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Robert Mitchum: The Jimmy Stewart Connection

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DVD: It's a Wonderful Life
Book: Suspects, David Thomson

Out of the Past It's a Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum couldn't be farther apart on the Hollywood spectrum: Stewart, the beloved all-American small-town hero, and Mitchum the much-jailed B-movie tough guy. They only starred in one film together, the ill-conceived 1978 remake of The Big Sleep. Mitchum had the title role as Philip Marlowe, Stewart played the bedridden General Sternwood. Neither man's biographies give the film much space.

Besides ranking high on many a film fan's list of favorite actors, it was their deaths that ultimately united them in the public's mind. Mitchum died July 1, 1997, and while the film world was still reading his obituary, the news came that Jimmy Stewart had also died, on July 2, 1997. How fitting that these two great American stars would check out so close to the Fourth of July, the same day that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, fifty years to the day after signing the Declaration of Independence.

The other connections? Mitchum had been under consideration to play Bert the cop in It's a Wonderful Life, the best-loved of all Jimmy Stewart films. Perhaps acting on that knowledge, critic David Thomson wrote Suspects, a novel linking movie characters from Laura to In a Lonely Place to Cutter's Way. The centerpiece of the film? The relationship between George Bailey, beleaguered hero of It's a Wonderful Life, and Jeff Bailey, Mitchum's world-weary P.I. from Out of the Past. Thomson posited that these two Baileys were estranged brothers, an idea that fits so well it doesn't seem like an invention. Never mind that Bailey is an assumed name for Jeff Markham, a man trying to escape his past by hiding in plain sight in a small town. Of course, his past catches up with him, with fatal consequences. Stewart's quintessential small-town family man, on the other hand, spends the whole of his film trying to escape Bedford Falls, even through suicide, only to be shown the error of his ways. At film's end, he's celebrated as the unsung hero he is, as the one man who's held the whole town together.

I'd like to think that as everyone George ever helped pours into his house to honor him, and that after his younger brother and hero, the decorated soldier Harry, toasts him, George looks to the door for one more brother to appear out of the past.

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