Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blazing a Trail in the Sky

"Now, I don't propose to sit on a flagpole or swallow goldfish. I'm not a stuntman; I'm a flier."

Charles Lindbergh (Jimmy Stewart)

It was 60 years ago today that the story of Charles Lindbergh — "The Spirit of St. Louis" — premiered on the big screen.

I have often wondered why it premiered on April 20, 1957 — when, if the makers of the movie had waited 30 days, it could have debuted on the 30th anniversary of the historic flight it commemorated. That's right. Lindbergh's famous New York–to–Paris flight began on May 20, 1927.

I still don't know why it didn't premiere on May 20. It couldn't have hurt its earnings. It was a box office flop as it was.

But I do know a few other things about the movie. For example, I know that Jimmy Stewart was just about no one's choice to play Lindbergh.

As much as I admire Stewart's work in movies like "It's a Wonderful Life," "Harvey" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," I have always had a soft spot in my heart for "The Spirit of St. Louis." Maybe that is because it tried to tell a great story from history — and I have always loved history.

But, as far as I am concerned, Stewart was the wrong choice because he was nearly twice as old as the man he portrayed. Now, I don't feel that an actor or actress has to be precisely the same age as the person being portrayed, but Stewart was 47 trying to portray a 25–year–old. Maybe the movie can get away with that with modern viewers who have no memory of Lindbergh, but most of the people who saw that movie in 1957 must have had a memory of Lindbergh.

Producer Jack Warner favored a younger and less well known actor in the role. Warner called the finished product "the most disastrous failure we ever had."

And Lindbergh, I have been told, was not satisfied with Stewart's portrayal. I guess I can't argue with him there. When Stewart shrieked out the window of his airplane, he sounded like Lindbergh channeling his inner George Bailey. Some critics complained that Stewart's Lindbergh did not give viewers enough of a glimpse into his personal life, his motivations, that Lindbergh in Stewart's hands was a mechanical and routine character.

Perhaps those who complained that Stewart did not act so much as provide a character type that he did well were justified — to a degree.

But Lindbergh's flight was a rousing success, and it was a story that deserved to be told. It is sure to be lost on most living Americans that Lindbergh's feat required enormous courage, which makes it a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn about the history of aviation. The movie, directed by the great Billy Wilder, was based on Lindbergh's own autobiography, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

I have always assumed that meant the film was mostly accurate in its facts, but I do know of at least one tidbit in the movie that was incorrect. In the movie, Lindbergh is shown as being in bed the night before his flight, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Later, during his 33–hour flight to Paris, he observed how tired he was and lamented not having taken advantage of a warm, soft bed the night before.

In reality, the 25–year–old Lindbergh was out partying most of the night. Well, you can get away with that kind of thing when you're 25.

(Those who may be inclined to criticize the reality and praise the fantasy ought to remember that several pilots had already died in their pursuit of the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize — that's more than one–third of a million dollars in modern currency — that was offered to the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Lindbergh — and any other pilot who accepted the challenge — could be forgiven for taking the chance to live it up the night before departure.

(But the movie gave no hint of that.)

And the movie appears to have developed a following in recent years that it didn't have in the 1950s — it was judged a flop, primarily, it seems because the project went well over budget.

Stewart was nominated for Oscars five times in his career, and he even won it once for his work in "The Philadelphia Story," but "The Spirit of St. Louis" received only one Oscar nomination — for Best Visual Effects.

You would think its odds were pretty good. There was only one other nominee for that Oscar — but it lost.