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Jimmy Stewart's greatest role

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March 9th, 2017
Jimmy Stewart on a 1976 visit to his old base of operations in England during WWII.
Jimmy Stewart on a 1976 visit to his old base of operations in England during WWII.

When we think of movie stars today, we usually imagine paparazzi photographers, glamorous red-carpet events, Hollywood mansions, handsome leading men, and beautiful starlets. But after reading author Robert Matzen’s latest book, your view may change—at least, when it comes to one star in particular.

In Mission (GoodKnight Books, 2016), Matzen chronicles the incredible story of actor Jimmy Stewart and his experiences, not in front of the camera, but at the controls of a World War II bomber in the flak-ridden skies over Europe. 

“Pretty much everyone knows Jimmy Stewart the actor,” says Matzen, “but that’s not at all the whole story. When you consider his World War II service, you realize that he was a patriotic American first and a movie star second.”

Before the war, Stewart was an industry staple among producers looking for a wholesome leading man to headline their productions. In a series of box-office hits, including director Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Stewart proved adept at playing boy-next-door good guys, often unlikely heroes.

He solidified this reputation in 1940, winning the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of an aggressive reporter in the romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story

He was clearly on the rise as a motion picture commodity. Then, history intervened. 

Drafted

In October 1940, Stewart received a draft notice in the midst of escalating tensions between the United States and Axis powers Germany and Japan. 

Officially inducted into the Army in March 1941, Stewart was the first American movie star to wear an armed services uniform in World War II. He was also the third generation in his family to serve his country.

Both of his grandfathers fought in the Civil War and his father in World War I. Now it was his turn.

“I called the book Mission because Jim made it his mission to fight for his country,” explains Matzen. “That’s why he gave up a cushy gig in Hollywood to fly bombing runs in Europe.”

Already a commercially licensed pilot in civilian life, Stewart rather naturally decided to become a flier with the U.S. Army Air Forces. Following nearly three years of stateside flight duty, he was assigned to the 445th Bomber Group and placed in command of the 703rd Bomber Squadron.

By autumn 1943, Stewart and his men were at their base of operations in Tibenham, England, to fly bombing runs over Germany in the B-24 Liberator. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the armed forces.

“The conditions that B-24 crews faced were brutal,” says Matzen. “The plane was notoriously difficult to fly because it was heavy on the controls; depending on altitude, the temperature in the aircraft’s unpressurized cabin would fall to 30 below zero or lower; and to breathe, crewmen had to wear oxygen masks, which frequently iced up in the extreme cold.”

These factors, combined with the obvious perils of navigating deadly enemy flak barrages, made each mission a harrowing ordeal that demanded the utmost nerve from every crewmember.

From 1943 to 1945, Stewart labored under these taxing circumstances, copiloting 20 sorties over heavily defended German territory. And like many of his fellow servicemen, his duties took a toll, physically and professionally.

Impact of war

“I was shocked at how the war had aged him,” confesses Matzen. “He went into the war a fresh-faced 33-year-old and returned a visibly worn middle-aged man with receding hair.”

Hollywood, too, had changed. The decorated flier came home to a whole new crop of younger-looking leading men. 

Having personally witnessed the horrors of combat, Stewart was no longer that jocular boy next door that filmgoers loved. He had a dark side that war alone could create, and he channeled this for the duration of his acting career. 

Stewart traded light-hearted romantic comedies for more serious roles as somewhat troubled characters in movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rope (1948), Winchester ’73 (1950), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958).

Still, Matzen believes that the celebrated Oscar-winning actor was foremost a patriot and a devoted member of America’s armed forces.

“In spite of his many accomplishments in motion pictures, Jim was probably proudest of his wartime experiences,” he says. “I hope Mission does that justice.”

According to Stewart’s daughter Kelly, it has. 

“[O]ur father’s service during the war was the most significant event of his life,” she recalls. “This book gives us the best glimpse we will ever have of what that experience was like for him and the men he flew with.”

 

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