Wilder: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Dec/120

Wilder: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)

Charles 'Slim' Lindbergh (Jimmy Stewart) struggles to finance and design an airplane that will make his New York to Paris flight the first solo transatlantic crossing.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Spirit of St Louis (1957)DannyCommentaryBanner

Did the disastrous reception of Ace in the Hole ruin Billy Wilder's career in the 1950's? We've had our disagreements about his Broadway trilogy, but after his brilliant run in the 1940's, it's easy to start believing Wilder had lost his gift.

I don't think it's been so apparent as it is now, with The Spirit of St Louis being one of the most bland, unexamining biographical films ever made. It is the story of how Charles Lindbergh wanted to fly over the Atlantic. Eventually, he flies over the Atlantic. Everyone looks pretty stoked.

For people of the time, Lindbergh was a courageous aviation hero, proving the viability of commercial flight. For people nowadays, it's more of a 'so what?' kind of moment. Of course commercial aviation was viable; it'd be ridiculous to feel otherwise. In a post-Right Stuff age his accomplishment seems even less impressive.

But, hell, that could just be because The Spirit of St Louis is deeply unimpressive. It's shot in color, and looks less like The Seven Year Itch and a lot more like Emperor Waltz. Everything is varying levels of muddy and gray. Even when 47 year old Jimmy Stewart, playing 25 year old Lindbergh, is bouncing around with a terrible blonde dye job, it looks bad.

Stewart is in full 'aw shucks' mode for this film, and it never stops being grating. Far be it from me to lambast an icon, but even with his folksy turned up to 11, it's obvious that Stewart doesn't think a whole lot of what he's doing here either. And since most of the movie is Stewart by himself in a plane, well, it's got nothing.

The movie has a couple of good moments. The patriotic swell met with silence as Lindbergh briefly finds he's out of gas over France isn't bad. Stewart's interactions with a fly weren't the most boring thing that could have happened. And the ideas behind setting up the journey as a long series of flashbacks isn't inherently terrible.

This is an important film supposedly about a great man doing a great thing, and it's boring as fuck. The Spirit of St Louis feels like the kind of film someone would make under the threat of physical harm. Ryan?

SpiritofStLouis1Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating

I think the reason this movie is very meh in my books is because Wilder was friends with Lindbergh and couldn't/wouldn't paint him in any light that wasn't great.  Lindbergh had some demons in his life and Wilder could have knocked that movie out of the park, but he was adapting an auto-biography of his friend so we get a very vanilla movie.  I loved the idea he had for this film that is discussed in Conversations with Wilder but alas, it was not meant to be.

With that said, this movie also could have been a whole lot worse.  Thankfully it was about a very short time of his life so we are spared childhood memories and all that sentimental crap that many bio-pics put in films.  I have realized I like movies about real life people that focus on a specific time in their life like Lincoln or Social Network rather than a movie that looks at a person from birth to death like Ray.

I also didn't seem to dislike it as much as you did and I thought the movie was ok but nothing special at all.  Stewart might have been a little too old and that hair style they gave him was awful like you said but his humble routine worked for this movie.  Wilder directed the flight in a very claustrophobic way that made you feel how cramped/uncomfortable/dangerous his journey was.  This movie has the problem of being a decent film in the library of one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and in my opinion the BEST writer/director of the 20th century.  The movie is not bad compared to a lot made at that time but when you start comparing it to films like Sunset Boulevard or Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the movie suffers.

SpiritofStLouis3DannyCommentaryBannerShort

I don't know, man, we still get a lot of flashbacks. The one where Lindbergh bought a plane and tried to fly it before he knew how was grating in its level of supposed whimsy.

There was another flashback that caught my attention, where Lindbergh met another pilot. We see them land and then we observe the putting their clothes back on as they talk about running away together and joining the circus. There's a very slight homosexual subtext to all of this, but, like you said, anything in the movie that wasn't about Lindbergh's noble flight was more or less deadweight.

And I still disagree with you on Stewart. Imagine someone as young as Lindbergh playing this part. Someone with energy or verve. My impression of Lindbergh here isn't a driven adventurer but a nice quiet guy who looked solemn every once in a while before going back to checking his instruments.

Also, Jesus, god, there is a lot of instrument checking in this movie. The film' entire tension seems to rely on the idea that the audience doesn't know how the journey ends. Of course we know how it ends; even if I had no idea who Lindbergh was, the film's basic structure tells me how it ends. Boo. BOOOO.

The filmed the myth and not the man. I think it's pretty bad compared to a lot of stuff, even terrible biographical films from the 1950's. This thing is just a dud on every level.

SpiritofStLouis4Ryan COMMENTARY w/o Rating

I don't know if the scene with the other pilot was slight in its undercurrent but I get what you are saying.  What I was meaning about Stewart was this movie was in no way going to do anything but treat him as a big damn hero, at this time if you wanted to have your hero be all-american you hired one of two actors, Stewart or John Wayne and thank god they did not go the other way.

Finally, I want to discuss what you brought about their being no tension in the movie and I agree with that. Of course everyone watching the movie knew he was going to make the flight but just because you know the outcome of the story doesn't mean it has to be devoid of tension.  I knew that the plot to kill Hitler doesn't work in Valkarie and that they got out of Iran in Argo but both of this movies had me on the edge of my seat because of the writing/acting/directing.

Was Billy Wilder not 100% involved in this movie or was he wishing he could have done more?  I don't know but while I don't think the movie is as horrible as you find it, I also don't find anything to really appreciate either.  Spirit of St. Louis is a forgotten Wilder film mainly because there is not much to it.  The film tells a story but doesn't try to lift it up to anything bigger or better.  Maybe in an alternate reality Wilder made the version of the story he had talked about and it was as great as it could have been.

Next time: Love in the Afternoon (1957)

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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