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The Bootleg Files: The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh

BOOTLEG FILES 615: “The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh” (1984 short directed by and starring Orson Welles).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The rarest and least known of Welles’ output.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: The full short deserves to be a special feature on a future DVD release.

Everybody is aware that Orson Welles began his filmmaking career with the biggest bang imaginable – you know, that film about the megalomaniac newspaper publisher obsessed over his childhood sled. However, few people are aware that Welles ended his filmmaking career with a whisper: a three-minute short intended as a private video for an ailing friend.

In February 1984, Welles was at a low point of his life. His health had been deteriorating and his efforts to gain funding for a myriad of film projects, including a new version of “King Lear” and a recreation of his groundbreaking 1937 staging of “The Cradle Will Rock,” came to naught. Complicating matters was the news that his longtime London-based manager and accountant Bill Cronshow was seriously ill – some sources would later state that he was near-death at the time.

Rather than send a card or make a telephone call to his friend, Welles opted to create a unique get-well message: a short film intended to cheer his ailing friend, in which Welles recited an inspirational message based on a passage from Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography “The Spirit of St. Louis.” The film, which later became known as “The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh,” ran a mere three minutes and was created in a single unbroken take; it was not intended to be seen by the general public.

The film finds Welles seated a desk in his Los Angeles home, with a typewriter directly in front of him and a very large plant filling the right side of the screen. At the start of the film, Welles reaches his arm out behind the plant and mutters to an off-screen presence, “Oh, don’t cry, please, baby.” Gary Graver, who shot the footage, would recall the “baby” in question was Welles’ cat.

Welles then looks at the camera and begins to speak slowly. He looks haggard and pale, but his extraordinary voice still resonates with its oratorical power. “There are never many, never enough of them, but there are men born into the world with a gaze fixed on the widest possible horizon,” he states. “Men who can see without strain beyond the most distant horizon into that unconquered country we call the future. Here are some words by one such man, which I’d like to dedicate to another such man. This is for you, Bill.”

From this point, Welles begins to recite Lindbergh’s recollection of the final stretch of his landmark 1927 flight across the Atlantic. Lindbergh states that he was an hour away from landing, but was not eager for the monumental journey to be over. “I haven’t the slightest desire to sleep – there isn’t an ache in my body,” says Welles in his channeling of Lindbergh.

In Lindbergh’s words, he felt at that point in time that he was in a situation similar to “struggling up a mountain after a rare flower” – but realizing, at the last second that there was greater satisfaction in finding that elusive object rather than in plucking it from the ground. “Plucking and withering were inseparable,” Lindbergh wrote, then bemoaning that his odyssey’s end was so close. “It is a shame to land, with the night so clear and so much fuel in my tanks.”

Welles then stopped, paused to give a reflective inner consideration, and looked directly at the camera. “It’s for you, Bill,” he added, smiling while winking both of his eyes.

In terms of cinema, “The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh” is the least polished Welles-directed work. An open window allowed the low hum of the Los Angeles traffic to be picked up by the microphone, and Welles needed to reach out a second time during his recitation to mollify his mournful off-screen cat. As for Welles himself, he went on camera without make-up and wore a baggy red shirt he wore only emphasized his massive girth.

Well, hey, Welles was not trying to wow the critics or hook investors with this little film. Instead, he sent a touching message to someone in need of a comforting word. In calling on Lindbergh’s bravery, Welles offered a reminder to his ill friend that all journeys eventually conclude in anti-climax and that the push for adventure is what truly fuels the soul. It is an intellectually profound alternative to the none-too-anodyne “get well soon” sentiments that most people send those in poor health.

Welles shot the short film in 16mm, and the recitation was accomplished by reading from cue cards. The film was transferred to video for delivery to Cronshow, while Welles retained the original print. After Welles’ death in 1985, the film was collected with a treasure trove of unfinished Welles’ works by Oja Kodar, the filmmaker’s companion, and dedicated to Germany’s Filmmuseum München. The film was not publicly screened until 2000, and scholars who credited themselves on knowing everything about Welles were surprised to learn this short existed.

To date, the full three-minute “The Spirit of St. Louis” was not released in any home entertainment format, although a brief section of it was included in the documentary “Orson Welles: The One Man Band.” An unauthorized posting is on YouTube, complete with the logo from the Arte network and French subtitles.

Perhaps it is fitting that Welles, who came to filmmaking with an outrageous display of artistic genius, would conclude his filmmaking with a quiet display of warmth and sincerity. In some ways, the emotional beauty of this film’s creation and existence is even more impressive than any grandly conceived exercise in cinematic razzle-dazzle. In this work, Welles did not sign off with a whimper, but with a kiss from the heart.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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