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The Spirit of St. Louis (film)

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Title: The Spirit of St. Louis (film)  
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Subject: Charles Lederer, Billy Wilder, Richard Deacon (actor), James Stewart filmography, Franz Waxman
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The Spirit of St. Louis (film)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Leland Hayward
Written by Charles Lederer
Wendell Mayes
Billy Wilder
Starring James Stewart
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Robert Burks
J. Peverell Marley
Edited by Arthur P. Schmidt
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • April 20, 1957 (1957-04-20)
Running time
135 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6 million (US)
Box office $2.6 million (US)[1]

The Spirit of St. Louis is a 1957 biographical film directed by Billy Wilder and starring James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The screenplay was adapted by Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder from Lindbergh's 1953 autobiographical account of his historic flight, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. Along with reminiscences of his early days in aviation, the film depicts Lindbergh's historic 33-hour transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis monoplane from his take off at Roosevelt Field to his landing at Le Bourget Field in Paris on May 21, 1927.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Reception 4
  • Awards and honors 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
    • Notes 7.1
    • Citations 7.2
    • Bibliography 7.3
  • External links 8


On May 19, 1927, after waiting for a week for the rain to stop, pilot Charles A. "Slim" Lindbergh (James Stewart) tries to rest in a hotel near Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, prior to a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. His friend Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) guards his hotel room door from reporters. Unable to sleep, Lindbergh reminisces about his time as an airmail pilot.

Flying to Chicago in winter, Lindbergh lands his old de Havilland biplane in a small airfield to refuel. Despite the bad weather, he takes off, unaware the Chicago landing field has closed due to snow. After running out of fuel, Lindbergh bails out. Recovering mail from the crashed DH-4, he continues his journey by train and meets a suspender salesman who tells Lindbergh that two airmen just died competing for the Orteig Prize awarded to the first to fly nonstop from New York City to Paris. [N 1]

From a diner, Lindbergh calls Columbia Aircraft Corporation in New York, pretending to represent a group of prominent businessmen. Quoted the price of $15,000 (equal to $203,649 today) for a Bellanca aircraft, Lindbergh lobbies St. Louis financiers, with a plan to fly 40 hours in a stripped-down, single-engine aircraft. Excited by his vision, the backers dub it Spirit of St. Louis.

The Bellanca deal falls apart when the company demands their own pilot will fly the aircraft. Lindbergh then approaches Ryan Aeronautical Company in San Diego, California. Mahoney, the president of the company, promises to build him an aircraft in just 90 days. With Ryan's chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space), a design is begun. To decrease weight, Lindbergh refuses to install radios or heavy equipment, even a parachute, and plans to navigate by "dead reckoning". [N 2]. Workers at the factory agree to work 24-hour shifts to complete the aircraft on time.

Lindbergh flies his new aircraft to St. Louis, and on to New York. Unable to sleep, he prepares his aircraft at Roosevelt Field, ensuring a full load of 450 gallons of fuel is taken on. In the cramped cockpit, the magnetic compass was positioned above his head but a young woman offers her mirror. Lindbergh fixes it to the instrument panel with chewing gum so he can see the compass. Furtively, Mahoney slips a Saint Christopher medal into the pilot's lunch bag.

With the weather clearing, theSpirit of St. Louis trundles down the muddy runway and barely clears the treetops at the end of the field. Every hour, Lindbergh switches fuel tanks to keep the weight load balanced. As he flies over Cape Cod, he realizes he has not slept in 28 hours. He recalls sleeping on railroad tracks, on short bunk beds, and under a windmill. When Lindbergh begins to doze, he is awakened by a fly. Over Nova Scotia, he sees a motorcyclist below, remembering his own Harley Davidson motorcycle traded as partial payment for his first aircraft, a war-surplus Curtiss Jenny.

Over the seemingly endless Atlantic, Lindbergh remembers barnstorming across the Midwest in a flying circus. After 18 hours, the aircraft's wings ice up and the Spirit of St. Louis begins to drop, but the ice breaks off in the warmer air and the engine restarted. Back on course, his compasses begin malfunctioning, forcing him to navigate by the stars. By dawn, Lindbergh falls asleep, with the aircraft circling and descending, but sunlight reflecting off the mirror awakens him in time to regain control.

Seeing a seagull, Lindbergh realizes he is close to land. He tries without success to hail a fisherman below. Sighting land, he has reached Dingle Bay, Ireland. Pulling out a sandwich, Lindbergh discovers the hidden Saint Christopher medal, hanging it on the instrument panel. Crossing the English Channel and the coast of France, he follows the Seine to Paris. Finally seeing the lights of Paris ahead of him, as he approaches Le Bourget Airfield in the dark, he is confused by the spotlights. The strange movements below him are actually crowds of people. Exhausted and panicked, Lindbergh makes his descent, whispering a prayer, "Oh, God help me!" After landing, hordes of people rush to Lindbergh, blind him with camera flashes, and carry him off triumphantly to the hangar. Tired and confused, Lindbergh eventually realizes that the crowds are cheering for his great achievement. When Lindbergh returns to New York, he is given a huge parade in his honor.



Jimmy Stewart with the aircraft model used in the film

When production began in August 1955, Jack Warner offered the role to John Kerr, who turned it down.[4][N 3][5] Numerous sources indicate that Stewart was lobbying Warner Bros. executives for the role of Lindbergh as early as 1954.[4] At age 47 when the film was shot, Stewart even underwent a strenuous diet and regimen to look more like the real 25-year-old Lindbergh of 1927. Stewart (with hair dyed blond) was ultimately cast as Lindbergh, but his age was pointedly an issue in post-production reviews.[6] Stewart had a lifelong passion relating to Lindbergh and aviation, having related in later life that the "Lone Eagle"'s flight was one of the most significant episodes of his youth, leading him to seek a career as an aviator.[7] As was Lindbergh, Stewart had been an USAAF pilot and both eventually retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve at the grade of Brigadier General.[8]

In order to accurately depict the transatlantic flight, three replicas at a cost of $1.3 million (equal to $11,444,845 today) were made of the "Spirit of St. Louis" for the various film units stateside, in Europe, and for studio work.[9] A similar Ryan Brougham was bought by Stewart and modified with Lindbergh's supervision. It was donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan by Stewart in 1959.[10] The third replica is displayed in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.[11] Filming took place at the Santa Maria Public Airport in Santa Maria, California, at what is currently the site of Allan Hancock College. A non-flying replica for ground shots was also built, and hangs in the Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport.[12] Aerial sequences were directed by Paul Mantz and taken from a North American B-25 bomber converted as camera platform for photography.[13][N 4]

In order to begin work, a small preproduction crew was sent in August 1955 to New York, to film at Roosevelt Field in Long Island, and later, aerial sequences over the Appalachian Mountains in Nova Scotia and at St. John's, Newfoundland, recreating the initial stages of the transatlantic flight. Principal photography began on September 2, 1955, with filming taking place at L'aérodrome de Guyancourt, near Versailles, which would stand-in for le Bourget. Difficulties with Stewart's schedule led to the abandoning of aerial sequences that had been planned with the veteran pilot actually flying one of the replicas over European locales. Ultimately, staged scenes using a mock-up in a soundstage would have to suffice. The schedule was disrupted throughout the fall and only resumed in November when Stewart had completed two other films. The original 64-day schedule ballooned into a 115-day marathon as weather and the star's unavailability hampered the production, with final sequences shot in March 1956.[15]

Aaron Spelling appears as Mr. Fearless in an uncredited role, that marked his early forays into acting.


Previews had not been promising, and when released in April 1957, after being in production for 20 months, The Spirit of St. Louis was a box-office failure mainly due to its huge budget (running at $6 million, more than twice the original budget). Garnering mixed reviews, with Bosley Crowther at The New York Times praising the "... exciting and suspenseful episodes" while noting Stewart's performance as Lindbergh did not convey the human side well. "We see very little of his basic nature, his home life or what makes him tick. As Mr. Stewart plays him, with his usual diffidence, he is mainly a type. That's too bad, for after all these years of waiting, it would be interesting if we could see what it was about the fellow that made him uniquely destined for his historic role."[16] However, the film was commended for its special effects and James Stewart’s competent performance. In 1957, Time magazine described the film in these words, "Stewart, for all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in suggesting what all 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 which, as in the pattern of all progress, one brave man proved himself for all mankind as the paraclete of a new possibility."[17]

In recent years, the film has regained some of its lustre and a modern reevaluation has centered on the characterization of Lindbergh and the methodical depiction of the preparations for the momentous flight. The Smithsonian Institution has recently screened the film as part of its "classic" series and the DVD rerelease in 2006, with remixed and digitized elements and a small number of special features, has evoked commentary such as "captivating" and "suspenseful."[18]

Awards and honors

At the 1958 Academy Awards, Louis Lichtenfield earned a nomination for Best Special Effects. The film has also been ranked #69 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers.

See also



  1. ^ The Orteig Prize offered by Paris hotelier Raymond Orteig, could be claimed by aviators completing the flight in either direction.[2]
  2. ^ Dead reckoning estimates position by using a previously known position and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time and course.
  3. ^ An urban myth has developed involving James Dean. After completing the film Giant in mid-1955, James Dean was reputedly asked to play the role of Charles Lindbergh, but Dean died in an auto accident on September 30, 1955, before filming on Spirit of St. Louis could begin. At the time of his death, Dean was 25, the same age as Lindbergh was when he made the famous flight across the Atlantic.[4]
  4. ^ On a bet from Stewart, the director Wilder flew on top of a biplane for a wingwalker stunt.[14]


  1. ^ "Top Grosses of 1957". Variety, 8 January 1958, p. 30.
  2. ^ "Fate of Nungesser Still a Mystery." The New York Times, May 17, 1927, p. 3.
  3. ^ "Credits: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). IMDB. Retrieved: November 28, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Pickard 1993, p. 176.
  5. ^ IMDB entry and DVD liner notes
  6. ^ McGowan 1992, p. 64.
  7. ^ McGowan 1992, p. 10.
  8. ^ "James Stewart, the hesitant hero, dies at 89." The New York Times, July 3, 1997.
  9. ^ Phillips 2009, p. 180.
  10. ^ Bryan 1996, p. 192.
  11. ^ Kaercher 2005, p. 116.
  12. ^ Andersen 2004, p. 300.
  13. ^ Flying Magazine, September 1958.
  14. ^ Phillips 2009, p. 184.
  15. ^ Phillips 2009, pp. 180–183.
  16. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)." The New York Times, February 22, 1957.
  17. ^ Jones et al. 1970, p. 189.
  18. ^ The Spirit of St. Louis DVD. Hollywood, Warner Bros., 2006.


  • Andersen, Elmer L. A Man's Reach. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University Of Minnesota Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8166-3739-3.
  • Bryan, Ford Richardson. Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and his Museum. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-81432-642-8.
  • Eliot, Mark. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5221-1.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • Kaercher, Dan, ed. Best of the Midwest: Rediscovering America's Heartland (Insiders ' Guide). Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot, First edition, 2005. ISBN 978-0-7627-3699-7.
  • McGowan, Helene. James Stewart. London: Bison Group, 1992, ISBN 0-86124-925-9.
  • Phillips, Gene D. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Screen Classics). Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8131-2570-1.
  • Pickard, Roy. Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. ISBN 0-312-08828-0.
  • Smith, Starr. Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot. St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7603-2199-X.

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