Naturally, these kind of heroic record setting endeavors are tailor made to be turned into a motion picture. Who better to play the All-American aviator Lindbergh than the All-American actor (and also a pilot) James Stewart (VERTIGO, HARVEY). What's surprising about this biographical film about Lindbergh called THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957) is that it's directed by the great Billy Wilder. Wilder is much better known for his darker, cynical films like SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), and STALAG 17 (1953). A film about Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in an single engine airplane seems a little too mainstream and dull for Wilder.
But maybe that's why Wilder made the film. Perhaps he challenged himself to make a more mainstream film. THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is Wilder's second color film after THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and he made it at Warner Bros who were the kings of All-American films like YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) about composer Irving Berlin or JIM THORPE - ALL - AMERICAN (1951) about who else but the All-American athlete Jim Thorpe. Based on Charles Lindbergh's own 1953 book about his historic flight, Wilder and co-writer Wendell Mayes and scenarist Charles Lederer break Lindbergh's flight into two sections. The first hour is the preceding night before Lindbergh taking off for Paris (let's call it pre-flight). The second half is the epic flight itself as Lindbergh attempts to cross the Atlantic solo. Interspersed throughout both halves of the film are flashbacks of how Lindbergh became an aviator: his early days as an Air Mail pilot flying in dangerous weather in the Midwest; his halcyon days as a barnstorming daredevil pilot with his buddy Bud Gurney (Murray Hamilton); and even his stint as a flight instructor. It's a clever way for Wilder to break up the rather straightforward story and also show Lindbergh had the right stuff to endeavor such a perilous journey.
THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (which happens to be the name of the single engine Ryan monoplane that Lindbergh flew) begins with Charles Lindbergh (James Stewart) trying to sleep upstairs in a hotel the night before his historic flight as newspaper reporters type all night below, filing their stories. Lindbergh is waiting to take off on his flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France the next morning. Nicknamed "Slim" for his slight build, Lindbergh reflects back on how he scrapped together $2000 of his own money and $13,000 from a group of investors to embark on this life or death solo Trans-Atlantic flight to win the Orteig Prize and its $25,000 prize money. Lindbergh travels to San Diego and visits Ryan Airlines. He meets with airplane designer Ben Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) and his chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space) who agree to build Lindbergh's long range air plane. They rush to complete the plane in sixty-three days. American and French pilots are already attempting the risky journey ahead of Lindbergh. All have perished or been injured trying.
Lindbergh's backers want him to call off the flight. They don't want to see him killed. Lindbergh refuses. The next morning, the weather clears enough that Lindbergh makes the decision to go. Before a small crowd of people including Mahoney, Lindbergh takes off on his own, barely making it over telephone wires and trees, to begin his historic flight. Lindbergh will battle fatigue, cramps, fog, and cold in his cramped little cockpit. At one point, his wings begin to ice up and he nearly bails out of the plane before finding a warmer altitude. Another instance, Lindbergh falls asleep and almost spirals into the ocean.
Using dead reckoning (a previously determined position) to navigate, Lindbergh finally sees signs of life below after endless miles of ocean. He flies over a group of fishing boats. Lindbergh realizes he's reached Ireland. Next, he flies over England. Finally, he crosses the English Channel headed for Paris. Lindbergh sees the bright lights of Paris but he has to find the landing field. Bright spotlights nearly blind him as 200,000 Parisians await Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis to touch down and make history.
I see THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS as a test for Billy Wilder. Like Alfred Hitchcock setting LIFEBOAT (1944) entirely in a lifeboat or filming ROPE (1948) in single ten minute takes, Wilder challenges himself to make Lindbergh's mostly solitary journey cinematically interesting. Wilder has Lindbergh talk to himself at times (or narrate inner monologues), even gives Lindbergh a common house fly to converse with for part of the flight. The flashbacks break up the solitude, providing us with background of the young aviator. We see Lindbergh's courage as an Air Mail pilot flying in horrible conditions. We see Lindbergh's daredevil spirit as an aerial stunt flyer. And we see Lindbergh's independent side as he trades in his Harley Davidson motorcycle for his first plane.
|The original Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 2014)|
Director Wilder manages to make THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS tense and suspenseful from the moment Lindbergh barely makes it into the air from Long Island to his final landing in Paris. The sequences with Lindbergh fighting to stay awake and almost spiraling to his death or encountering ice on his wings are hair-raising. Even when he reaches Paris, there's a sense of dread that something could go wrong before he lands and makes history. He can't locate the airfield right away and when he does, it's covered with thousands of people with spotlights momentarily blinding him.
It's obvious that James Stewart is much older than Charles Lindbergh was when he made his historic flight. Lindbergh accomplished the Trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25. Stewart was 47 when he made THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS portraying a 25 year old Lindbergh. But Stewart does resemble Lindbergh with his lankiness (Stewart dieted for the role) and bleached blond hair. Although younger actors were considered, Stewart was a bigger name and star. Stewart is fine in the role except for a couple of moments where he sounds like George Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) yelling down from his cockpit to a group of fishermen below. Even with Stewart in the lead role and Billy Wilder directing, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS would be a box office flop when initially released.
James Stewart and Murray Hamilton are the only familiar faces in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS but Wilder has a great knack for casting bit players with unique faces and voices that make them stand out in their small parts. No one can mistake Richard Deacon's (TV'S THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) deep voice in a small role as the President of Columbia Aircraft or Dabbs Greer (TV'S LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) mellow voice as a Ryan Airline mechanic or the gregarious Charles Watts as O.W. Schultz, a suspender salesman Lindbergh meets on a train. There is no love interest for Lindbergh. The only significant female role is Patricia Smith as the Mirror Girl. She loans Lindbergh her small pocket mirror so he can read his compass which is located at an awkward angle in the cockpit. But all of the supporting characters in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS play some kind of role in Lindbergh's success.
Charles Lindbergh's popularity would be at an all time high after his historic accomplishment but his life would be a series of misfortune and controversy afterward. His first child Charles Jr. would be kidnapped and later murdered by Bruno Hauptmann in 1932. During World War II, Lindbergh would be criticized for his Pro-Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic views. And after both Lindbergh and later his wife Anne had died, it was discovered by their children that Lindbergh had fathered several more children with three different women in Europe. Not all heroes are as All-American as we think.
But THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS does not take any political or moral views on Lindbergh's life. The film is about his American independent spirit to have a dream and accomplish it. Composer Franz Waxman provides a rousing musical score with a wonderful soaring motif for Lindbergh and his plane. Wilder shows American ingenuity at work with a nice montage (enhanced with Waxman's music and Arthur P. Schmidt's editing) showing the Ryan Airline workers racing to put The Spirit of St. Louis together in record time. Wilder uses Hitchcock's favorite Director of Photography Robert Burks (along with J. Peverell Marley) to provide widescreen splendor for Lindbergh's journey and flashbacks.
As I've stated previously, director Billy Wilder is credited with possibly making some of the best genre films ever. Best film noir: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Best war film: STALAG 17. Best film about Hollywood: SUNSET BOULEVARD. THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS is Wilder's only biographical film about a real person. Although not as critically acclaimed or financially successful as many of his other pictures, Wilder lays the ground work for how a bio-pic should work in his telling of Charles A. Lindbergh's historic solo Trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.