Billy Wilder was already an acclaimed director by the time he started work on The Spirit of St. Louis, with films like Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Stalag 17 (1953) on his résumé.
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Designers Charles and Ray Eames are known for the modernistic chair that bears their names, but the married couple were also close friends with film director Billy Wilder (whose credits included Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard). In 1955 Wilder asked Charles to join him as a photographic consultant on his latest project. The film was The Spirit of St. Louis, Wilder’s adaptation of Charles Lindbergh’s 1953 book about his life and his famous solo hop across the Atlantic in 1927. Eames shot candid photos of the film’s production, images that have rarely if ever been published until now.
The Jewish Wilder was eager to take on the film, despite Lindbergh’s troubling isolationist and arguably anti-Semitic politics in the years leading up to World War II. When Wilder and Lindbergh flew to Washington to see the original Spirit at the Smithsonian Institution prior to filming, their flight hit turbulence. The puckish Wilder leaned over to Lindbergh and said, “Mr. Lindbergh, would it not be embarrassing if we crashed and the headlines said, ‘Lone Eagle and Jewish Friend in Plane Crash’?” Even more troubling for Wilder than Lindbergh’s past was the director’s inability to penetrate the aviator’s character. “There was a wall there,” he said.
To play the Lone Eagle, Wilder hired James Stewart. It was perfect casting—or it would have been, had Wilder made the film 20 years earlier. The real Lindbergh was only 25 when he made his flight; at the start of the shoot Stewart was more than two decades older.
The production was troubled and Wilder lost interest before shooting ended in 1957, with director John Sturges stepping in for an uncredited role shooting some final scenes. The film failed at the box office when released later that year and Wilder himself remained disappointed by what he once called his worst film. Still, director Cameron Crowe, who published a book of his conversations with Wilder, felt differently. “Wilder’s much underrated color portrait of Lindbergh’s famous journey is a sumptuous biopic,” he wrote. Charles Eames’ photographs provide a fascinating look behind the scenes.