Since my writing mentor Wendell Mayes wrote the screenplay and my Special Graduate Seminar in Filmmaking Lecturer Billy Wilder directed it, and since it was my favorite movie as a kid and I questioned both about it, let me tell you the story of how it got made.
For starters, it was Wilder’s least-favorite movie; he hated it. Not because of the subject, not because of anything that went wrong with it (as he said “I never made bad movies!”), but because of WHY he felt he had to make it.
One of his favorite movies was “Ace In The Hole,” starring Kirk Douglas as a washed-up reporter who sees an opportunity to make his name again by exploiting an event (a guy who gets trapped in a cave-in). It’s typical Wilder: deeply cynical and sarcastic, and a dead-on take at American media. You can watch it today and the points it made in 1952 are only more obvious in 2018. However, it was made in 1952. During the rise of McCarthyism. It doesn’t present a picture of America as “The Holy Land.” Far from it. And so a Hollywood troll and hack – C.B. DeMille, a career right wing talentless hypocrite who spent 50 years “moralizing” while titillating with his biblical baloney 3rd-rate garbage masquerading as movies (none of his movies “hold up” today), who always knew from the first time he met Wilder that he wasn’t in the same universe with Wilder’s talent (and hated Wilder for that, like most talentless hacks do when confronted with their talented superiors), took the opportunity of the “controversy” about “Ace In The Hole” to go after Wilder for being “UnAmerican.” This was at a time when that term could get you killed (literally). He started calling Wilder “Mr. Villter” and implying that the anti-Nazi who had left Germany the night the Nazis won the 1933 election (“I packed all I owned in a steamer trunk and called a cab to the Berlin Station, where I purchased a one-way ticket on the Paris Express. I returned 12 years later, to find that all my friends who had called the Nazis “clowns” and thought of me as a crank for seeing Hitler and his scum for what they were, were dead – killed by the clowns.”) was some sort of subversive.
As Billy explained it to me (My “graduate seminar” was three years of lunches every other Wednesday, when I bought two pastrami sandwiches from Carnegie Deli in the Beverly Hills “golden triangle” and brought them to his office, where he told all his stories and I listened. I was the only person he thought had talent, having read one of my scripts, who hadn’t heard his stories 50 times. Major takeaway, a lesson for more than folks in Hollywood: “If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, why should anyone else?”), he decided that “I would make the most American story there was, about the most American hero there was. And f**k you, DeMille!”
Wendell Mayes, my writing mentor, had made a name for himself in live TV drama in New York. He came out to Hollywood and met Wilder, and got hired on a six-week project that turned into 18 months. Wilder bought Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis” (I have my father’s 1928 First Edition of that, along with his 1927 First Edition of “We” as my prized possessions in my aviation library) The movie is a very straightforward adaptation of the book, exactly as Lindbergh told the story.
Wendell and Billy and I used to laugh about the fact that Jimmy Stewart, who plays Lindbergh, was exactly twice Lindbergh’s actual age at the time he made the flight, when he made the movie, but as Wendell said “There was no other actor in the world who could have played the role,” and I’ll bet none of you who like the movie have ever worried about the fact that 54-year old Stewart played 25 year old Lindbergh. If you want to consider just how good an actor Stewart was, look at how he plays Lindbergh on the flight, sitting in a small cockpit, just handling the flight controls, and he rivets you. The moment where he deals with the fly, trying to decide if the fly hurts his perormance if it lands on the airplane structure – doing so to try and stay awake – is genius. That’s HARD TO DO. It takes serious acting talent.
Back in 1977, EAA made a replica of the Spirit and flew it around the country to replicate Lindbergh’s tour. They came in to Sacramento Executive (He’d landed at Mather Army Airfield on the tour, where my then-boss, a 20,000 hour USAF pilot retired, who told me there was nothing romantic about aviation, except 9-year old him had ridden his bicycle 10 miles along the American River to get to Mather to see Lindbergh), and EAA members took turns providing security by sitting in the plane overnight. I volunteered for 0001-0200. I sat in that cockpit, using the cockpit light, and read my father’s copy of “Spirit of St. Louis” and contemplated his account of trying to stay awake at night over the Atlantic. I think I got pretty close to recreating the moment.
Lindbergh did the flight to “promote aviation,” and that’s what he did. My air-minded father bought both his books, later graduated from the Boeing School of Aeronautics, worked for Roscoe Turner, and made such an impression on Jimmy Doolittle that when I met him at the Watsonville Antique Fly-In in 1976 and was introduced as “Tom Cleaver” he remembered my father (same name) and a lot of other people who wanted to talk to him had to cool their heels while he talked to me about my dad. (He had a photographic memory for everyone he ever met).
Anyway, this will be good. For the movie, you can do Jennys and DH-4 mailplanes, and the Spirit.