, Stratton falls into a deep depression and refuses to even attempt to walk with the prosthetic leg the doctors have fashioned for him.
Ethel and his mother (Agnes Moorehead) steadfastly support him but begin to despair when they cannot rouse Monty to start living again.
In the end, Monty awakens to life for the sake of his young son. His son is trying to learn to walk, and keeps falling. Monty realizes that as his father, he must set the example, and together the two take their first tentative steps—his son on wobbly toddler legs, and Monty with his prosthetic leg.
Soon Monty has his old fire back, and as he plays catch with Ethel on the farm, he begins to dream of returning to the baseball diamond.
Against all odds, he finds his way back to the minor leagues, just as the real Monty Stratton did.
Though he would never made it back to the majors, the film ends in triumph as Monty overcomes the odds and once again pitches in a minor league game.
It was the hit Stewart needed.
Audiences loved Stewart as Monty Stratton, a character that very much matched Stewart’s public persona—a kind, loving man whom you couldn’t help but root for.
The Stratton Story won the Oscar for Best Screenplay and was one of the top box office hits of 1949.
It was the first of three films he made with June Allyson, each with her playing his supportive wife.
It’s a film that’s at times romantic, tender, funny, and inspiring without ever tipping over into schmaltz.
It launched the second—and most successful—half of Jimmy Stewart’s career.
For Jimmy Stewart fans, it’s not to be missed.
Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.