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Based on Charles Lindbergh's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) covers his groundbreaking 33-hour-and-20-minute solo flight from New York to Paris in May of 1927. In order to make it across Lindbergh must struggle to overcome his own fatigue and the elements--ranging from ice on the wings to fog; his only companion in the cockpit is a fly. Along the journey, Lindbergh recalls his past as an airmail pilot and a barnstormer.
Originally the lead role of Lindbergh was offered to John Kerr, who had earned acclaim for his performance in the Broadway production of Tea and Sympathy and as a psychiatric patient in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb (1955); Kerr turned the part down due to Lindbergh's notorious sympathies with the Nazi party. Not only did Lindbergh visit Germany during the late thirties, Hermann Goering decorated him with the Service Cross of the German Eagle and he even toyed with the idea of moving to Wannsee. Later in life, Lindbergh said, "I always regarded the fuss about it as a sort of teapot tempest." James Stewart, who had long admired Lindbergh's aviation achievement and had served in the Air Force himself, was eager to play the role but had a difficult time convincing studio head Jack Warner to accept the forty-seven-year-old actor in the part of a twenty-five-year-old man. "...I need a star but not one that's pushing fifty," Warner said. Warner then recommended that producer Leland Hayward tell James Stewart that was he too fat for the part. Stewart recalls, "I couldn't believe what I was hearing, but I wanted the part so badly I dieted. I'd never dieted before in my life. I started off at 170 lbs. and in the end I was so thin I didn't even look like myself. In fact I looked terribly ill. My face was gaunt and I had black rings under my eyes." Eventually Hayward convinced Warner to let Stewart have the part.
Co-screenwriter Charles Lederer got his start writing additional dialogue for the first screen adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's hit Broadway play The Front Page (1931), which Billy Wilder remade in 1974. Lederer had since earned a reputation for writing some of Hollywood's sharpest dialogue, including His Girl Friday (1940) - another version of The Front Page - and the brutal film noir Kiss of Death (1947). When Lederer suddenly resigned, complaining that Wilder had insulted him once too often, Wilder hired newcomer Wendell Mayes in his place. Mayes' only previous experience was as a writer for Kraft Television Theater. At Wilder's recommendation, Mayes was subsequently hired by Otto Preminger to write the screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder ( 1959), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; other Preminger/Mayes collaborations include Advise and Consent (1962) and In Harm's Way (1965). Mayes soon became one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the industry.
The Spirit of St. Louis was plagued with cost overruns. The original plane, The Sprit of St. Louis, cost $13,000 to build in the 1920s; the full-scale replicas painstakingly reconstructed for the film from the original blueprints cost over $100,000. Although much of the film took place inside a cockpit, there was extensive (and expensive) location and aerial shooting in New York, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Ireland and Paris. Wilder later said of the shoot: "We had unbelievable mechanical problems. We could not communicate with a plane once it was up there, so when we had to do another take, it had to land, get the instructions, and take off again. We had other planes in the air to film the plane when we were shooting. The weather would change from one minute to the next. God, it was horrendous." The film's budget topped $6,000,000, but it grossed only $2,600,000 in its initial run. Jack Warner characterized it as "the most disastrous failure we ever had." While it is perhaps neither Stewart's nor Wilder's strongest work, it nonetheless remains a worthy effort.
A reviewer in Time said of Stewart's performance: "....Stewart, for all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in suggesting what the world sensed at the time: that Lindbergh's flight was not the mere physical adventure of a rash young 'flying fool,' but rather a journey of the spirit." In spite of the obvious age difference between Stewart and the young Lindbergh, it is nonetheless difficult to imagine anyone else who could carry the film single-handedly the way he does for its 135-minute running time. Stewart also succeeded in accurately recreating the technical aspects of flying throughout the film; Lindbergh himself was particularly impressed by the moment when Stewart taps the oil gauge while starting the engine, the sort of passing detail only an experienced pilot like Stewart would know. Variety also praised the film's meticulous production values and Robert Burks' widescreen cinematography. Look for future television mogul Aaron Spelling, producer of series such as Charlie's Angels and Dynasty, in the role Mr. Pearless.
Producer: Leland Hayward
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes, Charles Lederer and Billy Wilder, based on the book by Charles A. Lindbergh
Cinematography: Robert Burks, J. Peverell Marley
Editor: Arthur P. Schmidt
Art Director: Art Loel
Music: Franz Waxman
Technical Advisors: Major-General Victor Bertrandias, U.S.A.F., Harlan A. Gurney
Cast: James Stewart (Charles Lindbergh), Murray Hamilton (Bud Gurney), Patricia Smith (Mirror Girl), Bartlett Robinson (B. F. Mahoney), Marc Connelly (Father Hussman), Arthur Space (Donald Hall), Charles Watts (O. W. Schultz).
by James Steffen