Every year, Jimmy graces our screens as countless people watch him help tell the story of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m talking of course about Jimmy the Raven, though I suppose one could make the same case for Jimmy Stewart. Between the two, however, even Stewart recognized that it was the raven who was the superior colleague, and acquiesced to being referred to as “JS” to stop Jimmy from flying on set every time the director said Stewert’s name.1
“The raven is the smartest actor on set. They don’t have to make as many retakes for him as for the rest of us.” – Jimmy Stewart, while filming You Can’t Take it With You in 19382
Among corvid lover’s, Jimmy’s role in It’s a Wonderful Life is surely a memorable delight, but few probably know the full extent of his career and accomplishments.
Jimmy’s first role was in Frank Capra’s 1938 movie, You Can’t Take It With You, after which Capra cast Jimmy in every one of his subsequent films. As a result, Jimmy is sometimes mistaken as Capra’s pet, though he really belonged to animal trainer Curley Twiford. In fact it was Jimmy riding on Twiford’s bulldog, Squeezit, along with two parakeets that initially caught a director’s attention and launched Twiford’s career as one of Hollywood’s earliest animal trainers.3
To make him more marketable, Twiford trained Jimmy to do a wide variety of things including opening mail, operating a typewriter, lighting a cigarette, flipping magazine pages, and dealing a hand of poker. In the course of Twiford’s career he trained hundred of animals, but it was Jimmy and his subsequent corvids that he marveled at the most. In a remark that will probably surprise no one, Twiford once said that of all the animals he trained, cats were the most challenging and corvids were the easiest, remembering their stunts for ten years.3
To achieve such tricks, Twiford taught Jimmy a sizable vocabulary of 53 words. Since so much of Jimmy’s act (and therefore Twiford’s income) depended on Jimmy’s memory of these words, Twiford had Jimmy insured with a first of its kind “loss of memory” policy.4 Lloyds of London, which remains in operation today, wrote the policy–no doubt with ample side-eye from their competitors. No word, though, on if they currently have any avian clients.
Twiford claimed that between 1938 and 1950, Jimmy had appeared in over 1,000 credited and uncredited films.3 IMBD, the contemporary scorekeeper of such things, lists 22 credited appearances, including The Enchanted Valley, God’s Country, and The Secret Garden. He even had an extended roll in The Wizard of OZ, though the scene was later cut.
At the height of his career, Jimmy might well have been a household name, even having newspaper articles dedicated to his biography and upcoming films. One such article in 1948 boasted that Jimmy possessed a, “Red Cross gold medal for his 200 hours spent entertaining Wold War Two veterans,” though the article did not specify if it meant the American Red Cross, or some other entity.5 Still, neither Rin Tin Tin nor Lassie (both of whom Jimmy worked with6,7) can claim such an honor, even if its true nature is rather murky .
Jimmy’s last film was Three Ring Circus, filmed in 1954, nearly 20 years after his first movie. Sadly, his subsequent whereabouts and death are unknown, though I found one article from 1957 that talks about a raven named Jimmy.7 For iconic animal actors however, their successors are often named after them and, indeed, an article published in 1958 mentions a raven by the name of Jimmy Jr., so it’s possible that other articles published during that time were really talking about different birds.8 Curley Twinford died himself only two years after Three Ring Circus in 1956.
Searching through newspaper databases, it’s incredible to see the amount of attention Jimmy received throughout his career. Like other Hollywood stars, his activities, on-set demands, and pay rate were all the subjects of much ado. He charmed audiences and his costars alike, no doubt leaving impressions of intelligence that would not be widely accepted until much later. It would be nearly another twenty years after his death before corvids such as Jimmy would be federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I can’t say what role, if any, Jimmy played in shaping the public’s perception of these birds, but it’s hard to imagine that such a star left without leaving a mark.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer June 7, 1946: pg 17.
- Driscoll, C. New York Day by Day. The Choshocton Tribune. Choshocton, Ohio. June 29, 1983: pg 8.
- Kohrs, K. and Ross, S. Movie Animal Man. The Salt Lake Tribune. March 26, 1956: pg 109.
- Clary, P. Hollywood Film Shop. The Daily Republican. Monongahela, Pennsylvania. November 18, 1948: page 6.
- Jim, the Raven, in new flicker. The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948: p. 12.
- Parsons, L.O. Those Film Fauna are Ticklish Detail. Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Florida. March 17, 1946: pg 79.
- Burton, R. Film Shop. Odessa American. Odessa, Texas. April 30, 1957: pg 8.
- Performing Raven. The Tribune. Coshocton, Ohio. August 23, 1958: pg 4.