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

Maltin at the Bat

I grew up with Leonard Maltin. I don’t mean we flipped baseball cards and caught tadpoles; I mean one of my go-to books when I became interested in classic Hollywood as a teenager was the first book he wrote, Movie Comedy Teams detailing the Three Stooges, L&H, the Ritz Brothers, and my faves, the Marxes. I haven’t opened that book in years, but I still remember the narrative and every photo and caption because I read that book over and over and over.

Maltin was a child prodigy in film and began writing for Film Fan Monthly at the age of 13, then took over that periodical (at age 16) and ran it for 9 years. From there he began releasing his movie guides and became an on-air critic for Entertainment Tonight. Is there anyone among my readers who hasn’t owned at least one edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and consulted it before watching a picture to see how many stars Leonard gave it and why? In those dark times before the internet, there was nowhere else to find a thumbnail description of even something as obscure as The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan without Maltin and his guide. Today there’s imdb and Wikipedia, but back then, there was Maltin. Period.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Hollywood author and critic Leonard Maltin, now aboard the Mission team. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Leonard Maltin is a pop culture phenomenon, a guy who remains after all these years a big kid when it comes to movies, and I’m happy to report this particular phenom is writing the foreword for my just-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It occurred to me that I could really use Maltin’s insights into Stewart, the war, and subsequent effects on his career. Leonard said he might be interested in such an assignment, send along the manuscript; so I did. I guess what he read was OK, because he said yes.

I’ve been giving a final look to the narrative the past few days because soon it will go off for galleys and I want it to be right—you know, t’s crossed and i’s dotted and all that. It’s easy to get so lost in the process that I’ll be sitting there and it’ll occur to me, “Wait, did I write that? I don’t remember writing that.” It is becoming a descent into madness among 117,000 words. There are places that make me laugh, give me chills, and reduce me to tears, all of which I consider to be good signs because the same thing happened with Fireball. It’s a different kind of a book, though, a different story and a different protagonist. Lombard was sexy and vivacious, someone you wish you could have known or at least experienced once. Stewart was an aloof man who was there and not there at the same time, an introvert without much to say who kept his significant intensities on the inside, and a guy who, as he aged, hid behind the persona he had created for the Tonight Show and other public outlets. He became what people expected to see, and behind his blue eyes were 50,000 memories of the war that he kept locked away and never related to anyone. The reason Mission is necessary is specifically because he wouldn’t talk, and what I discovered was that in refusing to let Hollywood exploit his wartime service for publicity purposes, he turned out the spotlight on a terrific cast of characters surrounding him in the Second Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division of the Eighth Air Force. You’re about to meet some great guys in Mission, guys Stewart knew and commanded, guys who in talking about their lives in combat allow us to know what Jim Stewart did in the war, who he flew with and against, and who died beside him. He wouldn’t tell us, but others tell us. We have these guys and the combat records, and from a great number of sources, including survivors who flew with him, I was able to recreate the war as Stewart knew it. The result is an adventure more fantastic than anything he ever enacted on-screen. In fact, it’s an adventure that could only be recreated today in a CG universe, at which point you wouldn’t believe it really happened. I assure you, it did.

Into this mix of Hollywood and war is about to step Leonard Maltin to provide his thought-provoking perspective, and the coolest thing of all? I get to be the first to read it.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Jim sports the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to all Eighth Air Force combat veterans at the end of the war. (Photo courtesy of the Jay Rubin Collection)

Silent Night, Creepy Night

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

When The Bishop’s Wife didn’t generate sufficient box office, Goldwyn and RKO altered the title to suggest shenanigans.

There’s a tremendous distinction between Christmas and the day after Christmas. Ever since I was a kid the day after Christmas was cast in black and white; a drab, depressing, downer of a day. I say this because most of you will be reading this after the Big Day and the impact will be lessened, but Christmas morning is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and contribute to my own column of late, so, here we are.

I’ve tried to get in the spirit this year, really I have, but it’s been no-go. I sampled the usual holiday pictures, those touchstones that help us orient ourselves in time-of-year. I wanted to watch It’s a Wonderful Life the other night on NBC because it’s so key to the plot of my almost-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, but I walked in after it had begun and endured 5 minutes of commercials, at which point I bailed. I did sit through The Bishop’s Wife last evening, which is a picture I used to love but which, over the years, began to produce creepy feelings in me, and now I watch it the same way I do Silent Night, Evil Night, just to feel my skin crawl.

It’s been a while since you’ve been mad at me, so I think it’s time I reveal my feelings for this beloved holiday classic. For those of you who have never seen Samuel Goldwyn’s Christmas story, The Bishop’s Wife, you really owe it to yourself to spend two hours with Cary Grant as an angel sent to earth to guide the bishop, played by David Niven, his wife Loretta Young, and curmudgeon professor Monty Woolley. I now would like to go on record to describe these actors portraying these characters as creepy, creepy, creepy, and creepy.

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

The three stars, Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young.

First the no-brainer. Monty Woolley is supposed to be playing a charming old curmudgeon but somewhere in his backstory I feel like there’s a molestation or two. Everything about him is a little too dark, from his hoarder apartment to his writer’s block to his drinking problem. But then I’m not now and never was a Monty Woolley fan. To give you a comparison, if you were to offer me the choice of an hour with Woolley or with Thomas Mitchell (see previous columns), I’ll take Mitchell every time.

Loretta Young by this point in her career had acquired a hard, stretched, unnatural look that belies her tender age of 34. I never thought about it but she screams plastic surgery in this picture and her very appearance and particularly that hideous hat she dons in reel two and forces us to endure through the end of the picture make this woman utterly unappealing to at least one heterosexual male.

David Niven as a bishop?? Come on, need I say more. Errol Flynn’s drunken pal David Niven, playing 1000-percent against type as a man of God is just too much for me. What denomination are you again, your holiness? And what is it exactly you need help from an angel for, anyway? You are trying to build a church of some sort, and there isn’t enough money…or something? That’s the murkiest part for me, trying to figure out why the angel has come to earth. Because the reverend isn’t paying enough attention to his wife? Because he’s not building his temple? Or is it just because he’s depressed at the holidays? If that’s the case, I’d think there were better candidates for angelic visitation than a guy with a job, a big house, a wife, kid, servants, and dog.

And here’s where I speak genuine heresy. I find Cary Grant as Dudley the angel to be the creepiest thing of all about The Bishop’s Wife. Let’s compare him to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life for just a moment. Clarence is an innocent. He’s ingenuous, earnest, and so lovable we want him to earn those wings. Dudley skulks, comes around corners to startle people, has a seductiveness about him that drives the maid wild, and all but seduces the bishop’s wife. I mean, really, when he finally propositions her it’s anti-climactic because of all that’s come before. He’s an angel who seems to me like he’d be much more comfortable in Kevin Smith’s Dogma than he is in a 1947 Goldwyn picture.

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

Is it just me or do you prefer your angels just a little less lustful than Cary Grant’s Dudley, who seems to be eyeing up the bishop’s wife like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Now, all this is on the one hand. On the other hand, there are classic moments as well, thanks mostly to the character actors populating The Bishop’s Wife. James Gleason does his usual thing as a cab driver who is unnecessary to the plot, but character actors have to eat like everybody else. Elsa Lanchester is gently wonderful as the maid in love with Dudley. Regis Toomey should have played the bishop because he’s such a good guy by nature and that energy always shows through onscreen. Don’t you want Regis Toomey to overcome whatever obstacle he’s facing in whatever picture? There’s not a creepy bone in Regis Toomey’s body.

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

The darkest aspect of all: that hideous hat, which I’ll be seeing in my nightmares.

Then there’s Gladys Cooper, who steals the show as Mrs. Hamilton, the bitchy old rich lady who hamstrings the bishop with demands for recognition in exchange for her money to build whatever church it is the plot centers around. The scene where Dudley unlocks the awful secret tainting Mrs. Hamilton’s heart is beautifully played by Cary Grant and Gladys Cooper, but once again I get a little uneasy because the secret involves a wild love affair between the lady and a composer who died young. She’s still carrying a torch for the guy 45 years later and never loved her rich, dead husband—although she married him anyway and did all right for herself. I’m all for love, don’t get me wrong, and torch-carrying, but there’s something oppressive about this storyline in this instance for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

Sex, greed, and death; yes sir, I always want these in my 1940s holiday classics. I find my own favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, to be much less ambiguous than The Bishop’s Wife, but that’s just me. Isn’t it funny that three of our enduring holiday pictures, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife were all made within two years of the end of WWII? And it’s no coincidence that all three have their dark aspects as a result.

There, I’ve had these feelings about The Bishop’s Wife locked up inside for too long and now I feel better for having revealed them, just like Mrs. Hamilton. Now maybe I’ll be nice too. Unlikely, but possible, in which case Dudley will have saved another one. Am I the only one who feels this way about this picture? Are there other holiday classics that everyone around you loves while you just don’t get it?

For those of you who happen to wander in within the next week, Happy Holidays! I have a feeling, a very strong feeling, that 2016 will be an exciting time, and I hope it will be a grand, healthy, successful year for each and every one of you.