Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors in American cinema. He’s appeared in some of our most beloved films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Vertigo, and of course that perennial holiday favorite, It’s A Wonderful Life.
What many people don’t know about Jimmy Stewart is that he served for four years during WWII flying B-24 bombers over Germany. Unlike a lot of movie stars who were drafted and spent their service making propaganda films for the war effort, Stewart actually saw combat. Even after the war was over, he continued his military service and retired as a Brigadier General in the Air Force.
My guest today has written a book dedicated to looking at these forgotten parts of the actor’s life. His name is Robert Matzen and his book is Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Robert shares why Stewart’s family history instilled an iron sense of duty towards serving his country in the military and how Stewart spent his days off as an actor training to be an Army pilot in the years leading up to WWII. We also discuss how Stewart had to fight military brass and his boss at MGM Studios to ensure that he actually saw combat instead of staying stateside to make propaganda films.
Robert then gets into detail about the combat missions Stewart flew during WWII, his leadership style as an officer, and how the war took a toll on him physically and emotionally.
We end our conversation talking about how the war influenced Stewart’s film career when he returned home, and how it may have helped him create one of cinema’s most iconic characters, George Bailey.
If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart, you don’t want to miss this show.
- What inspired Robert to write about Jimmy Stewart’s WWII service
- Why Jimmy didn’t talk about his combat experience
- How Robert researched this story in spite of Jimmy never talking about his service
- Stewart’s family history, and why he felt so duty-bound to serve in the military
- Stewart’s film career before WWII broke out
- Jimmy Stewart the ladies’ man
- How Stewart prepared for military service before he ever signed up
- How Jimmy Stewart skirted the Motion Picture Unit and ensured he saw combat
- The WWII service of other Hollywood stars
- B-24 bombers, and their precariousness in the air
- The combat missions Jimmy flew
- The leadership style and qualities of Jimmy Stewart
- How being a movie star impacted his leadership abilities
- How Jimmy’s war experience changed him, including his acting
- The story of how It’s a Wonderful Life came to fruition
- How war changed Jimmy’s views on marriage
- Jimmy’s military service after WWII
- Lessons that men today can take from the life of Jimmy Stewart
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Lessons in Manliness from Jimmy Stewart
- Lessons in Manliness from It’s a Wonderful Life
- The George Bailey Technique
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)
- It’s A Wonderful Life (1947)
- 13th Academy Awards in 1941
- First Motion Picture Unit
- It’s a Wonderful Life scene of George Bailey praying to God
- Jimmy Stewart the Brigadier General in 1966
If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart or a WWII history buff, you need to check out Mission. It gives you an inside look at a part of the actor’s life that little is known about, and Robert does an amazing job of showing the reader what it was like to fly in those precarious B-24s.
Connect With Robert Matzen
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors in American cinema. He’s appeared in some of our most beloved films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Vertigo, and of course that perennial holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. What many people don’t know about Jimmy Stewart is that he served for four years during World War II flying B-24 bombers over Germany and unlike a lot of movie stars that were drafted and spent their service making films for the war effort, Stewart actually saw combat. Even after the war was over he continued his military service and retired as a brigadier general in the Air Force.
My guest today has written a book dedicated to looking at these forgotten parts of the actor’s life. His name is Robert Matzen and his book is Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Robert shares why Stewart’s family history instilled an iron sense of duty toward serving his country in the military and how Stewart spent his single day off as an actor training to be an Army pilot in the years leading up to World War II.
We also discuss how Stewart had to fight the military brass and his boss at MGM Studios to ensure that he actually saw combat instead of staying stateside to make propaganda films, and then Robert gets into detail about the combat missions Stewart flew during World War II, his leadership style as an officer, and how the war took a toll on him physically and emotionally. We end our conversation talking about how the war influenced Stewart’s film career and when he returned home, and how it may have helped him create one of cinema’s most iconic characters, George Bailey. If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart you don’t want to miss the show. After the show’s over check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Stewart.
Robert Matzen, welcome to the show.
Robert Matzen: Thank you for inviting me.
Brett McKay: You just published a great book. It’s called Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, and it’s all about the actor Jimmy Stewart’s military career during World War II and his service after World War II as well. I don’t think a lot of people realize that Jimmy Stewart actually saw combat during World War II, so what inspired you to write this book about Stewart’s service during the battle in Europe?
Robert Matzen: Well, as a writer I look for stories that people haven’t heard before and there aren’t many of those left. You know, there’s very little new under the sun and so the ones that are left to tell are the hard ones. This one was hard because Stewart simply refused to talk about what happened in the war and so biographers just never wrote about it because they thought, “Well, if I don’t have any quotes from Stewart I can’t write the book.” which is a tremendous challenge and I really like those. I wanted to see if I could get at the story and I did.
Brett McKay: How do you go about that? I mean what was the research process like when Jimmy Stewart didn’t talk? Let’s ask that question first. Why did Jimmy Stewart not talk about his service during World War II and the follow-up question would be how did you get around that then?
Robert Matzen: He wouldn’t talk about it for a couple of reasons. Most of the guys saw such horrific things over there that there was no way that they could talk about it to people who hadn’t been over there, really could have no frame of reference, and if they talked about it it was like they were gossiping about the dead thing friends. That’s one thing, and Jim had some of that, but more than anything with Jim it was this perfectionism that he had. He was the commanding officer and he always felt he could do it better. “I could’ve done better. I could’ve done better. There could’ve been more guys coming home.” For those two reasons he just clammed up, plus he was a very private person anyway, so getting around that was, first of all, the key to having a reputation as a good researcher and writer is to hire good people to do your research for you, and I did that.
My DC researcher, I said, “Can you get at the combat mission reports?” I gave her a list of Stewart’s missions which I had from his personnel file, which I got through a facility in St. Louis, and I knew if I could get at the mission reports of the missions he flew I had a starting point. She found them in like a day and the combat mission reports tell you everything about every mission that all of the flyers flew, you know, their takeoff time, the bomb load, who was on the crew, what the plane number was, what the wind speed was, where they encountered fighters, where they encountered flak, what the target, all of it.
Once I had that then it became a matter of well, I can’t get Stewart’s account of each battle but can I get other people’s? I started to find them and I found three flyers that flew with him in the war, who were still alive and ready to talk, and told me stories that are just terrific, so I was on my way.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s talk about Stewart before the war. You begin the book talking about, not about Stewart himself but about his family history, because I think that had a big influence on why he felt so duty-bound to serve in the military, and not just serve in the military but to actually do combat. He felt this immense duty to do that. Tell us about Stewart’s family background and why that instilled such a sense of duty him.
Robert Matzen: Sure. The title of the book, Mission, people think it’s about combat missions and it’s not. It’s about his family mission to serve his country and that comes from, really both of his grandfathers fought in the Civil War and were prominent, especially his mother’s father was Colonel Sam Jackson, who was a hero of the second day’s battle at Gettysburg and did something very, very similar to what Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain did, you know, the very famous guy from the 20th Maine who saved the day. Well, Sam Jackson also led a bayonet charge at about the same time on the second day’s battle at Gettysburg and a general rode up to him, one of the commanding generals on the field rode up to him hat in hand and said, “Colonel Jackson sir, you have saved the day.”
Colonel Jackson became General Jackson, so Jim’s mother’s father was a Union general in the Civil War, a combat veteran, and Jim’s father’s father was a sergeant in the Signal Corps. His name was also James Maitland Stewart, and he served under General Custer of all people in the Shenandoah Valley and saw a lot of action, and was at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant, and saw that happen. Right there you have quite a daunting family history of service to your nation.
Brett McKay: Stewart’s father also served in World War I, correct?
Robert Matzen: Right. That’s right. He was a captain in the Army and served for a year in the Great War, so that was Jim’s background and it was drummed into his head by the old JM, who lived into the 1930s, told him stories about real war, real sacrifice, what it was really like, and what is demanded of you by your country, and so all his life the most important thing to Jim was military service. All his life, from the youngest boyhood till his death, he would always say that my service was the most important thing in my life, not Academy Awards, not dating movie stars. It was the service that counted.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Jim before he signed on with the Army Air Force. How was his career doing as a film star before the war broke out?
Robert Matzen: Jim was a shooting star. I mean his, well let’s call him, he was a firecracker, you know? He was on his way up, and up, and up, and then he exploded into star-spangled glory making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. That made him instantly go from being this sort of gawky character actor that they didn’t know what to do with to being a leading man, boy next door, everybody loves Jim, Jimmy really.
The next year after that he won the Academy award as best actor for The Philadelphia Story where he played a cynical reporter and right after he picked up his statuette in the Academy Awards ceremony in February of 1941 he was drafted and went into the service and left Hollywood behind, slammed the door on his Hollywood career, because military service trumps Hollywood, even stardom, even money. He always loved his money but service was more important so when he entered the service he was one of the most popular and successful actors in Hollywood.
Brett McKay: What I thought was interesting too as I read about Stewart’s prewar life was that he was a lady’s man too. I think that surprises a lot of people because we often think of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, this family man, but in real life Stewart was the supreme lady’s man and he was also an older bachelor in Hollywood as well.
Robert Matzen: Yeah, and people, you know if I receive criticism for this book it’s because I am gratuitous in talking about Jim as a lady’s man and his conquests but it was very important to him because he needed to prove himself worthy of being a Stewart combat-wise, but he needed to be worthy of the attention of ladies because he thought he was unattractive. He had this need to go prove himself as being attractive and so he spent his prewar years doing that, but once the war came he sort of got all that out of his system by dating, you know, Ginger Rogers, Marlena Dietrich, Loretta Young, just a series of A-listers, but after the war he was much less interested in that. I mean he really sort of got the feeling of what life was all about and he did settle down at that point and became the George Bailey family man, married a woman and then almost 50 years they were married until she died. That was really he became George Bailey after the war.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll talk a little bit more about that later on. I thought it was interesting about Stewart is that as he was rising to stardom, winning the Academy award, he had his eye on Europe and he knew that war was coming and he wanted to be ready for it. How did Stewart prepare for his military service even before he was drafted into the military?
Robert Matzen: Well, he, as a kid, had been fascinated by flight. At the age of about 12 he got his first ride from a barnstorming pilot in an open cockpit biplane and loved it, just loved it, so the first thing he did when he got to Hollywood and had some money was take flying lessons and then buy his own plane. The plane he bought was the kind the Army used to train pilots because he set his cap for the Army Air Corps long before the war broke out. When Hitler was starting to gobble up country’s Jim was very, very carefully spending his Sundays, which was his only free day of the week, logging hours in his Stinson Voyager, logging hours, logging hours to get his pilot’s license, to get his commercial pilot’s license, which meant a twin engine plane. That would all set him up to be an Army Air Corps pilot and officer.
He set about that for years which just proves how dedicated he was to serving his country, and when he was drafted in 1941 he had just gotten his commercial rating and within, oh, nine months he had earned his wings. He went in as a private and in nine months he was a second lieutenant and a pilot.
Brett McKay: Wow, so he went in a private and he worked his way up the ranks as well and he eventually became an officer.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. He spent his first nine months on the ground swabbing decks. He became a corporal. He had his own squad. He trained troops. He drove new recruits. He was older than everybody else. All of the recruits were younger than he was and so he was sort of a father figure all of a sudden and he could not escape being Jimmy Stewart the actor, who everyone wanted to be around including the high officers. You know, not many privates could get into the commanding officer’s office but he could anytime he wanted really.
Brett McKay: How old was Jimmy Stewart when he was drafted?
Robert Matzen: 33 years old.
Brett McKay: All right, so he was Pops for sure.
Robert Matzen: Oh yeah. Yes he was.
Brett McKay: Most of the guys were in their early 20s. What I thought was interesting to, there were a lot of movie stars that were drafted or signed up for military service during World War II but many of them made films to help the war effort. They stayed home and helped the war from there. Were there efforts made to make Stewart take that route with his military career, and if so, how did he avoid that and make sure he actually saw combat?
Robert Matzen: Yes. The whole idea of the War Department and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which owned his contract, was to keep him stateside and safe. For MGM this was one of their most significant assets, you know? With the War Department nothing good could come of a Hollywood star flying over Europe and getting shot down, killed, or captured. How horrible would that be for the United States?
Jim, when he was inducted he was assigned to the motion picture unit of the at Wright Airfield, which is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. That’s where he was to spend the war making pictures and he refused. That’s when it becomes very important that he’s a movie star because that’s when he goes in to the commanding officer at Moffett Field and said, “Look. Here are my orders. Please block these orders. Help me stay here. I want to fly. I want to go overseas.” That officer blocked those orders, kept at Moffett. He became a pilot so then the next thing the War Department did was to say, “Okay. You can be a pilot and you will train other pilots. You’ll stay stateside training other pilots.”
Jim did that for a while and that was a very worthwhile endeavor except it wasn’t good enough for Jim. He wanted to go overseas and serve in combat. How many people are like that? Not too many. I don’t know that I’d want to go in harm’s way if I knew I could train pilots and stay states. He finally found a senior officer at one of these bases in Boise, Idaho who saw Jim dying on the inside. It’s already 1943. We’re heavily into the war and he said, “Hey. I know there’s a new bomb group forming up. Let’s get you in there. It’s going to go overseas. We’ll get you that.” That’s how he ended up making his way into the thick of the fighting in Europe.
Brett McKay: Who were some of the other movie stars that served in World War II? You mention Clark Gable in the book as one of those.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. Clark Gable went over after his wife Carole Lombard died and served on B-17’s, but he was sent over to make a movie to recruit goners for B-17’s. That’s why he went over. He saw a little bit of action. Tyrone Power went to the Pacific in the Marines. Robert Montgomery was in the Navy. A lot of stars did go over and when they did go over new guys came in and took their place, guys who were 4-F like Gregory Peck became a big star. He had a bad back theoretically so he couldn’t go off and fight, and then a lot of stars became stars while the other guys were serving, like Ronald Reagan was making pictures in Burbank but he was, you know, theoretically he was an Army guy but he stayed stateside, so there was a lot of that going on.
Brett McKay: All right. We’ll talk about that too because that affected Stewart’s career when he came back. He gets enlisted and he works his way to get what he wants. He joins up bomb group and he captains B-24’s. Can you tell us a little bit about the B-24 because these things were really precarious to fly. It was a physically grueling assignment so can you walk us through a little bit of what Stewart would experience as a captain in a B-24?
Robert Matzen: Sure. You think the B-17 is like the romantic plane, the heavy bomber, four engine bomber that’s the Memphis Belle, you know, the 12 O’clock High. The one you see all the time is the B-17 and it’s kind of sleek and good-looking. The B-24 was referred to as, by one of the flyers, I love this, it’s like my famous piece of writing, the best piece of writing I ever heard was when he said, “The B-24 on the ground looked like a prehistoric monster wading through swamps.” It was a big ugly plane. They called it the packing crate that the B-17 came in, a big boxy sort of flying boxcar. That was the B-24 and it had some real problems.
I mean it could carry a heavier bomb load and it could fly faster than a B-17 but it had these fuel leak problems that would sort of cause it to explode unexpectedly, so you could take off and then never be heard from again, and that happened to people in Jim’s command. That was the biggest problem with the B-24 and it was also really hard on the controls. It was like a car without power steering. You had to really muscle the thing the whole time you were in the air on these eight hour missions and, in the case of both the B-17 and the B-24, unpressurized cabins, and this was in European winter that he flew his first missions. At 34 below zero unpressurized cabins, if you took off your protective clothing for even 30 seconds A, you could pass out because there wasn’t oxygen up there and B, you’d get frostbite, and you could be unconscious.
I mean the experience of flying for Jim in a B 24 was primitive and dangerous all the time.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about his combat missions. Where did Stewart primarily fly and how many combat missions did he go on?
Robert Matzen: He flew 20 combat missions beginning December 13, 1943 in the thick of the air war when the German Air Force was still very strong. His first mission was to Kiel, Germany so it was a very long … His base was in the eastern part of England and it was a very long mission over the North Sea to the northern tip of Germany, and he led his squadron that day and it was a very successful mission. There were no fighters showed up and that always helps. Then he proceeded to fly a very heavy rotation of missions. For the next 9 or 10 weeks he flew his first 10 or 12 missions, always in command, and the stress was incredible over these German targets with very heavy fighter resistance and flak, you know, the anti-aircraft fire.
It took a tremendous toll on him physically. Those first two or three months of combat were the roughest for him and really I have to say they were two or three months he never got over.
Brett McKay: Were there any missions that were particularly hairy?
Robert Matzen: Yeah. There were a couple. Nothing compared to the February 25, 1944 mission to Gotha, Germany, which was one of the missions of Big Week. Big Week was where the 8th Air Force went after German aircraft manufacturing and the day before Jim led his mission to Gotha the formation from the 445th Bomb Group, his bomb group, that went over there got shot to pieces. 13 out of 25 B-24’s that went that day got shot down including Clem Leoni’s, who was one of the guys that helped me write the book.
Jim heard about what had happened on February 24 over Gotha and he knew he was leading the mission the next day. That’s one of the few things Jim would ever talk about about the war was that night laying in bed trying to sleep, knowing that his formation was likely to get butchered just like this one just had, and thinking, “I’ve got to be on top of my game. I’ve got to be good enough. I’ve got to be sharp.” He couldn’t sleep and so he’s going to have to lead this eight hour mission on no sleep knowing he’s going into hell. That was the mission that was one too many for Jim and it caused him to have to just go away for a while, get some sodium pentothal, and relax because he just, it was one mission too many. You mentioned
Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier that Jimmy started out as a private but he worked his way up to the rank of colonel during World War II, and you mention in the book that he was one of the few soldiers that actually did that, started out as a private and worked his way up to colonel. I’m curious, what was Stewart like as a leader? You mentioned earlier that he was a perfectionist but besides that what other attributes did Stewart show as a captain of a bomber?
Robert Matzen: I asked that very question of the guys who flew with him and these were officers. They were pilots and copilots so they were in a really good position to tell me and they said, “He was a by the book flyer.” He was a very quiet leader but he believed in rules and regs, and he followed them to a T, very tight formation flying. He would drum that in their heads and because he was such a stickler for doing things the right way, no cutting corners, he had a very high success rate. Guys tended to live in his squadron and his formation where other formations weren’t so lucky, but it wasn’t luck. It was his desire to do things the right way, also his maturity.
He’s 10 years older than these other guys and he has dealt with Hollywood stars, moguls like Louis B Mayer. He has gone head-to-head, toe to toe with them, directors, Victor Fleming, you know, really tough directors he’s worked with, so he’s ready for command and he’s a clear communicator. When you’re on the radio with this calm voice over Bremen, with flak bursting all around you and then fighters come in, and you hear Jim, you understand what he’s saying. You believe he knows what he’s doing because he’s an actor and he’s acting it up there at 20,000 feet.
All those things combined to make him just a terrific aerial commander, aerial quarterback for these formations in combat.
Brett McKay: He’s able to gain the respect of his subordinates and superiors but I think as a movie star I’d be like, “Well this is going to be kind of tough to get that respect. The guys are just going to see me as this sort of pampered movie star and they’re not going to have the respect for me as a soldier.” Was that a concern for Jim when he went in?
Robert Matzen: Yeah. He fought that his whole time in service. You know, he was in the service for five years and he ducked that at every turn and very quickly the guys would see him not anymore as a movie star but as Jim, or Captain Stewart, or Major Stewart. Where he really had some trouble was the constant demands of the generals and the colonels to hang out with Jim. You know, “Let’s get our picture taken. Tell me a story. Tell me about Lana Turner. What’s she really like?”
That kind of made him shy away but he knew that came with the territory and he put up with it where he had to, and then as you know just from our conversation, it helped him out in various times. It helped him avoid the press. “Hey, can you do me a favor? Just tell them I’m too busy. I’m not going to talk to them.” It was a double-edged sword for him. I guess if he could have been anonymous he would’ve chosen to be anonymous through the war but that just wasn’t going to happen when you had one of the more famous faces in the world.
Brett McKay: He spent five years in active duty. How did the war change him? You mentioned earlier he was sort of a lady’s man, kind of a firecracker. I imagine the experience of seeing intense contact changed him when he came home.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. There’s a before and after photo in the book. The before is taken in 1942 and it’s this fresh-faced kid. You know, he’s got a nice suntan and his hair’s youthful and a nice hairline and he’s smiling, and photo two years later, after he flew these first 12 combat missions, and he looks like hell. He looks terrible. You know, the skin’s hanging off of him. His eyes just show some, oh, you know, wear and tear, and his hairline’s receded, and he’s got gray in his hair. You know, that’s what the war did to him and it was, like I said, it was the strain of command plus he lost men from his command, dead.
Guys who got shot down in flaming death, and he wrote letters home in all cases to the mothers, and fathers, and girlfriends, and wives that these guys who had died on his watch. He brought all of that back home with him. He had the shakes, you know, classic PTSD, and he was trying now to pick up his Hollywood career after being away for five years. The whole landscape of Hollywood has changed and Van Johnson is now taking the roles that were once Jimmy Stewart’s roles. A whole new crop of leading men and so he’s at a crossroads. What’s going to happen? Am I ever going to get another job?
He didn’t know because he knew he looked like hell. That’s the first thing that Henry Fonda said to him, “What happened to you?” because he looked so bad when they finally reunited at the wars and. It was a very scary time for Jim.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Maybe another way it changed was the studio system was broken up while he was gone and we started to see the more free-agent model in Hollywood that we see today.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. His ex-girlfriend Olivia de Havilland was the one who changed everything by suing Jack Warner and Warner Bros. to get her freedom. When she got her freedom it really did, as you say, break up the studio system and Jim was brilliant, absolutely brilliant at being one of the first stars to embrace that. He had Lew Wasserman as his agent who was just like the king of Hollywood agents and Lew said, “No. No. No. You know, MGM will take you back if you sign a seven-year contract. Don’t do it. You stay a free agent and we’re going to get you, you know, a percentage.” That was, we can talk about that if you want to, but getting a percentage in the movies that then became real successful and made Jim a fortune.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I’d like to talk about that later on. Let’s talk about the movie everyone knows him for, It’s a Wonderful Life. How did the war experience influence the movie? I mean would a Wonderful Life exist if it weren’t for World War II?
Robert Matzen: That’s hard to say. When Jim came back he got off the Queen Elizabeth and held a press conference and said, “I just want to go make a comedy. The world has seen so much sorrow and so much drama. If Hollywood will have me I want to make a happy picture.” He goes back to Hollywood and proceeds not to get any calls to make this happy picture. He got nothing so finally when Capra called and said he had this story about a man who wants to commit suicide and an angel intervenes, you know, they sat down together and Capra tried to tell them the story about this crazy picture that he wanted to make.
Jim got up and walked out. That was the first conversation they had. Jim wanted nothing to do with it because he wanted to make a comedy and he didn’t believe in a picture about suicide, and what’s this business about angels? But he thought about it and really he had no other offers. That version of the story is from 1946 when the picture was released. It got told and mutated by both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart for the next 40 years but that’s the way it really happened.
I guess the picture could’ve existed, yes, to answer your question. I doubt it would’ve been the classic it is today.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and in the book you mention Frank Capra, like Stewart, was having a hard time when he got back. He served in the military as well but he was making films, but that military service took him out of the loop in Hollywood and when he came back after the war he just had a hard time trying to get a film going. He actually had to go independent to start making his films.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. He formed Liberty Films with a couple of other directors and they were both, Stewart and Capra, were really at wit’s end. It was make or break time for them so when they started to make It’s a Wonderful Life Donna Reed among others said, “Boy, these guys were tense.” You know, you think this is a happy picture but boy, it was tough to make it because they second-guessed, you know, ‘What if we do this? What if this is wrong? We’ve got to get this right.” They’d go off and have these little conversations so, you know, it was a tense movie to make and a very expensive. Capra was extravagant so he ran up quite a bill and he pretty much assured that It’s a Wonderful Life couldn’t make money because it was so expensive to make.
Brett McKay: Yeah. It was kind of a bomb when it first came out and didn’t make any money, and didn’t really become very popular. It’s kind of funny that people don’t know it wasn’t originally released as a Christmas movie. I think it was released in May or something like that and it wasn’t until it accidentally got into the public domain and TV station started to air it all the time in the ’70s and ’80s, because it was free, that it became this Christmas classic.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. That’s right. It really was 10 years ahead of its time. There’s no way you can think otherwise because it did okay in 1946 but public tastes had changed so much. Film noir was very big at that time. Musicals were kind of dying and here’s this crazy picture that you can’t even type it. It’s so odd and it’s such a downer all the way through until the last reel when there’s redemption, and it didn’t catch down until, as you say, it started to be shown on TV in the ’50s and then it became just this magical Christmas picture.
The funny thing is that Jim did not like it when it came out. He was a populist. If the public liked it he liked it. If the public didn’t then he thought it was bad luck, so he didn’t embrace It’s a Wonderful Life for the first 10 years, which people really don’t realize.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I love how you pointed out that his war experience probably influenced his acting. I mean you start seeing it in It’s a Wonderful Life, you know that scene where George Bailey is in the bar and he’s crying and he’s praying. You make the case that that intensity, that desperation you see in George Bailey, James is probably going back to his time in a B-24 when engines were on fire and things were just going to hell, and he brings that to his George Bailey character.
Robert Matzen: Yeah. That scene where he’s leaning over the bar and cries and prays, he only did that take one time because Capra said, “Yeah. Cut. Print that one. Let’s do it again.” Jim looked up, and tears in his eyes because he had just poured his emotions out, and he said, “I can’t do it again. You know, you better have gotten it because that’s it.” That one take is the one that’s in the picture and the other one that always impresses me as being the blind rage Jimmy Stewart is when he breaks up his living room. He’s got those models and he slams them against the wall and he screams at his family.
Jim’s wife, whom he married in 1949, Gloria, said that that was Jim. Jim had rages like that. You don’t think of him that way but he had an incredible temper when it was unleashed and it goes straight back to the war. The triggers were there always with Jim after the war.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about his wife. He decided to settle down and I think you talk about it in the book. Even when he was serving he would look wistfully and I think a little longingly at some of these younger guys in their 20s who had wives. They had someone to write home to. They had someone to look forward to seeing when they got home and Jim wanted that. He decided during the war that he was ready to settle down with a woman that would be his companion for life instead of eye candy, and that he would just take out on the town and be shot with by photographers.
Robert Matzen: Yeah, you know, Jim never had anything against eye candy all his life, but yeah, he had no one. He dated Dinah Shore, who was a singer and actress during the war, and they almost went to Vegas and got married but he got cold feet at the last minute, and that was the last real romantic involvement that he had during the war, and so he did see these guys name their planes after their wives, their girlfriends, wrote to them all the time, talked about, “Oh, my kid turned one.” whatever, and Jim had nobody. He had nobody so he came back and really drifted around trying to date here and there, and he finally met Gloria.
She didn’t like him at first because he was drunk when they met but then finally when he settled down it was for keeps. There are rumors that he had affairs after, with Kim Novak and Grace Kelly in particular, but I just don’t believe it because he didn’t need to prove himself anymore. He became a really good dad and husband in the last 30, 40 years of his life.
Brett McKay: After the war he had a really successful career. There was It’s a Wonderful Life kind of jump-started him, got the gears rolling. He got hooked up with Alfred Hitchcock and he made several popular films with him including Vertigo, but what many people don’t realize is that even after the war Stewart continued his career in the military in the reserves. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Robert Matzen: In 1945 the Army downsized, drew down tremendously, and Jim realized there was really nothing for him. He had risen to the rank of full colonel but he wanted to keep his hand in, you know? He still believed in military service and he believed in defending your country, and the communist threat was on the rise and so he joined the Air Force Reserve and stayed in it until 1968. In 1957 he was promoted to brigadier general and you can see, if you look at his personnel files, how his priorities changed and after a while, and into the 1960s, he’s just counting points so that he can retire with full pay.
He would get points for going and appearing at a banquet or whatever. It was far from combat duty. He did go back in the mid-60s and flied one last combat mission over Vietnam in a B-52 as an observer just really to serve as a morale builder for the troops in the Vietnam War, which was a really tough war. He wanted to sort of say it’s very, very important that we fight the communists here. He was a very, very strong anti-Communist so yeah, he used his military service in different ways through the 1960s until he finally retired at age 60 and called it a career.
Brett McKay: There’s a great picture of him as a brigadier general. He’s very dapper looking, definitely older. He’s got the gray in his hair, the much older Jimmy Stewart that we all know, but Robert I’m curious. As a biographer and during this research and writing process about this part of Jimmy Stewart’s life were their life lessons that you took away as you wrote this book?
Robert Matzen: Yeah. I am endlessly impressed with Jim’s commitment to service and how he sorted out what was really important in life, and yeah, it makes you think. When you see what these guys went through and then you can’t get the Internet to work, you know, there’s really no comparison. You’re not having a bad day. Having a bad day is a flaming engine at 20,000 feet four hours from home with fighters swarming around you, so yeah. There are big lessons to be learned here about letting go of the little things because there is life and death out there, and you will get your Internet to work, but you might not get home when you’re in combat, so yeah. I come out of this with respect for all of those World War II guys and what they accomplished.
Brett McKay: Well it’s been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your book, Mission?
Robert Matzen: Go to Amazon. Amazon is all but my website is RobertMatzen M-A-T-Z-E-N.com. I have a blog there where I talk a lot about writing and about the various back stories involved in Mission and my other books. It’s been great to be with you and thanks for the great questions.
Brett McKay: Robert Matzen thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Robert Matzen: Thanks Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Matzen. He’s the author of the book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about Robert’s work at RobertMatzen.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/Stewart where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoy the show I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot, spreads the word about the show. As always thank you for your continued support and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.