Jimmy Stewart MGM

On a Mission for ‘Mission’


Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Jimmy Stewart risks his crisp uniform walking the muddy track at Tibenham in front of crew quarters.

It’s been more than 18,000 miles since I last updated this blog. First came a business trip from Pittsburgh to Portland and back, followed almost immediately by a nine-day excursion to Europe as background research for Mission, the Jimmy Stewart book now under construction.

As you know if you know me, I don’t believe an author can write about a physical place significant to a story without having been there. I consider the locations to be characters because of their importance to the narrative, and I didn’t feel qualified to write about, for instance, Mt. Potosi, Nevada, where TWA Flight 3 crashed, until I had climbed it. In the same way, I can’t in good faith describe the 1943-44 U.S. Army air base in Tibenham, England, without visiting the runways where Stewart and so many other fliers took off, many never to return.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Stewart was a four-engine-rated Army pilot when he first landed at Tibenham November 25, 1943. He spent four months there during his heaviest run of combat missions. My November 23 and 24 (last week) were boots on the ground in Tibenham, where I experienced what the Americans did upon touching down: cold, damp, muddy weather, unrelenting, with very low overcast. By 4:20 P.M. on the days I visited, it was dark in Tibenham, which, until the Americans arrived, and after they left, was nothing more than a meandering village located along even more meandering roads wide enough for one ox cart of ye olden days, but not for motor vehicles.

As for my visit, you probably know that cars drive on the left in UK, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but with the deck stacked by rain and country roads with nothing over there called a “shoulder,” it becomes a big deal, especially with trucks barreling toward me—on the right no less. And there are lots of trucks driving around over there, careening around the hairpin turns. Then there’s that thing the English call a roundabout—every town has one or more. I’m pretty sure the Brits designed roundabouts to thin the herd of visiting Americans trying to navigate from the left while at the same time figuring out when to yield, when to proceed, and when to turn, always at high speed. But enough of my whining.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Rare is the idiot, er, scholar, who would fly across an ocean, bypass London, and head straight for a rainy field near Norwich where once an air base stood. Here is runway 0-3, the big one at Tibenham. From here the 445th Bomb Group took off almost daily, weather permitting, on several-hours-long bombing missions. Crews felt very lucky to touch back down here later in the day. Hundreds of fliers who lifted off in the morning never did.

Tibenham’s landing strips were returned to the RAF after hostilities ceased, and the base saw some service in the Cold War before a glider club took over; the gliders still operate there. The club historian, a pilot himself, is Eric Ratcliffe, and Eric graciously spent his afternoon showing me around what was once the air base. Precious few buildings remain from the small city that once held 3,000 American airmen, but I saw what was where and got the lay of the land, including the barracks where Stewart stayed (some of those quarters are still standing), and the primary local point of reference, the All Saints Tibenham Church, built in the sixteenth century. Its high tower and the north-south railway nearby served as vital landmarks to American pilots returning at dusk to nearly identical bases in the endless rolling farm country of East Anglia. So many air bases in fact, that mid-air collisions of heavy bombers taking off for morning missions in the overcast were a common occurrence in 1943 and 44, with great loss of life. Local lore includes very specific references to what body parts of American fliers rained down where around the railway station after a particular mid-air collision of B-24s.

I learned a lot during my two days of visits to Tibenham, and I know it will lend command and authenticity to my recounting of the 445th Bomb Group and Stewart’s squadron, the 703, as I describe his role in the war and his missions. But I also flip the story around and describe the experiences of others who crossed paths with Stewart and the daily bomber stream, civilians in Holland and Germany, and those in the Luftwaffe up against these great flying armadas. To many, Jimmy Stewart was a hero; to others he was one of the “terror fliers” of World War II. One of my colleagues in this enterprise dubbed the approach a “360-degree look at the war,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

The tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was a welcome sight that let pilots know they were home.

The high tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was visible for miles and served as a welcome sight to pilots struggling toward home.

Stewart’s a complex character and one I can identify with in some ways given that he and I both grew up in sister small western Pennsylvania college towns in coal country. But he’s also an enigma, a closed book of a human who hid a nervous stomach and waves of self-doubt about his looks, his attractiveness, and his talent behind a slow-thinking, slow-talking persona. Then there’s the most perplexing question of all: Why did Stewart so willingly step away from a Hollywood career that included the great triumph of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story to sign up for service when there wasn’t even a war to go fight? The obvious answer is that Jimmy Stewart was a flag-waving American patriot. Hooray for Jimmy! But the reality is quite different and something I look forward to sharing with you when Mission goes to press at the end of 2016.

For now, may I just say I’m home after four days of domestic and nine days of European travel and ready to get back to work and finish my book. It’s a story with a great main star and terrific supporting cast, and it’s so crazy in so many ways that it simply has to be true.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

World War II expert Eric Ratcliffe (left), my guide, poses with me at the 445th Bomb Group Memorial in the fading light of a raw November day. I like to believe the spirits of all those airmen of the 445th are posed around us and wishing me happy landings for telling their stories. Many thanks to Eric for his time, patience, and expertise that day.

Lion Tamers

It seemed like a good idea while in L.A. last week to visit the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City since my new subject, James Stewart, worked on the lot for the first five years of his career and won an Academy Award while there. I have one of those vivid imaginations you hear about now and again and spent my time rubbing shoulders with Gable, Crawford, Turner, Garland, and Munchkins as a group of us roamed the streets of MGM.

Oh, by the way, if you take the MGM tour, be prepared for a couple of shocks. They begin by taking you in a room and showing you a short film about the history of the lot, but after the first five or six three-second clips, it dawns on you: every shot you’re seeing is from a Columbia picture—you know, It Happened One Night, On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity—and Columbia pictures weren’t shot here at all but rather on Gower Street in Hollywood, miles and miles away. It’s sort of…sacrilegious to do what they’re doing on that tour, even though Columbia bought out what was left of MGM in 1989 and then the new studio became Sony Pictures, and the tour begins in the big Sony Entertainment building and ends there as well.

So, you’re in the middle of this short film and feeling pretty enraged about the fact that you’re watching a Columbia reel on the MGM lot, and then the picture veers into an oh-by-the-way explanation of the fact you are actually on the MGM lot, which was bought by Columbia, and so the clips show some Gable and some Munchkins for a minute or so, but it’s pretty short shrift for Leo the Lion, Mr. Mayer, Mr. Thalberg, and Company.

Yeah, yeah, so let me out of this damn little room with these grinning tourists—I want to see the lot! I was skeptical of John, our tour guide, as he led 15 or 18 of us across the street and onto real studio property, and I was on him right away wanting to know if we were going to learn about more than production of the TV series, The Goldbergs, which he was already pushing, and he assured that, oh yes, the two-hour tour would also cover the MGM of olden days.

We stopped at a building, a grand art deco building, and I assailed John again with, “Is this the MGM administration building?” and he said patiently, as if I were, you know, dim, “This hasn’t been MGM for a long time.” I redirected: “Is this the MGM administration building of olden days?” and he said we were going to talk about that right then.

Mary said out the side of her mouth at this point, “He knows you’re trouble and you’re going to get kicked out of here,” as if I get the boot from places frequently when it really only happens once in a while, and always because I’m misunderstood.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Thalberg Building, which now has the label above the door, Columbia Pictures. Which is a lot like the flag of Spain flying over the U.S. Capitol. L.B. Mayer’s office was on the third floor.

Turns out we were in front of the Irving Thalberg Building, opened in 1938, which of course begged the question, “So, where were the administrative offices before 1938?” and suddenly John realized he had his hands full. He never did whirl around and ask, “Who the hell are you, anyway, and why are you ruining my tour?” Instead, when I apologized for my umpteenth question he said, “No, no, questions are good. Bring ‘em on,” and it turned out he knew a lot about the old studio and where things were, like the star bungalows and the edit suites and where the writers worked and where Judy Garland went to “star school.” I was impressed with John by the end.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The MGM lion used in trade papers wasn’t the snarling beast in the studio logo but rather a friendly cartoon guy working tirelessly to improve the bottom line.

Of course, you know about the dissolution of MGM in the 1970s, the selling off of all the props and costumes now nearly priceless, like the million-dollar ruby slippers, and the demolition of the entire backlot where everything from Andy Hardy to Mutiny on the Bounty to Singin’ in the Rain were shot. In other words, a lot of MGM is gone with the wind and has been for decades. But some is still there, and as I roamed the streets among the soundstages, I could see in my mind’s eye Clark Gable walk past dressed in his San Francisco tux; I could see Joan Crawford slink by in a glittering gown. Over there, Eleanor Powell showing miles of leg, and yonder, Carole Lombard skulking about, checking up on the set of Honky Tonk and her husband’s new distraction, Lana Turner. They’re all there among the stucco buildings with chrome accents—baby Jean Harlow, boy genius Irving Thalberg, the three Marx Brothers, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and yes, long-legged, loping James Stewart, the guy who had no great looks but loads of natural talent that Metro didn’t know what to do with. Jim was winning an Oscar for Leo on the one hand while, on the other hand, they saddled him with wooden Indians like Hedy Lamarr and Paulette Goddard in pictures he didn’t want to make. Suddenly, military service seemed like a good idea, and he flew off and left behind in his propwash the lot on which I now stood.

We visited three soundstages on the tour. First was the music scoring stage, which interested me not because of its perfect acoustics or because John Williams directed the Star Wars scores there, but rather because in the mid 1930s it was used for process shots like the San Francisco earthquake. Then, inevitably, we looked in on the set of The Goldbergs, which John was required to plug yet again. Finally, we visited the set of Jeopardy, which was dark that day but interesting nonetheless. We stood outside the mighty titan, Studio 15, where Metro craftsmen built Munchkinland and Dorothy started down the Yellow Brick Road.

Our final minutes were spent at the gift store where you could buy any number of Columbia souvenirs. It was the final offense, but by then it really didn’t matter because I was outside in the warm California sun, distracted by the ghosts of all those great people surrounding me. People I’ve gotten to know over the years, some of whom have become friends. Now, I stood there catching glimpses of each at home in the mightiest studio of all.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

This is main street on the lot, which runs from the Thalberg Building to the soundstages. The buildings are vintage and once housed offices and the commissary, but the facades are of Sony vintage so the lot can also serve as a working backlot for features and TV shows.