If this were 1966 instead of 2016, you could go down any street and ask passersby if they knew who Clark Gable was, and be met by incredulity or outright anger. “Of course I know who Gable is! (…you idiot!)” Back then we were still attached to Hollywood’s golden age because the movies played on local and network TV and the glamorous movie stars showed up in series and variety and game shows. They existed in the fabric of our culture. If this were 1966, in just two more years would come yet another major revival of Gone With the Wind, this time updated in 70mm, and moviegoers would get another shot of Gable, Vivien Leigh, and crew to keep them fresh in our minds.

But that was a long, long time ago now. The old stars have passed on and their motion pictures no longer play on the late show. Instead those feature films have been relegated to that great Indian reservation for old cinema, Turner Classic Movies, where they can roam in free black-and-white isolation and not offend the youngsters. Here’s a great explanation of why classic film is not likely to endure in popular culture much longer.

Most of you come here to read my babble because you love classic Hollywood. And because you do know so much about it and have seen hundreds or thousands of vintage Hollywood movies and read dozens of books, you might not be aware how dramatically popular culture has changed around you. It’s no longer a slam dunk that some stranger will know even the name Clark Gable since his most famous picture hasn’t played network television in, what, a generation? Forget getting a glint of recognition about Ronald Colman or Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford is known only as the eyebrow lady who hated wire hangers—if she’s known at all. Astaire and Rogers; what’s that, a law firm? You get my point.

But there are a few old stars who still ring the bell all these decades later. One is John Wayne, subject of a definitive biography by Scott Eyman a couple of years ago that became a runaway hit and New York Times bestseller. The Duke is an American icon whether or not you’ve ever sat through one of his pictures. Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn are unquestionably still bigtime. And then there’s Jimmy Stewart.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Duke and Jim together in one of their best pictures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

One thing that led to Stewart’s longevity is that after World War II, he reinvented himself and started looking for edgier roles. For a solid decade he made pictures you wouldn’t expect to find him in, usually with strong box office results. In other words, he didn’t play it safe and go out to pasture (move to television). He looked down his nose at television, skillfully played the system, and kept showing up on theater marquees well into the 1960s.

That’s not to say business acumen makes JS relevant in 2016. He died in 1997, about a generation ago. He stopped making public appearances long before that, and so for practical purposes he slipped from the “newsfeed” at the end of the 1980s. His last starring role in a feature film was way back in 1971. And oh by the way that picture bombed. Sure he left behind some wonderful films—Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester ’73, Harvey, and Vertigo come to mind off the top of my head. He made his share of clunkers too, but my point is, if you’re under 40 and not a fan of old Hollywood, you belong to a vast majority that doesn’t know these pictures. Nor do you likely have any urge to see them. It’s very much a generational thing.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Jim in one of those pictures you wouldn’t expect, grinding Dan Duryea’s face into the bar in Winchester ’73.

But Stewart has something no other leading man has, and he’s not about to lose it. Stewart starred in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I could ask the person on the street, “Who’s Jimmy Stewart?”—even ask it of a 20-something—and I’ll get a smile and an enthusiastic, “I love Jimmy Stewart!” and that’s because of It’s a Wonderful Life, a picture I’m beginning to believe has become the most beloved in American popular culture. Parents pass it along to children who grow up and pass it along to children, and it keeps resonating because the concepts are universal. Do the right thing. Have honor. Don’t give up. Value your friends. Value your life.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read customer reviews of Fireball that said, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard before I read this book,” and for good reason. Carole Lombard died almost 75 years ago! Why should the modern reader know about Carole Lombard?

Stewart is a different animal. Everybody thinks they know Jimmy Stewart because they know George Bailey. Know him very well, in fact, and figure Jim is George, but guess what? Jim isn’t George. Jim isn’t even Jimmy. Jim is a complex, almost impenetrable character, and for me the hook was Jim came home from war and made It’s a Wonderful Life. From the moment the dynamics of this formula hit me, horrors of war, beloved actor, beloved film, I started writing and didn’t look back for fear somebody else was out there banging out the same story in Peoria or Sioux Falls.

Luckily, nobody was, and in a short six days you can tell me if you really knew Jim and if you still love him, because in six days Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (GoodKnight Books) has its official release. In fact, why not plan to join me at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio for the launch event next Thursday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m.?


  1. That’s right – never call him “Jimmy” any more that you would call the late great founder of modern American jazz music Louis Armstrong “Louie”. I congratulate you for your effort to bring recognition to a new generation the life of James Stewart. He had dignity, honor and class and starred in at least one movie with he great Carole Lombard. (Lately I’ve been wondering if off set James and Carole ever spent quality time together, if you know what I mean) But to me, Stewart means much more than John Wayne ever will. Think “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” if nothing else. As for the Duke, Marlon Brando commented years ago that due to the drunken fun fist fests in many of his movies, particularly in the early 60’s, he was a “bad” influence on the culture. I took that seriously. Of course Wayne will forever remain an icon for Stagecoach, The Alamo and Liberty Valance, pilgrim! So just get drunk and start dukin’ was one form of group therapy-suggestion in our film history that needs to be forgotten, even if it was all for fun.

    1. Great points, Christopher. Duke certainly knew his brand and played to formula endlessly, including those mindless fistfights that became trademarks of his Ford and (Andrew V.) McLaglen pictures. Stewart even succumbed on occasion but boy, the actors must have tired of it all. In general I agree 100% that Jim left behind a great number of quality pictures. As for the idea of a Stewart-Lombard coupling, she must have wondered what all the fuss was about because all her peers were bagging him, so a lot would have depended on how she was feeling about Gable on a particular day, and what Gable was up to, and whether she wanted to even the score. As for Jim, well, Jim aimed to please in those days. He loved A-list attention.

  2. I’ll need to get off from work a little early to make it to Dayton. I’m going to try to be there.
    See if you can stall them until I arrive.

  3. I had an uncle assigned to the 389th. (as a co-pilot) in September 1944. He was killed in the war but in some photographs we have of him, he stands alone in front of Lady Shamrock (apparently shortly she disappeared on Sept. 22). I find this picture odd as this B-24 was assigned to the 445th. Do you know if this was a famous plane for members of the 389th to be photographed with do to the connection of James Stewart and the January 1944 Paris incident?

    Wonderful book you wrote. My uncle flew 30 missions as a co-pilot, volunteered for 5 more as the pilot, and transferred to a P-51 unit where he was killed on a training mission on May 31, 1945. One of my uncles said he hoped to be assigned to the PTO to fly fighters.

    1. Thank you for reading Mission, Derald, and for the kind words. I was similarly confused by photos of men standing beside planes they shouldn’t have been standing beside, and what I was told was, there were two Lady Shamrocks. By coincidence they ended up in different bomb groups but the same combat wing. This bit of WWII serendipity had me pulling my hair out for a while.

      Your uncle was quite a hero to have survived 35 missions in heavies and the war in Europe, only to die in fighters while awaiting assignment to the Pacific. Very similar to what happened to Neil Johnson, one of Jim’s crack pilots, who completed his tour, chomped at the bit to get into fighters, and went on to die in Korea on final approach with wheels down. It was in their blood; they had to keep flying.

      1. Robert, thank you so much for your reply.

        I have the 389th bomb group history with a list of B-24s flow by that group. I believe it to be a complete list and there is no Lady Shamrock listed. I think that since two existed, they would not have the same nose art work. And the art work on the Lady Shamrock my uncle is standing by matches the 445th’s Lady Shamrock exactly.

        It may be one of those mystery’s I will not solve. But pieces of my uncle’s life seem to fall into my lap at unexpected times. Several years ago I was in contact with his navigator from his crew who gave me a silver dollar my grandfather had given each of the crew when they met them in July 1944 in Topeka, Kansas when they were preparing to head to Europe. The navigator drilled a hole through the coin and wore it around his neck for each of his 30 missions.

      2. Well now I’m stumped. There was a Lady Shamrock with just lettering and no nose art and I figured that was the one he was standing beside in the photo. Figuring out the names and numbers of the planes was a labor-intensive exercise and of all things, one of the harder pieces of the Stewart puzzle.

      3. Thanks to your book I have gotten back into researching my uncle’s war record. You may be interested to know my uncle was on the March 21, 1945, mission to Achmer with Mr. Stewart. On this mission he was a pilot and part of the 389th Bomb Group’s 31 B-24s, his last name is Crabb. This was his 35th and final mission on a B-24.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s