[box cover]

The Spirit of St. Louis

The James Stewart Signature Collection

Although most folks know that Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, it's difficult to put his feat into historical perspective. Ocean crossings by air are daily events, and even non-stop flights around the world don't create public sensations. Instead, to grasp what Lindbergh achieved in 1927, today we would have to imagine that a privately funded pilot, without government assistance, constructed his own spaceship of unique design and then flew himself to the moon, departing from New York and landing in the middle of Paris — the entire journey lasting a day or two, thus establishing the reality of cheap, fast interplanetary travel for all mankind. This is the sort of thing that made Charles Lindbergh an international celebrity, although Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) can't possibly sum up the man's life — Lindbergh returned to the headlines in 1932 when his young son was kidnapped and murdered. Retreating to Europe, he later earned the enmity of President Roosevelt when he became a vocal isolationist (some would say Nazi sympathizer) in the dark months preceding World War II. He resigned his Air Force commission, but later served as a civilian consultant (and unofficial combat pilot) in the war against Japan, and then removed himself from public view, publishing a memoir of his historic flight to France. Odd then that Billy Wilder, of all Hollywood directors, would attach himself to the filmed version of Lindbergh's early life — a German Jew, he fled his homeland in the '30s as Hitler rose to power. Nonetheless, even though Lindbergh was often criticized as anti-Semitic, Wilder and producer Jack Warner (also Jewish) were drawn to his book, which told the story of what many regard to be the most daring individual achievement of the 20th century.

Charles Lindbergh's complete biography could easily occupy a multi-part miniseries, but The Spirit of St. Louis confines itself to the Transatlantic hop that made him the most famous aviator in history, while touching on several events that led up to it. A barnstormer, instructor, and Army flyer, Lindbergh first earned notoriety among fellow aviators when he started carrying mail between St. Louis and Chicago — almost always, he delivered on time despite treacherous weather. However, it isn't long before the young pilot, called "Slim "by his friends (here played by James Stewart), finds himself obsessed with the Ortieg Prize, a $25,000 payout for the first non-stop flight between New York and Paris. After gaining the support of several St. Louis financiers, Lindbergh plans to purchase a high-performance Bellanca from a New York firm. But when they insist on choosing the pilot for the flight, he heads west to the Ryan Aircraft Co. in San Diego, where they build an innovative monoplane — a custom design, it's essentially a flying fuel-tank with no forward vision. Finished in just 63 days, and weighing 5,000 lbs. with a full load of 425 gallons of fuel, the Spirit of St. Louis is a sturdy craft that Lindbergh flies back to his hometown before continuing east to New York. However, he soon learns that he's not only about to fly over an ocean, but a body-count as well. In a matter of days, four pilots perish trying to win the Ortieg Prize, giving Lindbergh's backers very cold feet. "Slim," on the other hand, is only worried about two things — a sleepless night before takeoff, and a very muddy runway.

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Billy Wilder agreed to direct The Spirit of St. Louis long before principal casting had taken place. And finding the right lead wasn't easy — not only did Wilder and Warner need to secure a tall, good-looking actor in his mid-twenties, but their first choice, John Kerr (South Pacific), turned it down flat due to his dislike of Lindbergh. James Stewart, on the other hand, actively lobbied for the part, despite being in his mid-forties. However, he was tall, and also a veteran pilot, having flown B-24 combat missions during WWII. During shooting, Stewart described the role as the most important of his career, and while neither the film nor his performance rank with, say, Vertigo or It's a Wonderful Life, he turned out to be a durable choice — the sort of Hollywood icon who could portray a historical legend. Nonetheless, the production was troubled throughout — running far over schedule and budget, Wilder departed before the studio requested re-shoots (helmed by an uncredited John Sturges). The $6 million price-tag virtually guaranteed that the movie would lose money. And yet a great deal of the budget is on the screen, including aerial photography over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Ireland, England, and France, as well as location work in Paris at a recreation of Le Bourget Field with 3,500 extras. The somber proceedings leading up to the flight itself, with its nail-biting takeoff, are offset by Wilder's mischievous sense of humor in other scenes, particularly with Lindbergh's flashbacks to his early days in aviation. However, even with the amount of historical detail on hand, a great deal of The Spirit of St. Louis can be regarded as a better Hollywood movie than documented history. Lindbergh provided the source-book, but he had no part in the film's production, save for a few meetings with Wilder, Stewart, and the producers — including a dinner at Wilder's Beverly Hills home, where the most famous man in the world just thirty years earlier arrived by city bus, having since carefully reconstructed an anonymous life that allowed him to walk the streets without recognition.

Warner's DVD release of The Spirit of St. Louis — part of the "James Stewart Signature Collection" — features a splendid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source-print that's in excellent condition, with strong color and barely a hint of collateral wear, while the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is clear and pleasant. Extras include newsreel footage from the film's premiere (3 min.), the vintage short "So Your Wife Wants to Work" (8 min.), the Speedy Gonzales cartoon "Tabasco Road" (6 min.), and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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