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VHS Files: The Spirit of St. Louis

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While cleaning out my father-in-laws apartment, we came upon over 2000 VHS store bought videotapes.  I grabbed a few tapes, and I’ll be watching them (on VHS) from time to time, letting you know what I thought.

I want Jimmy Stewart on my “team.”  I don’t even need to know what type of team it is- I just want Stewart there.  He’s just such a comforting presence, which I guess is why he was such a big star of his time, utilized by Hitchcock and Capra, amongst others.

 My first experience with Jimmy Stewart was in a movie called The Magic of Lassie.  He played someone named Clovis, and I remember that when shit got crazy for that damn collie, Clovis was a rock.  He just seemed like the right type of guy to help a preternaturally intelligent dog get out of assorted jams.

 And that is Stewart’s gift- he always seems like the right guy in the right place at the right time.  The guy you’d want around if you were, say, suspicious that your neighbor was a killer.  Or if a local miser had stolen your town’s money.  I guess the only role in which having Jimmy Stewart around would have more checks in the ‘con’ column would be Vertigo, but that was the whole point of that movie, wasn’t it?

 Because Jimmy Stewart made a damn good Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis.  I don’t really know much about the real Lindbergh aside from what everyone knows:  his solo flight across the Atlantic and the kidnapping of his baby. I’ve been to the Smithsonian to see the actual bird he flew across the drink.  Aside from that, everything was new.

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 Turns out, Lindbergh (“Slim” to his friends”) was your typical “Man on a Mission,” and that mission was flying. The opening scene has him as an airmail pilot, attempting to fly through a terrible blizzard to get that mail to the people who are expecting it.  When the weather conditions make his plane go down, he parachutes out and hauls that mail on foot. 

 A scene like this, especially at the beginning of a biopic, requires that “thing” that Jimmy Stewart brings to a role.

 A quick note about the VHS quality of the tape I watched- the faces of everyone were bleached out in a way that reminded me of the film stock that The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Family were filmed in.  Made the whole thing a little nostalgic, I must say.

 Onward. Lindbergh comes off as a folksy throwback who believes that with a little gumption, even a lowly airmail pilot can accomplish the impossible.  In this case, the impossible is that trans-Atlantic flight, which in 1927 was being attempted by several nations.  Throughout the movie, we see how dangerous this undertaking truly was, as all Lindbergh’s competitors died in the attempt.

 You know what his competitors didn’t have?  Folksiness.  Lindbergh’s plane was designed by (I’m not kidding) Old Man Randolph, and in the montage of the aircraft being constructed, we see women sitting and lovingly knitting certain parts.  Knitting!  I bet the French didn’t incorporate knitting into their design, and you know what?  That’s why they failed.  It reminds me of the scene in Three Amigos where the Amigos utilize the sewing skills of Santa Rosa to defeat El Guapo.

 The challenge Billy Wilder (the director) faced was this:  how do you deliver a dramatic mise-en-scene when the last half of the movie was a guy sitting in a cockpit?  I’ll tell you how- flashbacks and voiceovers!  Lindbergh flashes back to various points in his life, from his days in the military to his barnstorming career. 

 In a nod to Castaway’s Wilson, Lindbergh even has a little housefly that stows away on the journey that he talks to along the way.  I guess the screenwriters were stuck as to how to actually give Stewart some lines in the back half of this movie, and a fly was it. 

 Aside from one qualm, I liked this movie quite a bit. For a movie in which I knew the ending, it was came strong with the suspense. And Jimmy Stewart is more valuable in a movie like this, I think, than in his better-known movies.

 My one problem is that they never address the issue of how Lindbergh takes a piss.  He’s in the airplane for over 30 hours, and never once do they show a piss bottle or an uncomfortable squirm.  Come on, Wilder, where is the verisimilitude?

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