JAMES STEPHENSON came to Hollywood in 1937 at the age of 48. In the few years before his sudden death in 1941, his studio Warner Brothers cast him in nearly 40 films – in just 4 years. But he will probably be remembered for only one , 1940’s THE LETTER for which he was Oscar-nominated.
With no formal acting training, James moved from amateur productions to professional work on the London stage and in 1937 made a few films at Warner Brothers’ Teddington Studios in England. Jack Warner offered James the prospect of work in Hollywood.
Married in 1936, James arrived in Hollywood and wrote constantly to his wife Lorna until she was able to join him.
David A. Redfern, Stephenson’s biographer, had access to some of James’s letters to his wife and they give quite an insight into what it was like getting started in one of the big studios.
”We were shown around the studio. It is a colossal place – there are 20 sound stages and the place is like a town…….
(James had crossed the Atlantic with two other actors bound for Warner Brothers – Bruce Lester and Chili Bouchier)
”We went to the publicity dept and had to fill in long questionnaires, asking absurd questions for ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ publicity……what is your favourite dish, favourite colour. What foreign countries have you visited…”
“We’ve to have photographs and make-up tests, then we make real tests which will decide our fate.”
James arrived in November 1937 and started work in January of 1938.
When you see James in his Oscar-nominated role as ‘Howard Joyce’ the lawyer in THE LETTER, you see a tall distinguished Englishman with a beautiful speaking voice, a quiet authority, sharing the screen and not being overshadowed by Bette Davis.
But If you look at the films James was in before The Letter , it’s obvious Warner Bros. didnt see what they had in this actor.
Often billed far down the credits, he had small parts in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, A Dispatch From Reuters,Nancy Drew Detective and Beau Geste.
He played suave gangsters. He was loaned to Republic for The Wolf of New York, as ‘Hiram’, a mastermind behind murders and robberies. (One of his films I’d love to see.)
When Were You Born starred Anna May Wong as an astrologist. James was only in the first ten minutes of the film. ( as was Lola Lane). This film is on You Tube and was fun to watch.
Obviously made on a low budget, I was impressed by Anna May Wong whose Hollywood career never took off.
James did better in 1939’s King Of The Underworld. He was third billed behind Humphrey Bogart and Kay Francis. Another film I want to catch up with. ( this film was a remake of Paul Muni’s Dr.Socrates.)
James did get the starring role in PHILO VANCE RETURNS but it didn’t do him any favours or show what he was capable of.
And then came The Letter:
”I knew they were looking for someone to play the role of Howard Joyce,the lawyer. I couldn’t see the sense of hiring an outside player for the part when they had me under contract…..I wanted to do that role very badly……”
On working with William Wyler, Stephenson said: “By the end of th first week I’ d been convinced that I was the worst damn actor in the world. I dreaded leaving home for the studio . I envied every man I met who didn’t have Willie Wyler to face that day.”
But later he said: “What if he did give me a hell of a time. With it, he gave me a new lease of life for which I shall be everlastingly grateful.”
For the first time in his film career, Stephenson was receiving critical praise for his substantial role in The Letter.
Famous writer Damon Runyon said: “In The Letter Bette Davis has a fellow working with her who is no sucker in the acting racket and who makes her hustle to keep up with him. His name is James Stephenson and he reads line for line and plays scene for scene with Miss Davis.Only she could escape larceny of the picture at his hands…”
James lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Walter Brennan (for The Westerner). But he was promoted to starring roles in his next two films, FLIGHT FROM DESTINY and SHINING VICTORY, both with Geraldine Fitzgerald. I hope to catch up on both if they are available.
Bette Davis in a cameo role for Shining Victory, seen above with Stephenson and Director Irving Rapper.
After the release of The Letter In November 1940, James had been advised by a heart specialist to rest for three months but he continued filming .
James suffered a fatal heart attack in July 1941. He was survived by his wife Lorna and young son Peter. I came across a now defunct blog, The Claude Rains Fan Club and found a comment from Peter Stephenson regarding a review of The Letter.
The comment, made in 2018, said: “Here I am, J.S’s 78 year old son, enjoying this commentary. Seeing his films is like viewing a vital life through thick of course unbreakable glass.”
(Peter Stephenson was born in 1940 and was only one year old when his father died.)
Who knows whether James, if he had lived longer, would have got another role to match that of Howard Joyce in The Letter. But we can be grateful for his memorable performance in this memorable film.
One further quote from James to his wife Lorna before she joined him in Hollywood:
”If you get a chance to see a picture called The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, do see it. It is the funniest thing ever and has sent Cary Grant rocketing to the top.”