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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Matzen's "Mission" Takes Flight


James Stewart's War Story Told From Pilot's Seat

I didn't know a lot about James Stewart's World War Two service. That's been fixed now with Mission, a newest from Robert D. Matzen, who before gave us Fireball (the Carole Lombard crash), Errol Flynn Slept Here (his fabled Mulholland manse), and Errol and Olivia (their film partnership and offscreen drama). Background is by way of saying that Matzen has delivered another sock volume, as in give-up-sleep-to-read account of Stewart's hurtle through air combat that odds should dictate he'd not survive. Again, the real life stuff tops whatever Hollywood might confect later. This may be reason Jim ducked war topics after mustering out with ribbons and officer status. Turns out he was at bulls-eye of rawest fighting our side engaged, Matzen recounting horrors to make complete sense of Stewart's darkened postwar persona. Safe to say there would have been no Vertigo or The Naked Spur, at least with JS, had not war forged a way more complex player than what aw-shucked earlier in boyish work.


Stewart family and background are deftly drawn. He'd come close as reality would permit to Norman Rockwell upbringing, stable family, religious observance, ancestry given to military service. Jim must have seemed an oasis of normalcy amongst Hollywood folk borne of harder scrabble. Is that what drew women so fiercely to him? Matzen explores that part, and let's cede right off that no one's dug so deep as here. I knew gals flipped for JS early on, but not to such astonishing degree as Matzen reveals, Stewart's a daily prewar struggle to stay single in face of femme aggression to make Axis effort look like lawn croquet (among names in pursuit: Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Olivia DeHavilland, --- all in earnest). Through the duck and (between) covers, Jim learned flying, inspired via Lindy hero-worship, and was in position, so he thought, to engage the fight skyward. Trouble was, he was underweight, Matzen capturing well the intensity Stewart lent his struggle to qualify. This war occupied him more than movies before or after would. As limned so vividly by the author, Jim would stand for a generation of men forever changed by years they served and fight they made to survive.


Stewart flew frightful bombing missions, over and over into jaws of death. Read all this and you'll know the miracle that he came home sane (I'd have been a Section Eight after mere training in these crates). Matzen himself flew across and saw sites from which Stewart's group took off. He traced survivors who knew and served with the actor. Mission is full of data never unearthed before. I hadn't thought it possible to so feel the danger of air battling from mere recite in words, but Matzen captures it here. You'll want to stay off too high a chair for this one. Parts of Mission shook me up pretty bad. Guess I never appreciated just what hell these pilots went through. Matzen makes all that clear as blue sky. If you've watched and enjoyed James Stewart in films (haven't we all?), then Mission will be a must. The book will enrich everything you see of him --- certainly did for me. It even added layers to recent HD-on-TCM screening of Dear Brigitte, let alone the many good ones Stewart graced. I'd not recommend any star bio higher. To learn more about Mission and to order the book, visit www.goodknightbooks.com.

2 Comments:

Blogger rnigma said...

Small wonder Jimmy would play Lindbergh in the "Spirit of St. Louis" movie, if the real Lindy inspired him.

When visiting my brother in New Mexico in 1976 I met a man named Sidney Cary who was a bomber pilot in WW2. He told me that he served with Jimmy Stewart and taught him to fly a bomber. Mr. Cary said that Stewart was just one of the guys, asking for no special treatment.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Recalling a Playboy interview with Henry Fonda. James Stewart apparently dropped in briefly and socially; when the interviewer asked about the liberal Fonda's close friendship with the conservative Stewart, Fonda said they realized they didn't agree about politics in the '30s and simply stopped talking about it.

4:03 AM  

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