There have been many famous friendships in Hollywood, and one of the longest and most cited is Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda’s. The two meet when both were starting out in summer stock theater in the New England area, Stewart just having graduated from Princeton and Fonda having come from the regional theaters in the Midwest.
Along with Josh Logan, Stewart and Fonda moved into an apartment in New York City. After honing their skills on Broadway, Stewart eventually followed Fonda out to Hollywood once the movies came calling, and they once again were roommates in their early movie years.
Throughout their careers, Stewart and Fonda made three films where they starred on screen opposite one another: two westerns and their first pairing in the film On Our Merry Way. (Note: as reader Mike commented below, the two both starred in 1962’s How the West Was Won, although they shared no screen time together, so this post focuses on their on-screen pairings in these three features). This 1948 film featured Burgess Meridith as a newspaper classified ads clerk who pretends to be a reporter to impress his wife. The film is made up of three segments, each depicting an answer to the reporter’s question of “What influence has a baby had on your life?”
Stewart and Fonda play jazz musicians Slim and Link, who are traveling by bus with their big band. The two find themselves stuck at a seaside resort when their bus breaks down. Hoping to earn the money for their repairs by hosting and fixing a music talent contest, the two find themselves out a band and stranded when they are foiled by the talents of a female trumpet player who outplays the competition (with the help of Fonda and Stewart’s rigging plan going up in smoke). Trumpet star Harry James makes a brief appearance to help judge the contest, and it’s great fun to see Stewart and Fonda in their younger years onscreen together.
Their next pairing would come twenty years later in Vincent McEveety’s Firecreek. The film put Stewart and Fonda on opposite sides of the law, with Stewart as a sheriff trying to protect his town against Fonda’s gang of gunfighters.
But it is their last pairing that might be the most endearing. Made two years after Firecreek, Stewart and Fonda teamed up to play best friends in Gene Kelly’s The Cheyenne Social Club. Stewart and Fonda play cowboys who have been working the ranges when Stewart’s character, John O’Hanlan, gets a letter announcing his brother has left him an establishment called the Cheyenne Social Club in his will. Fonda’s Harley Sullivan decides to join O’Hanlan for the ride to Cheyenne. When they arrive, they realize the Cheyenne Social Club is a house of ill repute. Determined to make something respectable of the brothel, O’Hanlan and Sullivan get more than they bargained for with the Club and its inhabitants, lead by Jenny (Shirley Jones).
The film’s premise, while slightly risque, lends itself well as a vehicle for innocent comedy for Stewart and Fonda. The two are perfectly cast as two old cowboys, their lifelong friendship showing through. The film also allows for a humorous scene where Stewart and Fonda debate politics, which also stands as a reflection of their real-life relationship. Stewart, a Republican, and the Democrat Fonda had once come to blows in their early years over differences of politics, but had agreed for the sake of their friendship that they would never discuss politics again.
It was also on this film that Stewart rode his longtime western horse, Pie, for the last time. The horse was well into his twenties, and would pass away after filming concluded. Fonda, knowing how much the horse meant to his friend, and being an accomplished artist, worked on a watercolor painting of Pie in his spare time during the shoot. He presented to the painting to Stewart, who counted it as one of his prized possessions.
As evidence to the depth of their friendship, there are many stories of how Fonda and Stewart would spend time together building model airplanes, not talking, just enjoying the mutual company. I wanted to leave you with one of my favorite clips, a rare public appearance of Fonda roasting his friend, giving just a small peek at their long history together starting back when they were unknown actors. It’s fun to get a glimpse through their films and clips together of a lifelong friendship between two of the screen’s greatest actors.
ADDED: This link has a collection of Jimmy Stewart photos, and at the bottom is a photo with the actor posing with the painting of Pie. http://www.tcf.ua.edu/Classes/Jbutler/T577/Students/jimmy.html