Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen
Posted on December 21, 2016 at 2:43 pm
Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, tells the story of the extraordinary war service of the man we all know as the genial actor who always seemed to exemplify American values. He seldom spoke about his combat missions, so the stories of his war service in this book are new and the impact that experience had are critical in understanding his body of work. the first in-depth look at Stewart’s life as a Squadron Commander in the skies over Germany, and, his return to Hollywood the changed man who embarked on production of America’s most beloved holiday classic, reflecting his more sober, complex, but still hopeful view of the world, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Matzen sifted through thousands of Air Force combat reports and the Stewart personnel files; interviewed surviving aviators who flew with Stewart; visited the James Stewart Papers at Brigham Young University; flew in the cockpits of the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator; and walked the earth of air bases in England used by Stewart in his combat missions of 1943-45. If he had not been an Oscar-winning actor, we would still recognize him as a war hero.
The introduction by film scholar Leonard Maltin notes:
It’s a Wonderful Life was a challenging project for him and his director, Frank Capra. Both of them had been reshaped by the war and were understandably nervous about resuming their careers. It is fitting that Matzen bookends his story by describing Stewart’s return to the world of make-believe that this job represented in 1946.
This is not to say that he was a one-trick pony in the 1930s and early 40s. His earnestness was his stock in trade, but he reveals a comedic cynicism in The Shop Around the Corner and an unexpected sophistication in The Philadelphia Story, which earned him his only Academy Award.
But It’s a Wonderful Life calls on him to express a range of emotions he had never tapped into before. After all, here is a man so overcome by despair and the feeling of failure that he tries to commit suicide. The scene in which he breaks down while sitting at Nick’s Bar was so draining that the actor begged his director not to make him do it a second time. After the first take, Capra wanted to do another and have his camera push in toward Stewart; he accomplished the effect with a laboratory blowup instead.
This meticulously researched book provides important insights into one of the finest actors — and, as we now know, one of the finest combat pilots, in history.