Seven years from now will be the one-hundredth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. Isn’t that amazing? It used to be that people could barely move while planes were in the air because of ballast, and now commercial flights have wifi and comfy seats with lots of legroom, not to mention weirdly catchy safety videos. We’ve come a long way.
Which is why it’s interesting to look at a film like 1957’s The Spirit of St. Louis. Based on Charles Lindbergh’s memoir, it was a pet project of Jimmy Stewart’s in his free-agent days and a competent, introspective take on this landmark achievement.
The film opens on a dark rainy night, with Charles “Slim” Lindbergh tossing and turning in a hotel bed. Down the hall, someone plays “Rio Rita” on a record player. Even farther down the hall, a roomful of journalists are typing away about Slim being fast asleep in anticipation of his great undertaking.
Slim may not be sleeping, but he’s definitely thinking. He’thinking about his plane, where the mechanics are busy checking and double-checking while a massive crowd looks on. Slim begins reflecting on his career and what got him to where he is.
His day job is as an air mail pilot, delivering in all conditions no matter what. He makes his coworkers nervous because he’ll go charging off into a blinding blizzard. On a flight from Peoria to Chicago, Slim’s plane runs out of gas and he has to parachute out. On the train he spies a newspaper story about a $25,000 prize being offered for successfully flying across the Atlantic nonstop.
When Slim gets back to his hometown of St. Louis, he sets about finding a group of prominent businessmen to buy a plane and sponsor his flight. The businessmen take a little bit of convincing, but Slim convinces them and after a false start with a patronizing plane manufacturer in New York, they commission Ryan Airlines in San Diego.
The Ryan folks are so unpretentious that when Slim shows up, Frank (Bartlett Robinson), the president, is busy frying sanddabs with a blowtorch. He puts Slim to work on the fish while he gets the rest of the lunch ready, all the time talking to him about the bigwig they’re expecting from St. Louis. Naturally, when Slim tells him he’s the bigwig, everyone’s supremely embarrassed. Or they would be if Slim didn’t amiably propose eating the sanddabs and getting to work.
Ryan’s gimmick is that they can build an aircraft in ninety days or less, and in the case of The Spirit of St. Louis, they finish in sixty-three days. It’s a race against the clock, not only because Ryan has a reputation to maintain, but other aviation teams may beat Slim and Company to the punch.
Lindbergh is all about efficiency. The Spirit has a wicker seat, no radio, and as few trimmings as possible. It carries 450 gallons of fuel in the nose, and if Slim has to look ahead for any reason, he can use a periscope.
Slim flies the plane out to New Jersey and then to Roosevelt Field in Long Island, where he plans on taking off as soon as possible, and thus ends the first flashback. He finds out that Nungesser and Coley were killed, but he doesn’t let it discourage him, and he goes ahead with his own flight.
The bulk of the film, of course, takes place over the actual trip to Paris. Slim has more flashbacks, usually triggered by coming across some object or other. He remembers his days in the Army Air Corps and as a barnstormer. He also remembers his crazy time as a flying instructor. As his flight draws out longer and longer, Slim has to fight off sleep, ice, and disorientation, but he tries to stay as methodical as possible. The outcome isn’t really a secret–we all know Lindbergh ended up at Le Bourget Field thirty-three hours plus change later.
As is often the case with biopics, The Spirit of St. Louis nips and tucks the historical record. According to the History Channel, the prize money Lindbergh was competing for was actually first offered in 1919 by hotel magnate Raymond Orteig and set to expire five years later. Since he had no takers, Orteig reinstated the contest in 1926. Lindbergh didn’t plan to take off from Long Island by himself; two other flyers, Commander Richard Byrd and Clarence Chamberlain waited to go as well when the weather permitted.
When the weather finally broke, neither Byrd or Chamberlain were able to take off. Lindbergh was first out of the box, even though the press in his hotel staged a raucous poker game that kept him up all night. He was so tired he had to prop his eyelids open with his fingers. He also didn’t just have flashbacks as in the film, but hallucinations of ghosts. Sometimes he flew as little as ten feet above the water. It wasn’t until he saw daylight that he started to get his second wind.
After Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight, he was suddenly god-like to millions of people. The Smithsonian notes that he couldn’t go outside without getting mobbed, which he really wasn’t crazy about. Who would be, really? However, Lindbergh did take the Spirit on an 82-city tour around the United States and even flew it to Latin America. On May 13, 1928, Lindbergh donated the plane to the Smithsonian, where it resides today. It underwent a recent restoration and remains a cherished part of the National Air and Space Museum’s permanent exhibits.
When it came to Hollywood making a film about his life, Lindbergh seemed pretty reticent. He would meet with Stewart so that Stewart could get to know him better, but they didn’t exactly hit it off. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other, but Stewart couldn’t think of a thing to say to Lindbergh. The man wasn’t exactly a gregarious personality, and Stewart was hard-pressed to find some outward mannerisms or foibles he could work into his characterization. Stewart’s and Lindbergh’s rapport slowly improved over time, though, and Stewart remembered their last dinner at Chasen’s as “pleasant.”
Who really knows what Lindbergh thought of the movie. His reputation had taken a hit in the years following his transatlantic flight, as he had Nazi sympathies and was on record as an anti-Semite. Maybe he thought his image could use a spit-shine, even later in his life.
Too bad the movie flopped (Read Bosley Crowther’s review here). The main critique was, of course, Stewart’s trying to play a twenty-five year old.
I have to be honest, here. While I’ve grown up watching and liking this film, it seems very atypical for a Billy Wilder product. There’s none of his trademark biting dialogue here, although to be fair, he didn’t write the screenplay and I don’t know where that type of dialogue would really fit anyway. Lindbergh’s character doesn’t seem that filled out for all the flashbacks the movie gives. All we know about him is that he’s always been a daredevil who invariably beats the odds.
James Stewart seems atypical here, too, although as an Air Force colonel he had something in common with Lindbergh. Yes, he was way too old for the role. Jack Warner wanted a younger, unknown actor, and he actually told Wilder’s co-producer, Leland Hayward to tell Stewart he was too fat to discourage Stewart from lobbying for the part (According to TCM, Stewart weighed 170 at the time.). Nice, huh? It’s funny that Warner would do this, seeing as twenty years previously L.B. Mayer had Stewart noshing on candy bars to gain weight.
Stewart lost weight and Hayward caved. He may have been twice Lindbergh’s age, but Stewart plays a great part and more than has the tall and skinny thing down. Quite honestly, I think the role would have been boring if anyone but Jimmy Stewart had played it. There are lonnnng stretches of cockpit footage and a lot of interior monologues, as well as mild schtick in spots, such as when Slim banters at the fly who temporarily joins him in the cockpit while he flies over Canada. Stewart’s trademark folkiness works in the character’s favor and mostly keeps overadulation at bay.
The film isn’t all bad. It does feel drawn-out and “Are we there yet?” sometimes, but it does earn what little suspense that can be mustered out of a long flight where the pilot keeps nodding off. In one scene, Slim is flying along and there’s an easy orchestral score wafting, and then all of a sudden both the music and the plane’s engine cut out. If a viewer doesn’t know it’s coming, this little interlude makes the heart drop and jolts everyone, including Slim, out of any complacency.
The Spirit of St. Louis seems to have worn fairly well, although it isn’t usually regarded as one of Stewart’s better films. However, it’s an interesting look at a big event in American and aviation history that still captures the imagination, even today.
Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you soon…
The Spirit of St. Louis is available on DVD from Amazon.
Dewey, Donald. James Stewart. London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2014.