By 1950, he was flying high from the success of The Stratton Story, and his brand new marriage to his first (and only) wife Gloria McLean.
But career-wise, Jimmy had two things working against him.
The first was the unending passage of time. Jimmy was now a 42-year-old man with lines around his eyes from what he’d seen during World War II. He could no longer play the bumbling, wide-eyed youth, a role he’d perfected in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Second, he refused to make films that glorified war, which locked him out of many popular films.
Despite this, he had superstar legend-in-the-making agent Lew Wasserman as his ace in the hole.
Wasserman already had a cap full of feathers, including convincing Warner Brothers to sign Hollywood’s first million dollar annual salary contract for a B-list actor everyone thought was about to break through.
Who was this man, the first Hollywood star to make a million dollars in one year?
You know him as the 40th President of the United States—Ronald Reagan.
Wasserman wanted to get Jimmy Stewart in that same rarefied air, but he went about it a little differently, and changed Stewart’s life and Hollywood in the process.
Wasserman negotiated a two-picture deal, including Winchester ’73, a film where Stewart would have considerable creative control, including director and co-star approval, which was unusual at the time. Even more unusual, Stewart took no salary but was guaranteed half of the gross profits.
Jimmy would be paid only if the film succeeded.
He took the gamble because he knew the script was good, and that outside of combat films, westerns were the best way to play more mature and tough characters.
Stewart stars as Lin McAdam, a man on a mission of vengeance against Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). We don’t know why Lin is after Dutch, but it’s clear right off that Dutch probably deserves it. Lin is gallant to women, and plays fair when he and Dutch square off in a shooting contest to win a coveted Winchester ’73 rifle.
Lin wins the rifle, but Dutch and his men jump Lin in his hotel room, beat him, steal the rifle, and ride out of town with Lin in hot pursuit.
And we’re off!
The film splits into two paths—we watch Lin’s pursuit of Dutch, and we watch the Winchester rifle’s journey as it travels from man to man. Sometimes a man forcibly takes it from another, sometimes its owner winds up dead.
But by the final scene, Lin has recovered his rifle and is pursuing Dutch up a ragged mountain. Both are shooting to kill, and only one will survive this gunfight.
Meanwhile, Lola (who had lost her love for her fiancé even before his death after he revealed himself a coward) who has come to love Lin, learns the reason that Lin is pursuing Dutch to the death.
They are brothers, and Dutch shot their father in the back after he refused to hide Dutch from the police after he robbed a bank.
Lin is the one who comes down from the mountain.
Stewart’s gamble paid off.
Audiences loved this new side of Stewart—violent and gritty, but governed by his own code—treat women right, avenge your father’s death. Don’t start fights but finish them.
In the end, Stewart made $600,000 on a film that cost about a million to make. Paired with Harvey, the second film in Wasserman’s deal, Stewart joined the small club of actors who’d made a million dollars in a single year.
It broke open Stewart’s career as a cowboy, and kept him off the on-screen military battlefield. Anthony Mann directed, and after the success of Winchester ’73, they would go on to make seven more films together (all but one westerns.)
And it broke open the practice of profit-sharing, and the big paydays that still await movie stars that can produce hits.
Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.