22 June 2015

The best that came out of it was getting to know you

"The Spirit of St. Louis" (1957) is one of Billy Wilder's lesser known films. Based on the 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir by Charles Lindbergh --the famous aviator who flew non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927-- the film is often seen as atypical Wilder, lacking what is present in most of Wilder's films: his characteristic humour, cynicism, exploration of the darker side of human nature (mind you, I haven't seen "The Spirit of St. Louis" so this is based on what I've read). The film was a box-office failure, mainly due to its $6 million budget, and it was also one of the biggest financial failures in the history of Warner Brothers.

Still, it was a film Billy Wilder had wanted to make. As a freelance reporter in Berlin in 1927, Wilder had covered Lindbergh's flight, and he had never forgotten the thrill of this exciting event. Besides, feeling that in Hollywood he was still thought of as a European, Wilder wanted to make a film about a truly American subject.

In the end, Wilder wasn't too happy with "The Spirit of St. Louis" he would later say that it was the least favourite of his films. It was Charles Lindbergh who had kept him from making the film he wanted to make. In "Conversations with Wilder" (1999), a book by Cameron Crowe, Wilder talked about this and how he had envisioned his film:

"could not get in a little deeper, into Lindbergh’s character. There was a wall there. We were friends, but there were many things I could not talk to him about. It was understood — the picture had to follow the book. The book was immaculate. It had to be about the flight only. Not about his family, about the daughter, the Hauptmann thing, what happened after the flight … just the flight itself.

I heard a story from newspapermen who were there in Long Island waiting for him to take off. And the newspapermen told me a little episode that happened there, and that would have been enough to make this a real picture. 

The episode was that Lindbergh was waiting for the clouds to disappear — the rain and the weather had to be perfect before he took off. There was a waitress in a little restaurant there. She was young, and she was very pretty. And they came to her and said, “Look, this young guy there, Lindbergh, sweet, you know, handsome. He is going to–” “Yes, I know, he is going to fly over the water.” And they said, “It’s going to be a flying coffin, full of gas, and he’s not going to make it. But we come to you for the following reason. The guy has never been laid. Would you do us a favor, please. Just knock on the door, because the guy cannot sleep…” 

So she does it. And then, at the very end of the picture, when there’s the parade down Fifth Avenue, millions of people, and there is that girl standing there in the crowd. She’s waving at him. And he doesn’t see her. She waves her hand at him, during the ticker-tape parade, the confetti raining down. He never sees her. He’s God now. 

This would be, this alone would be, enough to make the picture. Would have been a good scene. That’s right — would have been a good scene. But I could not even suggest it to him.
 " [via]

Perhaps not surprisingly, Charles Lindbergh himself was pleased with the final result. On 9 April 1957, he wrote a letter to Billy Wilder thanking and praising him for his picture. Wilder responded two weeks later, stating: "As far as I'm concerned, the best that came out of it was getting to know you".


Scotts Cove
Darien, Conn.
April 9, 1957

Dear Billy:

I have just received an invitation from Jack Warner to attend the Premiere of "The Spirit of St. Louis" at Hollywood, Thursday. I have had to wire back that I could not be on the West Coast at that time, and my greatest regret lies in losing the opportunity to see you and other friends who worked on the film so long, hard, and ably.

When I returned from my trip abroad (Central America, Asia, and Europe-- over the three Pan American divisions), I took my family to the Radio City Music Hall to see the picture.  It was the first time I had seen it myself, after the final cutting and dubbing. We all think you have done a grand job. There has been a big improvement since I saw the film, in early February. Audience reaction was excellent as far as I could judge, and the theater was pretty well filled when we were there. I now know what you mean by being able to cut a film by audience reaction. I had never paid much attention to this before.

Even though this was more or less the second time I had seen "The Spirit of St. Louis", I was still unable to look at it objectively. I find myself too close to the events, to the people, the plane, and the cockpit. At one moment I would be carried along by the story as though I were on the flight itself, thirty years ago; and at another, I would be jerked back into my theater seat saying, almost out loud, "my God that isn't Harold Bixby", or "It wasn't a Harley Davidson motorcycle, it was an Excelsior".

Of course I fully agree that to put a story on the stage actors can only approximate original characters, and that major changes must and should be made. All this is right and proper, and I feel you have handled the directing with great ability and skill-- a very difficult task extremely well done. But let me tell you it is quite a sensation to see one's life portraid [sic] on the screen-- enjoying, startling, humorous, serious, fascinating, stirring mind and emotion in quite an extraordinary way.

I was extremely interested to watch the interplay of fact and fiction-- detailed accuracy juxtaposed with fictional abandon-- and how accurate impression was obtained by the use of inaccurate events (the suspender salesman, the fly, the frying fish in San Diego). And I noted with admiration how the fictional events you brought into the story invariably obtained the audience reaction you were striving for. 

And the reviews-- the enthusiasm of the mass publications; the tongue clucking of the intellectuals-- on the whole, I thought they were excellent. Almost all of our friends were enthusiastic about the film. Judged from the reaction I have seen, it should meet with great success.

My thanks and best wishes accompany this letter. I wish I could accompany to the coast, and be with you to express them.

Sincerely, Charles (signed)

April 23, 1957

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your very generous letter. I am fully aware of the shortcomings of my effort. In all honesty, I don't think that any picture-maker, no matter how rich or talented, could have done justice to your superb account. 

As far as I'm concerned, the best that came out of it was getting to know you. I shall treasure this for the rest of my life.

Most sincerely,

Billy Wilder

General Charles A. Lindbergh

23 Tokeneke Trail
Darien, Connecticut

P.S. - Please note my new home address and phone number: 

10372 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles 24, Calif.

BRadshaw 2-1317

Images of the letters courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Billy Wilder and James Stewart on the set of "The Spirit of St. Louis" (above). A Lindbergh fan and pilot himself, Stewart lobbied hard to get the Lindbergh role. As Stewart was 47 years old and had to play 25-year-old Lindbergh, he underwent a strict diet and had his hair dyed blond. Below: Stewart and Lindbergh posing in front of their planes.

This is my contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon hosted by Once upon a Screen and Outspoken & FreckledCheck out the other entries here.

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