Jimmy Stewart It’s a Wonderful Life

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

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

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

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A Jagged Edge

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

Jim Stewart as George Bailey Standing on the edge of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve heard more than once on the book tour that some people are uncomfortable with It’s a Wonderful Life as a motion picture. A couple weeks ago I watched it on the big screen and sat there with this specific point of view in mind. I have to say, I understand where these people are coming from. This is a dark tale, so dark and so unusual that it’s no wonder Jim Stewart balked initially when Capra pitched it to him in autumn 1945.

A man driven to suicide? No, no, no, Jim countered, if I can find work–if any studio will have me-I just want to make a comedy.

An angel needs to earn his wings? What? Forget it, Frank, I’m out.

When you’re sitting in a balcony looking at a silver screen 30 feet high, the view is much clearer than your television system at home, even if you’ve got a 65-inch setup. As viewed this picture the way God intended, in a theatrical setting, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled as a long picture, and grim, with a carefully crafted screenplay that drives our hero to despair in a relentless effort. Take for example the “Buffalo Gal” sequence after the dance and the terrific exchange between Stewart and Donna Reed walking along the street. It’s a dynamic sequence that builds and builds and suddenly she’s (presumably) naked in the hydrangea bush. Jim says what the audience is thinking, “This is a very interesting situation!”

Boom! The air is let out of characters and audience alike by news that George’s father has suffered a stroke. I don’t think it’s just me who reacts badly to this. We are meant as an audience to be uncomfortable with this moment because the theme of the picture is oppression, gloom, and the erosion of a person’s will by the tide of life. If not for the relentlessness of the setup, the payoff wouldn’t offer such release from the emotional bondage Capra has spent two hours creating.

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

George at the end of his rope, praying for guidance. Jim only had one take in him, and told Capra he had nailed it and couldn’t do another.

With my newfound perspective on Jim Stewart the man and actor, knowing more than anyone in the world other than Jim himself what he had gone through in the war, I watched him onscreen as, frame by frame, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled in the dark. In his first scene buying the suitcase he’s playing 22 when in the real world he’s 38 going on 50. He’s got a hairpiece in front, hair coloring left and right on his gray, heavy makeup, and careful lighting to help him carry an impression of youth. He bubbles over with energy in that first scene. He’s a thoroughbred just out of the gate at Churchill Downs in this moment, a stallion away for five years and now once again feeling the bit between his teeth. And man does he run. What comes across is youthful enthusiasm but make no mistake, this is a man who appreciates the opportunity he’s been given, a man who is going to work this day and not getting shot at by a deadly foe.

There is brutal hate in George Bailey, and Stewart—a desperate man at this point in his life—finds that vibe easily, as when he goes to Mary’s house and berates her for showing romantic interest in him and accuses her of trying to tie him down. What did Mary ever do but love this man, and he all but wipes his shoes on her. Jim Stewart’s George Bailey is a guy with an edge, wild-eyed in some scenes, rage-filled in others, as when he wrecks his living room and terrorizes his wife and children who see not husband and father but a monster unmasked. The America of 1946 was filled with monsters, men back from the hell of World War II and now strangers in their own homes, in some cases ticking time bombs, full of self-loathing at what they had seen and done and unleashing fury on family members, just like George did with Mary and the kids.

Indeed, the picture is populated by people riding the line of good and evil, like Nick the bartender, good in the Bailey world, evil without Bailey’s influence. Or George’s mother, a bitter soul without George around. And Gower the druggist, who so easily beats youngster George to a pulp and bloodies his ear. Capra paints this corner of America as a brutal place but for the intervention of someone extraordinary like George, a man of principle who influences impressionable, self-involved masses.

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

Jim wild-eyed and letting the world see something from deep inside.

There is a myth that It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office on release 70 years ago this month at Christmas 1946, but that’s not accurate. This was a prestige picture and it performed like one and nearly made back its cost, but that cost had been extravagant, from construction of the main streets of Bedford Falls at the RKO Ranch in Encino to the snowstorm created in 90-degree Mojave Desert to all those expensive bridge and river shots that took weeks to complete on RKO soundstages.

What isn’t myth is that this was a picture ahead of its time, too long and dark for war-weary audiences to process in 1946. In another 10 years television would intervene and peacetime Eisenhower-era viewers would drink up and savor It’s a Wonderful Life for its themes of principles, friendship, the value of human lives lived well.

When you finish reading Mission you will understand what Stewart brought to this production and what it meant to him. You will sit there in the dark not just with Jim but with fine young army fliers like Albert Poor and Earle Metcalf who died under Jim’s command but lived on through all their skipper’s accomplishments. Jim carried with him all those boys he had lost, which is one of the reasons he wouldn’t talk about the war—it hurt too much. He didn’t talk about it but he remembered those men and their times each and every day on a journey into the second half of his career that began with It’s a Wonderful Life.

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

Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George in the last reel of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Going All the Way

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

An interesting situation arose when I routed the manuscript for Mission for review to key subject matter experts who had helped in its development. Two are Hollywood historians, one is a WWII historian, and two are aviators who flew with Jim Stewart in the war. One of the fliers took umbrage with my depiction of Jim’s sexual exploits in pre-war Hollywood, and most stridently so. No spoilers here, not for a book still four months from release (and the embargo is still in effect), but suffice to say Jim was a far busier boy than you’d expect during his five-plus years in Hollywood prior to joining the military in 1941. The flier said, basically, that in his day you didn’t speak of such things, and he didn’t want Jim to be remembered that way.

I did some soul-searching after receiving this feedback because I greatly admire the man who delivered it, and I wondered if he was right that this type of information has no place in a book about Stewart’s military career. Here are the meanderings of my mind as I thought it through:

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

You’d never know it from the characters she played onscreen, but MGM contract star Ann Rutherford was another of the busy ones around town.

Sex wasn’t invented by the counter-culture of the 1960s. Sex was a favorite pastime of Hollywood citizens going back to the first days of hand-cranked cameras in the silent era. All roads in my research for Errol Flynn Slept Here, Errol & Olivia, and Fireball led to, well, sex. Errol Flynn was a big fan of indiscriminate sex. So was Clark Gable. Carole Lombard nurtured a healthy sexual appetite and did what came naturally and so did Jean Harlow. Even—dare I say it—Olivia de Havilland succumbed to pleasures of the flesh in an environment in which many of the world’s most beautiful, suddenly rich and famous people were crammed into a few square miles of exotic Southern California real estate, with no rules or chaperones. It became a matter of sport and ego to see who could bag whom, and Marlene Dietrich might be the prototype for sexual athletics as will be revealed in Mission when she looked at her lovers not as men or women or actors or people but as “conquests.”

If you’re a 30-year-old heterosexual guy and your day-job requires you to kiss Hedy Lamarr or Lana Turner—women whose every move is of interest to an entire movie-going world—what the heck are you going to be inclined to be thinking about but, My God this is a beautiful woman! If you’re a heterosexual woman known as a glamour queen and the script says today you will be romancing Flynn, Gable, or Doug Fairbanks Jr., and you’re looking into their eyes all day long, feeling their beating hearts, are you supposed to turn that off along with the soundstage lighting at 6 in the evening?

Olivia de Havilland tells a funny story about being in the clinches with Flynn shooting the love scene for Robin Hood over and over and “poor Errol had a problem with his tights.” You betcha. He was 28; she was 21. Nature was taking its course.

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

Why, Robin, I do believe you’re happy to see me.

There was a whole lot of nature going on in Hollywood by the 1930s when Jim Stewart reached his prime. Going into the Mission project I had heard that Stewart was known for having a “big stick” and I couldn’t even imagine it from this small-town product with a strong Presbyterian upbringing, but son of a gun, America’s boy next door had a side to him that reveals a lot about who he really was and what his psyche needed. “He had an ego, like all of them,” said a man who knew the older Jimmy Stewart well.

A picture started to emerge for me as I searched for the “real Jimmy Stewart,” not the lovable old guy on Johnny Carson, but the young one roaming Hollywood and then, seemingly inexplicably, running off with a big grin to join the Army nine months before shots were fired by Americans in what became WWII. And part of the story of who Stewart was, a significant part, involved his Hollywood love life, which meant that after all my soul searching, the juicy stuff stayed. I decided to go all the way … just like Jim.

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

Stewart once told his perturbed BFF Henry Fonda, “Hank, I don’t steal your dates. They steal me.”