Billy Wilder's Disastrous Flight
How do we explain the colossal failure of The Spirit Of St. Louis, Warner’s most resounding boxoffice defeat in its history as of 1957 (four million lost)? Elements were in place that would seemingly guarantee success --- Billy Wilder coming off a string of hits, James Stewart who could do no wrong, big studio backing for an adaptation of a 1953 best-seller by the most celebrated media figure of the twentieth century. Jack Warner spent the rest of his life wondering how such a foolproof package tanked so miserably. Participants offered up theories, and second-guessing was rife in the wake of those crippling losses. Wilder said he never got to explore the character properly, having been restrained against exercising some of his bolder creative impulses by an iron-clad contract with Lindbergh which forbade anything other than a straightforward dramatization of the flight itself and events depicted in his book. Casting may have been the first mistake. This was a picture that desperately needed the youth market to put it over. Instead, we got forty-six year-old (when production started in 1955) James Stewart playing twenty-five year old (when his historic flight took place) Charles Lindbergh. Jim would have been great doing this back in 1936, but not twenty years hence when age was starting to tell on him. Why not a younger man? Well, John Kerr was approached, but turned it down (thankfully). I’m not aware of others being considered, and that’s too bad because I think they might have had the right boy there on the lot, although I’m sure he was never for a moment seriously considered …
So why not Tab Hunter? He’d been OK in Battle Cry. The kids loved him. They may not have cared a damn about Charles Lindbergh, but they’d have gone to see Tab. A strong director like Wilder could have seen him through. It’s ironic that Hunter was pressed into service for a nationwide tour on the movie's behalf --- an eleventh-hour desperate measure after the company discovered few patrons were even aware of who Lindbergh was. Here’s Tab making the rounds for The Spirit Of St. Louis --- accepting plaques and yakking it up on radio with Hit Paraders. A hard sell with hidebound establishment merchandise like Spirit --- even Tab couldn’t get the teens interested, despite fervent entreaties --- I had an overwhelming feeling that every American who belongs to this generation --- my generation --- should see the picture. I know what "The Spirit Of St. Louis" did to me, and for me. Because I’m one of them, I can get the word to young Americans, and I’ll be doing them a favor. Tab confessed in his recent (excellent) memoir that he scarcely enjoyed the junket, but did at least wangle an open-ended round-trip fare to Europe from Jack Warner for having postponed the vacation he’d intended to take there before studio duty called.
When you think about it, selling Charles Lindbergh to a 1957 audience would be about like trying to get a Neil Armstrong walk-on-the-moon story off the ground, as it were, today. Well, who remembers Armstrong now? Might as well ask kids to go see a biopic about George Arliss. It had been thirty years since the New York to Paris flight. For pity’s sake, Natalie Wood hadn’t even been born yet, let alone Elvis (by the way, here’s Nat with James Stewart at the Hollywood premiere). If you’re going to watch Stewart fly airplanes, why not jets, like in Strategic Air Command? --- and by the way, where’s June Allyson? As Carl Denham said --- if this picture had romance, it would gross twice as much. Wilder actually had some pretty interesting ideas along those lines, but was afraid to even mention them to the remote and aristocratic Lindbergh. Meanwhile, there was seven million getting spent on the production (including a million plus recreation of the plane) and a general release delayed until April 1957, over two years after lift-off. That Hollywood premiere at the Egyptian (shown here) was star-studded in the extreme, but they were mostly old guard Bel-Air types hopelessly out of touch with a late fifties marketplace (Jeanette MacDonald?). Lindbergh was a no-show, his pact with Warners having assured him that no personal appearances would be required. Stewart posed with pre-war stalwarts Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and others, reinforcing the image of The Spirit Of St. Louis as a movie about old planes and old men flying them.
Warners went for nostalgia with its campaign --- the Roaring Twenties were back again! Flagpole sitters, "It" girls, Stutz Bearcats --- none of which had anything to do with this particular movie. The usual mindless ballys came into play (free simulated cock-pit flying lessons in the lobby, as shown here --- anyone?). Do you suppose Miss "Spirit Of St. Louis" is still out there someplace? If so, we’d love to hear from her. Those stewardess contestants look like so many Warner contract hopefuls. You think they might have thrown in Mamie Van Doren as a ringer? I particularly like the proviso about the "Lucky Lindbergh Coin". You got in free with one, but had to surrender it until after the engagement lest you be tempted to use it again or share your bounty with a friend. Didn’t those Warner brothers trust anybody? An Ed Sullivan broadcast of cropped, black-and-white highlights got Wilder plenty hot under the collar (it needn’t have, for that’s how a lot of us saw the feature on television for years afterward). The newly restored DVD of The Spirit Of St. Louis is a great movie reborn, however. You can really appreciate all the things they got right, despite the miscasting of Stewart (and mind you, he’s good, but damnit, the man was just too… well, I said that). I’d forgotten that it’s over an hour before the plane even takes off. If you lay all the flashbacks and expository stuff end to end, the flight itself really isn’t all that long. We know, of course, that he’s going to make it (1957 teen viewers may not have been so certain, assuming there were any teen viewers in 1957), but suspense is still maintained, particularly when Jim nods off at the controls due to ongoing sleep deprivation. Some of that comedy stuff arising from Lindbergh’s "youthful" exploits could have been trimmed, but no doubt pressure was brought to bear on Wilder to lighten it up where he could. The director was unduly hard on himself when he characterized The Spirit Of St. Louis as a failure. Commercially, yes (in spades), but it’s still a fine movie for all of that, and perhaps on DVD, it will finally get the audience it deserves.