Why Did Billy Wilder Call ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ His Worst Movie?
Designers Charles and Ray Eames are known for the modernistic chair that bears their names, but the married couple were also close friends with film director Billy Wilder (whose credits included Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard ). In 1955 Wilder asked Charles to join him as a photographic consultant on his latest project. The film was The Spirit of St. Louis , Wilder’s adaptation of Charles Lindbergh’s 1953 book about his life and his famous solo hop across the Atlantic in 1927. Eames shot candid photos of the film’s production, images that have rarely if ever been published until now.
The Jewish Wilder was eager to take on the film, despite Lindbergh’s troubling isolationist and arguably anti-Semitic politics in the years leading up to World War II. When Wilder and Lindbergh flew to Washington to see the original Spirit at the Smithsonian Institution prior to filming, their flight hit turbulence. The puckish Wilder leaned over to Lindbergh and said, “Mr. Lindbergh, would it not be embarrassing if we crashed and the headlines said, ‘Lone Eagle and Jewish Friend in Plane Crash’?” Even more troubling for Wilder than Lindbergh’s past was the director’s inability to penetrate the aviator’s character. “There was a wall there,” he said.
To play the Lone Eagle, Wilder hired James Stewart. It was perfect casting—or it would have been, had Wilder made the film 20 years earlier. The real Lindbergh was only 25 when he made his flight; at the start of the shoot Stewart was more than two decades older.
The production was troubled and Wilder lost interest before shooting ended in 1957, with director John Sturges stepping in for an uncredited role shooting some final scenes. The film failed at the box office when released later that year and Wilder himself remained disappointed by what he once called his worst film. Still, director Cameron Crowe, who published a book of his conversations with Wilder, felt differently. “Wilder’s much underrated color portrait of Lindbergh’s famous journey is a sumptuous biopic,” he wrote. Charles Eames’ photographs provide a fascinating look behind the scenes.
Photos © Eames Office, LLC. All rights reserved
In The Spirit of St. Louis, director Billy Wilder and screenwriter Wendell Mayes fleshed out the story of Charles Lindbergh’s New York-to-Paris flight with flashbacks of Lindbergh’s aviation career. Here the film crew shoots a barnstorming sequence.
Designer Charles Eames was a friend of Wilder’s and worked on the production as a photographer.
Here director Wilder seems to be mistaking an exhaust on one of the movie’s Spirit of St. Louis replicas for a camera’s viewfinder
The movie built two flying versions of the Spirit of St. Louis as well as this static model for scenes on the ground. One of the flying replicas is now on display at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and the other is at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. The static model used to hang in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and is now owned by Wings of the North in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
Actor James Stewart was a pilot himself and flew 20 combat missions in B-24s during World War II. He considered the part of Lindbergh the role of a lifetime. Here he sits in the cockpit of a de Havilland DH-4 that was used for a flashback airmail sequence.
Stewart hangs from a parachute in the studio as he depicts Lindbergh’s descent from his airmail plane. When finishing the scene on location, the wind caught Stewart’s parachute and dragged him 50 feet across the ground.
The crew shoots another barnstorming sequence with a Curtiss Jenny.
A scene with a Pathé News crew and their airplane did not make it into the final film.
Studio crew prepare to position some stunt trees while actor Murray Hamilton waits for his cue at the wing of a Jenny. Hamilton, later known as the mayor in the movie Jaws, played Lindbergh’s real- life friend and fellow barnstormer, Harlan “Bud” Gurney. The character appeared in only one scene in the movie, in which he and Lindbergh talked about their mutual love of flying. The real Gurney, who ended his flying career in 1965 as a pilot for United Airlines, served as a technical advisor on the movie.
The Warner Bros. crew applies some last- minute makeup to actor Hamilton. While much of the film was shot on sets, some of the movie was filmed on location, mostly in California. The scene of Lindbergh’s arrival at Le Bourget Airport, though, was filmed in France, although at a different airport near Versailles.
Wilder, seated on the fence, converses with some of his crew between setups. At one point during the shoot star James Stewart bet Wilder he wouldn’t dare attempt wing walking. Wilder had himself strapped to the top wing of a biplane and won the bet, donating his winnings to charity.
The Spirit of St. Louis became almost a character in the movie itself. Lindbergh spent more than 33 hours alone in the airplane’s cramped cockpit on his transatlantic flight, and dramatizing that proved challenging when writing the screenplay. One solution was to have Lindbergh talk to a fly that took refuge in the airplane. “Mr. Stewart did not object to talking to insects,” said Wilder. “After all, he had to deal all of his life with agents and producers.”
The scene of Lindbergh’s takeoff from Roosevelt Field in New York was actually filmed at Santa Maria, California.
this article first appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine
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