In the course of a long and productive career, James Stewart made many fine movies. This is not one of them.
Not that "The Spirit of St. Louis" is a really bad film. Not with Stewart in it, and not with a script cowritten and directed by Billy Wilder ("The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Blvd.," "Stalag 17," "Sabrina," "Some Like It Hot"). It's just that there isn't enough dramatic material in this 1957 release to sustain its overly long 135-minute running time. The film has too many dry stretches and too little tension or excitement. To say nothing of the fact that Stewart was much too old for the part.
The film recounts the story of Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic in May of 1927. It was the first transatlantic flight in history, with Lindbergh flying alone in a single-engine plane from New York to Paris, nonstop. With his flight, Lindbergh (1902-1974) wanted to show the world the possibilities of commercial aviation. He made the distance of 3,610 miles in 33 hours and 30 minutes, becoming an international hero and officially ushering in the age of long-distance flying.
Despite the film's limitations, the only reason it gets off the ground is thanks to Stewart, who was a pilot himself and a big Lindbergh fan. He petitioned the Warners studio for the role, but they initially turned him down. At the time, they wanted James Dean, who was in his mid twenties and about Lindbergh's age when Lindbergh made the flight. But after Dean's death they turned to Stewart, who was almost twice as old as Lindbergh was in 1927. No matter, the star bore a slight resemblance to Lindbergh's slender frame (hence his nickname, "Slim"), and with his hair dyed blond he flew off into the wild, blue yonder.
The story begins just before Lindbergh's flight, as the man lies in bed before the event but cannot get to sleep, remembering, instead, the events that led up to his current circumstances. In flashbacks we see Lindbergh as a young man first learning to fly, and we see him getting financial backing from various sources to participate in the transatlantic contest, which included a $25,000 first prize.
It takes seemingly forever for the movie to get to the flight, which doesn't begin until a little beyond the halfway mark in the film. Then the story gives over the final hour to the flight itself, and this, more than ever, becomes a tour de force for Stewart. It is essentially a one-man show, as Stewart goes into a monologue that also seemingly goes on forever. Fortunately, Stewart has a familiar, comfortable, and comforting voice. There isn't even a costar in the film, just a few familiar character actors like Dabs Greer and Murray Hamilton who show up for a scene here and there. Fortunately, too, Wilder's screenplay contains just enough humor to keep it afloat, and the cinematography is just good enough to keep our minds occupied, but just barely.
The problem is that we know exactly what is going to happen on the flight, it's all a matter of public record, and none of it is very stimulating. So we lose any chance of tension or suspense in the film, and we have to settle instead mainly for small anecdotes and the occasional moment of melodrama. For instance, Lindbergh insisted that the gas tank be located in front of the cockpit, so that if he got into any trouble he would not be trapped between it and the engine. However, according to the movie, he brought no parachute with him (too much weight), and because of the tank's position, he couldn't see out of the front window. He could only see out the sides of the plane and forward through a small periscope. That makes for a few interesting scenes, but not many.
The flight itself seems to go on forever, but what else is there to do? It's mostly one guy alone in a small, cramped, claustrophobic space, with his only company for at least a part of the way being a fly. Not to take anything away from Lindbergh's heroic achievement, but I think the fly should have been nominated for something. It's also a shame that while the film was made in CinemaScope, about half of it is confined to the plane's tiny cabin.
Lindbergh's biggest dilemma on the flight was trying to stay awake. To a large extent, it's ours, too.
The movie boasts a new digital transfer made from restored picture elements. The screen size, originally a 2.40:1 ratio, stretches to a commendably wide 2.30:1 across my screen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions and transferred at a high bit rate. Still, the first thing you'll see in the opening shot is a gray sky and grain. The grain clears up pretty well in a moment or two, but in darker scenes one is always aware of its presence. Nevertheless, definition is good, colors are bright and natural when necessary, and age marks are almost entirely absent.
The WB audio engineers remastered the soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it is also very good for its age. There is a wide front-channel stereo spread; a few good rear-channel effects like wind, rain, and crowd noises; good dynamics; and at times a good deep bass. If I had to fault any part of the sound, it would be the upper midrange, which tends to be more than a tad piercing at times, especially if you set the volume too high.
There are three primary bonus items on the disc. The first is a three-minute, black-and-white newsreel segment, "The Spirit of St. Louis" première at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater. The second is a nine-minute, black-and-white Joe McDoakes comedy short, "So Your Wife Wants to Work," from 1956. And the third is a six-minute Merrie Melodies, Speedy Gonzales cartoon, "Tabasco Road," complete with a new preface that warns viewers there may be objectionable stereotypes included. You can never be too cautious.
Things finish up with thirty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; a non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There was a lot more to Lindbergh's life than his flight across the Atlantic, but the film spends its entire duration on that single event. It makes no mention of his other contributions to aviation, his World War II exploits, his politics, his books, or the tragic kidnapping and murder of his two-year-old son. I would commend the script for focusing so well on the one event if the movie didn't make it so long and drawn out. Yet with so much more to Lindbergh's life story, you'd have thought the two hours and fifteen minutes could have either encompassed a little more material or been cut down to a more-manageable length.
In any case, you can buy "The Spirit of St. Louis" individually or in the box set "James Stewart: The Signature Collection." There you will also find "The FBI Story," "The Naked Spur," "The Stratton Story," and a double-feature disc containing "The Cheyenne Social Club" and "Fire Creek."