Jimmy Stewart ’32, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in “It's a Wonderful Life” (1946), Liberty Films / RKO Radio Pictures.
Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back;
’Til things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.
—Johnny Cash, 1971

As you read this, it’s been a year since I’ve been to Princeton. I’ve always taken it for granted, but I’m pretty certain I never will again. It’s been over 40 years since the last time I spent a year away. The last formal event I attended there was last year’s Service of Remembrance at Alumni Day. Perfect. There won’t really be an Alumni Day this year — there’ll be a virtual service, and in 2022 we’ll do a real one, with a two-year memorial program that will require a pre-game warm-up to lift. 

One of our missing alums will be Don Marsden ’64, who died Aug. 20. Chair emeritus of the Princetoniana Committee, his main love in life was the Triangle Club, with every juicy morsel of its provenance and raucous spirit. For the club’s 75th anniversary in 1968, he wrote The Long Kickline, the definitive history not only of the organization but coincidentally an entire epoch, the time from the 1896 Sesquicentennial at which Princeton was renamed, to his own time when “the well-rounded student” gave way to “the well-rounded class” on the threshold of coeducation and a rainbow of minority and international students. Consider his rather offhand reference to the wife of Rev. Dr. John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893, the last clergyman to head the University:

Mrs. Hibben did indeed use the tickets [to Triangle in 1919], and she was not particularly pleased with what she saw. In fact, for the rest of her husband’s presidency, she made it a regular habit to attend every Triangle dress rehearsal — to which she invariably brought an all-hearing Presbyterian ear and an inexhaustible supply of sharpened blue pencils. Prohibition was no laughing matter to Mrs. Hibben.

Speaking of Triangle: Among the modern Mixed Blessings that have run amok during the pandemic, surely binge viewing reigns high in the Pantheon, and I’ve managed to marry it to Princeton history in a few unorthodox ways. But the one that has become something of a grim obsession is, of all things, the career of Jimmy Stewart ’32. Seeing many of his better films again for the umpteenth time has gotten me stirred up because, while his range of roles morphed severely over both his own aging process and the vagaries of Hollywood over the decades, I have become increasingly convinced that beneath whatever you happened to be seeing on screen, his depth verged on the limitless. 

This started, I think, with my long-standing contention that A Wonderful Life isn’t much of a Christmas movie, redolent of a cynicism that implies the best hope for a hard-working, intelligent, upstanding person with scruples is divine intervention. Even in an idyllic Bedford Falls, the despondent George Bailey is far more believable — and memorable — than the aw-shucks George wooing Donna Reed (playing Donna Reed). And in his eyes at the very end, albeit holding wonderful Zuzu, there is a haunted undercurrent that doesn’t bode well for the Bailey Building and Loan, and may well imply follow-up appointments with Clarence. As I rewatch his oeuvre, I’ve become increasingly convinced this isn’t just my fevered imagination, but an ability of Stewart, then newly returned from the war, to project the complex doubts and confusion of people trying to cope, while facing the stark limits of their own condition. So my antennae were tuned.

The second time I saw Vertigo was on a technically breathtaking soundstage on the backlot of Universal Pictures in Hollywood. [The first was probably a television version with commercials, so long before that I couldn’t recall.] It was the world debut in 1996 of the newly restored print of the negative that had been rescued from falling apart in Universal’s vaults. It was part of the Princeton 250th anniversary celebration in Hollywood that also included a wonderful live Triangle revue, a nostalgic history show by Scott Berg ’71 on Princeton in Hollywood, and a gala P-rade on the back lot, ending at Back to the Future Square and complete right down to the Class of 1970’s World-Famous Seventypede.

This was long before Vertigo was spoken of in line with Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. Stewart (in ill health and unable to attend, even to see his beloved heirs in Triangle) was regarded as a beloved folksy elder statesman of showbiz, the tip-off being that his only performing Oscar had been for The Philadelphia Story, not Anatomy of a Murder or Winchester 73 or Rear Window. Since I sort of knew the Vertigo plot and all, I was completely unprepared to be so emotionally distraught as Scottie Ferguson is first duped, then obsessively compelled to create his own complete destruction. Unaccompanied, I simply sat afterward in my cushy seat for how long I have no idea and tried to process it, right up to the fearsome ending. In all the times I’ve since watched it — many, believe me — I’m left with the same helplessness as a decent man, with only the modest weaknesses we each have, is crushed like some bug on the windshield of life.

Because of the great difference in external trappings (Capra vs. Hitchcock — ya think?) it took me a deal of time to come to the realization that George Bailey and Scottie Ferguson might as well be the same character. You can feel in your bones that Scottie originally went into police work as a public service, given his clear capability of a range of other things, as George stayed with his benighted Building and Loan as a self-denying gift to his community. Scottie tilts against the unassailable specter of the late Carlotta (even her oil portrait seems to mock him, and in the end provides his downfall) just as George must battle the wretched Mr. Potter without effect. Their intimate supporters — Barbara Bel Geddes and Reed — love unconditionally, but genuinely cannot understand the tortured souls of their stalwart men. While they meet dissimilar short-term ends, think for a moment: If the bank examiner had hauled George off at the end, and if Scottie and Judy had stumbled off to a clinging, dissolute future together (probably in Las Vegas, where morals go to die), would the conclusions have been less true to the stories? There but for the Grace of Clarence….

Although Stewart was a person of great substance, a war hero and the only Hollywood notable ever to become a military general officer, among a raft of other achievements, from where does the ability to so effectively convey such truth about his characters — whether Jefferson Smith or Elwood P. Dowd — arise? From a pleasant Republican small-town upbringing in Indiana, Pennsylvania? From drag roles in Triangle? From substantive theater friends like Josh Logan ’31, Myron McCormick ’31, Jose Ferrer ’33, Margaret Sullavan, and Henry Fonda? His first major film role in After the Thin Man was that of a suave suitor/boyfriend who breezes through the social circles of Nick and Nora Charles. But when he turns out to be a murderer, you believe it in a heartbeat. Why? What did he do to convey that earlier? How? At the time, Stewart was 28 years old. 

The friends we remember each year on Alumni Day almost unfailingly have the same depths and eddies of complexity that we see so remarkably onscreen from Jimmy Stewart. That is one reason we undertake the pilgrimage: They are more than friends — they are living, three-dimensional components of our own selves, and being in the Chapel with common friends and the huge wreath of white carnations lends a supportive materiality to our musings. Without that this year, I worry that the darkness in everyone’s past may be more recalcitrant, and the joy and camaraderie more difficult to access. We will miss Jimmy Stewart and Don Marsden, but it will be hard work remembering and again smiling at Harvey and Mrs. Hibben’s blue pencils.

I haven’t been in the Chapel for a year now, and I miss it greatly.

Dei sub numine viget.