The Spirit of St. Louis (film)

The Spirit of St. Louis is a 1957 aviation biography film in CinemaScope and WarnerColor from Warner Bros., directed by Billy Wilder, produced by Leland Hayward, that stars James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh. The screenplay was adapted by Charles Lederer, Wendell Mayes, and Billy Wilder from Lindbergh's 1953 autobiographical account of his historic flight, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

The Spirit of St. Louis
Directed byBilly Wilder
Produced byLeland Hayward
Written byCharles Lederer
Wendell Mayes
Billy Wilder
StarringJames Stewart
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyRobert Burks
J. Peverell Marley
Edited byArthur P. Schmidt
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • February 21, 1957 (1957-02-21)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$7 million[3]
Box office$2.6 million[4]

Along with reminiscences of his early days in aviation, the film's storyline largely focuses on Lindbergh's lengthy preparation for and finally his history-making transatlantic flight in the purpose-built Spirit of St. Louis high-wing monoplane. His take off begins at Roosevelt Field and ends 33 hours later on May 21, 1927 when he lands safely at Le Bourget Field in Paris. The film ends with actual newsreel footage of Lindbergh's ticker tape parade in New York.


On May 19, 1927, after waiting a week for the rain to stop on Long Island, New York, pilot Charles A. "Slim" Lindbergh (James Stewart) tries to sleep in a hotel near Roosevelt Field, before his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. His friend Frank Mahoney (Bartlett Robinson) guards his hotel room door from reporters. Unable to sleep, Lindbergh reminisces about his time as an airmail pilot.

Flying to Chicago in winter, "Slim" lands his old de Havilland biplane at a small airfield to refuel. Despite bad weather, he takes off, unaware that heavy snow has closed the Chicago landing field. Lindbergh bails out in a storm after running out of fuel. Recovering mail from his crashed DH-4, he continues to Chicago by train. A suspender salesman tells him two airmen just died competing for the Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. [N 1]

Lindbergh calls Columbia Aircraft Corporation in New York from a small diner at the Lambert-St. Louis Flying Field. Quoted a price of $15,000 ($220,000 today) for a Bellanca high-wing monoplane, "Slim" lobbies St. Louis financiers with a plan to fly the Atlantic in 40 hours in a stripped-down, single-engine aircraft. The backers are excited by Lindbergh's vision and dub the venture Spirit of St. Louis.

When the Bellanca deal falls apart because Columbia insists on selecting the pilot, Lindbergh approaches Ryan Aeronautical Company, a small manufacturer in San Diego, California. Frank Mahoney, the company's owner and president, promises to build a suitable monoplane in just 90 days. With Ryan's chief engineer Donald Hall (Arthur Space), a design takes shape. To decrease weight, "Slim" refuses to install a radio or other heavy equipment, even a parachute, and plans to navigate by "dead reckoning". With no autopilot function available, Lindbergh will not be able to sleep during the flight. With the deadline pressing, Ryan workers agree to work around-the-clock, completing the monoplane in just 62 days.

Lindbergh flies The Spirit of St. Louis to New York, stopping at Lambert Field (St. Louis Lambert International Airport) on the way to show the aircraft to his investors. He prepares for the flight at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, ensuring that 450 gallons of fuel is on board for the long flight. In the cramped cockpit, which does not allow direct forward view, the magnetic compass must fit above his head; a young woman (Patricia Smith) offers her compact mirror. "Slim" has the mirror stuck to the instrument panel with chewing gum, so he can read the compass. Furtively, Mahoney slips a Saint Christopher medal into a bag of sandwiches on board.

As the weather clears, The Spirit trundles down the muddy runway and barely clears electric lines and treetops. An American newspaper's headline reads: "Lindy Is Off!" Every hour, Lindbergh switches fuel tanks to keep the airplane's weight balanced. As Lindbergh flies over Cape Cod, he realizes he has not slept in 28 hours. He recalls past times when he slept on railroad tracks, short bunk beds, and under a windmill. When "Slim" begins to doze, he is awakened by a fly. Over Nova Scotia, he sees a motorcyclist below, remembering his own Harley Davidson motorcycle traded in as partial payment for his first aircraft, a World War I war-surplus Curtiss Jenny.

Over the seemingly endless Atlantic, Lindbergh remembers barnstorming across the Midwest in a flying circus. After 18 hours, The Spirit's wings and engine begin icing up and the aircraft begins losing altitude. Lindbergh changes course and the ice breaks off in the warmer air and the engine, which has stopped due to icing, is restarted. Back on course, his compasses begin malfunctioning, forcing him to navigate by the stars. By dawn, "Slim" falls asleep, and the monoplane slowly descends in a wide spiral toward the ocean. Sunlight reflecting off the compact's mirror finally awakens him in time to regain flight control.

Seeing a seagull, Lindbergh realizes he is close to land. He tries without success to hail a fisherman below. Sighting land, he determines that he has reached Dingle Bay, Ireland. Pulling out a sandwich from the bag, "Slim" discovers the hidden Saint Christopher medal, and hangs it on the instrument panel. Crossing the English Channel and the coast of France, Lindbergh follows the Seine up to Paris as darkness falls.

Finally seeing the city lights ahead of him, "Slim" approaches Le Bourget Airfield in the dark, becoming disoriented by panning spotlights aimed into the sky. He glimpses strange movements and lights below, in reality huge crowds of people and traffic in and around Le Bourget. Confused by this chaos, Lindbergh begins his landing approach, quickly becoming panicked. As he goes lower, he whispers "Oh, God, help me!"

Landing safely and bringing The Spirit to a full stop, hordes of people rush his aircraft. As flash powder ignites and photos are taken, Lindbergh is carried triumphantly on people's shoulders toward a hangar. Exhausted from no sleep, "Slim" eventually realizes the crowds, numbering 200,000, are cheering for him and his achievement. On returning to New York City, Lindbergh, having now become a national hero, is given a huge ticker tape parade, with four million people lining the parade route.



When production began in August 1955, Jack Warner offered the role of Lindbergh to John Kerr, who turned it down.[7][N 2][8] Numerous sources indicate that Stewart was lobbying Warner Bros. executives for the role as early as 1954.[7] Stewart did not take a salary for the role in return for a share of the gross.[3] At age 47 when the film was shot, Stewart even underwent a strenuous diet and regimen to look more like the real 25-year-old Lindbergh of 1927. Stewart (with hair dyed blond) was ultimately cast as Lindbergh, but his age was pointedly an issue in post-production reviews.[9]

Stewart had a lifelong passion about Lindbergh and aviation. Later in his life, he said the flight by the "Lone Eagle" was one of the most significant episodes of his youth, leading him to seek a career as an aviator.[10] Like Lindbergh, Stewart had been an USAAF pilot, and both eventually retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve at the grade of Brigadier General.[11]

In order to depict accurately the transatlantic flight, three replicas, at a cost of $1.3 million (equal to $12.2 million today), were made of the Spirit of St. Louis for the various filming units stateside, in Europe, and for in-studio shots.[12] A similar Ryan Brougham was bought by Stewart and modified with Lindbergh's supervision. It was donated to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan by Stewart in 1959.[13] The third replica is displayed in the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.[14]

Filming took place at the Santa Maria Public Airport in Santa Maria, California, at what is currently the site of Allan Hancock College. A non-flying replica for ground shots was also built, and hangs in the Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport.[15]

    Aerial sequences were directed by Paul Mantz and taken from a North American B-25 bomber converted as a camera platform for photography.[16][N 3]

    During pre-production, in August 1955, a small film crew was sent to New York to shoot footage at Roosevelt Field in Long Island and later to take aerial sequences over the Appalachian Mountains in Nova Scotia and at St. John's, Newfoundland, recreating the initial stages of the transatlantic flight. Principal photography began on September 2, 1955, with filming taking place at L'aérodrome de Guyancourt, near Versailles, which would stand-in for le Bourget. Difficulties with Stewart's schedule led to the abandoning of aerial sequences that had been planned with the veteran pilot actually flying one of the replicas over European locales. Ultimately, staged scenes using a mock-up on a sound stage had to suffice. The film's schedule was disrupted throughout the fall and only resumed in November when Stewart had completed two other films. The original 64-day schedule ballooned into a 115-day marathon, as weather and the star's unavailability hampered the production, with final sequences shot in March 1956.[18] The film eventually cost $7,000,000.[3]

    Aaron Spelling appears as Mr. Fearless in an uncredited role that marks an early foray into acting.


    The film garnered mixed reviews, with Bosley Crowther at The New York Times praising the "... exciting and suspenseful episodes" while noting Stewart's performance as Lindbergh did not convey the human side well:

    "We see very little of his basic nature, his home life or what makes him tick. As Mr. Stewart plays him, with his usual diffidence, he is mainly a type. That's too bad, for after all these years of waiting, it would be interesting if we could see what it was about the fellow that made him uniquely destined for his historic role.[19]

    The film, however, was commended for its special effects and James Stewart's competent performance. Time magazine in its 1957 review describes the actor's success in conveying on screen the public's perception of Lindbergh's feat three decades earlier:

    Stewart, for all his professional, 48-year-old boyishness, succeeds almost continuously in suggesting what all the world sensed at the time: that Lindbergh's flight was not the mere physical adventure of a rash young 'flying fool' but rather a journey of the spirit, in which, as in the pattern of all progress, one brave man proved himself for all mankind as the paraclete of a new possibility.[20]

    The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on February 21, 1957[1] and helped towards setting a Broadway record gross of $829,500 for Washington's Birthday week with a gross of $160,000 at the Music Hall (also a record for Washington's Birthday).[2]

    Overall, early results had not been promising, and when put on general release on April 20, 1957,[1] The Spirit of St. Louis was a box-office failure mainly due to its huge budget (running at more than twice the original budget).

    In recent years, the film has regained some of its lustre, and a modern re-evaluation has centered on the screenplay's characterization of Lindbergh and the methodical depiction of the preparations for the momentous flight. The Smithsonian Institution periodically screens the film as part of its "classic" series; and the DVD rerelease in 2006, with remixed and digitized elements and a small number of special features, has evoked commentary such as "captivating" and "suspenseful."[21]

    Awards and honors

    At the 1958 Academy Awards, Louis Lichtenfield earned a nomination for Best Special Effects.



    1. The Orteig Prize offered by Paris hotelier Raymond Orteig, could be claimed by aviators completing the flight in either direction.[5]
    2. An urban myth has developed involving James Dean. After completing the film Giant in mid-1955, Dean was allegedly offered the role to portray Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, but the actor died in an auto accident on September 30, 1955, before the production's filming could begin. At the time of his death, Dean was 25, the same age as Lindbergh when he made his historic flight.[7]
    3. On a bet from Stewart, the director Wilder flew on top of a biplane for a wingwalker stunt.[17]


    1. The Spirit of St. Louis at the American Film Institute Catalog
    2. "Broadway B.O. Rocko Socko". Variety. February 27, 1957. p. 9. Retrieved June 10, 2019 via
    3. "'Spirit' Soared High $7,000,000 Sez Hayward". Variety. February 27, 1957. p. 5. Retrieved June 10, 2019 via
    4. "Top Grossers of 1957". Variety. January 8, 1958. p. 30. Retrieved January 14, 2019 via
    5. "Fate of Nungesser Still a Mystery." The New York Times, May 17, 1927, p. 3.
    6. "Credits: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). IMDB. Retrieved: November 28, 2011.
    7. Pickard 1993, p. 176.
    8. IMDB entry and DVD liner notes
    9. McGowan 1992, p. 64.
    10. McGowan 1992, p. 10.
    11. "James Stewart, the hesitant hero, dies at 89." The New York Times, July 3, 1997.
    12. Phillips 2009, p. 180.
    13. Bryan 1996, p. 192.
    14. Kaercher 2005, p. 116.
    15. Andersen 2004, p. 300.
    16. Flying Magazine, September 1958.
    17. Phillips 2009, p. 184.
    18. Phillips 2009, pp. 180–183.
    19. Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review: The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)." The New York Times, February 22, 1957.
    20. Jones et al. 1970, p. 189.
    21. The Spirit of St. Louis DVD. Hollywood, Warner Bros., 2006.


    • Andersen, Elmer L. A Man's Reach. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University Of Minnesota Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8166-3739-3.
    • Bryan, Ford Richardson. Henry's Attic: Some Fascinating Gifts to Henry Ford and his Museum. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-81432-642-8.
    • Eliot, Mark. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5221-1.
    • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
    • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
    • Kaercher, Dan, ed. Best of the Midwest: Rediscovering America's Heartland (Insiders ' Guide). Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot, First edition, 2005. ISBN 978-0-7627-3699-7.
    • McGowan, Helene. James Stewart. London: Bison Group, 1992, ISBN 0-86124-925-9.
    • Phillips, Gene D. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder (Screen Classics). Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8131-2570-1.
    • Pickard, Roy. Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. ISBN 0-312-08828-0.
    • Smith, Starr. Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot. St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2005. ISBN 0-7603-2199-X.

    See also

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