This is so exciting – welcome to my first ever Oscar Best Picture evolutionary post! In Oscar terms, we are at primordial soup stage. Messy, yes – but oozing with potential!
Director: William A. Wellman
Writers: John Monk Saunders (original story), Louis D. Lighton and Hope Loring (screenplay)
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Starring: Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers
My journey begins with Wings, which won the first ever Best Picture Oscar for 1927/1928 (initially, film eligibility was over a two-year period) and was nothing at all like I expected. The subject of this post is my expectations about the movie, and my review…it is personal opinion. If anyone can shed any light on any particular technical or historical aspect, please jump in, in the comments! Similarly if you’ve seen this film too, please share your thoughts with me.
I hope you enjoy!
I approach the film with mixed feelings
I approached this film with a mixture of curiosity, trepidation and an embarrassing amount of prejudice: I’m ashamed to say that although I consider myself a lover of old black and white movies, I’d never watched a completely silent movie all the way through before (even The Artist has a few spoken words at the end). I’d seen the odd snatch of Charlie Chaplin; the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin; bits of a film called The Wind that I remember my mum watching one afternoon when I was a child (the TV screen looked brown and one of the intertitles said Government’s payin’ three dollars… “That was a lot of money in those days”, my mum had to explain). But my preconceptions were based primarily on silent film as lampooned in Singin’ in the Rain; and that sketch-show favourite, a dastardly villain tying a damsel in distress to the tracks while a Wurlitzer goes into overdrive. I felt there had to be a reason productions like Sunset Boulevard and Mack and Mabel depicted silent movie stars as relics, no longer relevant. I was prepared to accept that certain silent films might be extremely good; but in the limited sense they were good ‘for a silent film’ or ‘for the time’. I feared Wings might be so pantomime, so steeped in Victorian melodrama, so dated in short, as to be borderline unwatchable.
On the other hand, my apprehension was tantalisingly laced with the sort of fascination that only Old Hollywood can induce. I mean, there has to be a reason productions like Sunset Boulevard and Mack and Mabel so hauntingly portray the bittersweet juxtaposition between the new, and a nostalgically remembered golden age…
Regarding the subject-matter – the First World War – I was unsure what to expect. Wings might be a powerful, Hemingway-esque tale of human tragedy, or it might just be turgidly patriotic. Given the film was released on the 10th anniversary of America’s entrance to WW1, and was an immediate hit with the public, I was inclined to suspect the latter.
I watch the wrong version, como una idiota
In 2012, to mark the 85th anniversary of its release, Wings was digitally restored and released on Blu-ray with a new recording of the original orchestral score by J.S. Zamecnik.
So it beats me how I ended up ordering a crappy DVD copy on Amazon, imported from Spain (it is entitled Alas and comes in a double set with Los Angeles Del Infierno – Spanish subtitles optional).
I watched it one afternoon and had written half this post before I twigged, following my online rambles, that the Blu-ray version existed. I had clearly not been watching a restored version: some of the intertitles were barely readable and there were certainly no colour-tinted explosions or gunfire sound effects, as advertised. The clincher was the soundtrack: a single pipe organ (the dreaded Wurlitzer!) instead of an orchestra. Where the hell had that come from if the original film was fully scored? For all I knew, the Spanish distributor had added it themselves, perhaps on the assumption that all silent films had to be mandatorily accompanied by manic organ. I hurriedly ordered the Blu-ray disc from Amazon.
And here’s the thing: I’ve now seen the film twice, with different soundtracks and substantial quality differences, and now I’m not quite sure of some of the things I initially thought when I first watched it, of which more later. I did learn, thanks to the Blu-ray disc menu, that the Wurlitzer soundtrack was composed and performed by someone called Gaylord Carter (you are given the choice of soundtracks). It transpires (thank you, Wikipedia) that Carter was a cinema organist who later made a career out of writing silent movie soundtracks for release of the films on video. So it is likely that the music to the first version I watched was composed in the Seventies. Which is annoying, because I was all set to go to town on the organ music, its oom-pa military march style, and what that said about the film, the period and the attitude to war, and…oh well! You’ve been spared that at least!
I finally get to the film – and eat my words!
Well, I am a moron and none (or hardly any) of my blinkered notions about the film, and silent film in general, were borne out. Wings is good, and the more I think about it, the more it dawns on me just how good it is. Sure it’s flawed – but overall it’s the sort of good that sends shivers down your spine.
It is 1917 in small-town America. Jack Powell (Rogers) is a carefree young man tinkering with his car and day-dreaming about flying planes. Mary Preston (Bow) is the tomboyish girl next door with a huge crush on him. However, Jack sees her as an irritating kid whom he tolerates out of old affection. Instead, he pursues the beautiful and refined Sylvia Lewis (played by Jobyna Ralston), blind to the fact that Sylvia is in love with David Armstrong (Arlen), whose family is the richest in town.
Jack and David enlist in the air force at the same time and despite disliking each other initially, soon become best friends. Will they make it back from the war? Will Jack find out Sylvia’s true feelings for David – and if so will his friendship with David survive? Will little Mary succeed in winning Jack over?
Take my breath away…
For all its depiction of war and the love triangle back-story, Wings is essentially a buddy movie about two ace fighter pilots who, when not featuring in breath-taking flying sequences, roister about at flight training school and enjoy complicated love lives…
Wings opens with these titles:
On June 12, 1927, In Washington, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh paid simple tribute to those who fell in the War.
“In that time,” he said, “feats were performed and deeds accomplished which were far greater than any peace accomplishments of aviation.”
To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated.
The Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background, helping set a tone of patriotic heroism, and the whole opening neatly exploits the public’s then Lindbergh-inspired fascination with flying (Lindbergh had recently crossed the Atlantic solo). Our expectation is that we might be about to witness some aviation-based feats of derring-do, while the dedication offers a poignant note of remembrance.
(At least, the Star-Spangled Banner is what you get in the restored version. In the pipe organ version, you get a very plonky and relentless upbeat marching band tune, as if the composer has grasped the meaning of ‘warriors of the sky’ but failed to understand what ‘wings folded about them forever’ might be hinting at metaphorically – the introduction of an eschatological conceit that will make various reappearances through the film.)
Youth, war, patriotism and poignancy…not a bad summary of the movie’s main themes.
Clara Bow – Clara Wow!
I’d heard of Clara Bow, the original Hollywood “It” girl, although I hadn’t seen any of her films. The character of Mary wasn’t even in the original story, but was shoe-horned in so the biggest star of the time could feature. This explains why certain aspects of Mary’s story and character development (particularly her military antics) are somewhat unsatisfying, and the actress herself didn’t care for the part – “[Wings is] a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie” (Dawn Porter, Howard Hughes: Hell’s Angel, Blood Moon Productions, 2010. p. 147 via Wikipedia).
But sometimes, a pie might be very well made, but a bit of whipped cream on top transforms it from ‘tasty’ to ‘delectable’.
If you haven’t seen any of Bow’s films, hasten to your online purveyor of choice and order one as fast as your mouse can click ‘Buy’.
Within seconds of Bow appearing on screen, it becomes clear something extraordinary is happening. She has so much screen magnetism, you’re practically catapulted towards her image. The range and nuance of emotions that she expresses through her face alone is quite remarkable. When I watched it again on Blu-ray, her entrance on screen seemed a bit too mime-like, more so than I remembered the first time. She enters via a washing line, and is soon being a nuisance Jack as he works on his car, crawling underneath to have a chat with him. It does a great job of setting Mary up as the earthy and fun girl next door, but her actions and expressions seem over-exaggerated.
However, she does soon warm up and becomes more natural, and her acting is not Victorian melodrama or mere pantomime. It’s the opposite – every dart of the eyes, every miniscule chin movement, tells the story of a character who is recognisable and relatable. Watching her, you can see why she might not have cared for the Talkies, when they came:
“I hate talkies…they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”
(Elisabeth Goldbeck,”The Real Clara Bow”, Motion Picture Classic, September 1930, via Wikipedia).
I guess you just don’t need to use your face that much when there’s dialogue telling the story too.
Buddy Rogers – the cute one
Not surprising then, given that he shares the opening scenes with Bow, that I took a while longer to warm up to Rogers. Compared to her, his face seemed hopelessly blank to me. Which is completely unfair, because even the first time I watched it, on the crappy DVD version, I could see that he was perfectly cast as the symbol of all-American youth. His open, teen idol features and easy smile lend themselves perfectly to the exuberant, optimistic role of Jack. In the crappy version, I felt that he just couldn’t quite compete with Bow’s charisma, but that he came into his own sharing the screen with Ralston and Arlen, where his puppy-like boyishness contrasts nicely with their poise and sophistication. In addition, Jack’s Boy’s Own Adventure-style enthusiasm for life, girls and bombing “heinies” – which is only quelled towards the end of the film – began to grate on me after a while.
THEN I watched it on Blu-ray, and realised that I’d fallen in love with Jack from the beginning. Why on earth had I thought Rogers was second fiddle to Clara Bow? Was it the quality of the film, or just the impact of watching first time? He gives a fine, naturalistic performance. You want to sit him down and explain to him sternly what the war really means, before giving him a big hug and a cookie.
Richard Arlen – the handsome one
One of the only minor criticisms of the film at the time was of Richard Arlen’s acting (or lack thereof). For most of the film however, his portrayal of the more reserved David made an effective contrast to Jack’s excitability – the lack of great acting wasn’t really a problem. I will say though, without giving the plot away, that there is a scene near the end that does call for more – much more – emotional depth than Arlen seems capable of giving, undeniably handsome though he is.
Watching the restored version, Arlen’s resemblance to Suburgatory‘s amiable dunderhead Ryan Shay, that I’d noted the first time as ‘passing’, was markedly more pronounced. Only whereas Ryan is supposed to look vacuously self-satisfied, it is not at all clear that David is.
Jobyna Ralston – the beautiful one
Having introduced the tomboyish Mary, the scene cuts to Sylvia, who we are told ‘had the advantage over the small-town girls. She was a visitor from the city.’
In case we should be in any doubt that she is the opposite of Mary in every way, Sylvia is pictured not just in a white dress and beautiful hair, but sitting on a swing, singing and playing a lute. A LUTE. Ah, trust those city girls!
(Seriously – he’s actually Ryan Shay!)
If the background to this still looks blurry, it’s because in this scene they are on a swing, which is swinging madly back and forth and the camera is swinging with it. I started to feel nauseous two seconds in, and it was a blessed relief when Jack came bounding up to drag her off the swing and into his newly-repaired automobile.
The Gary Cooper Cameo
The two friends have completed ground school training (a section of the film which might be dubbed, ‘prototype of a training montage’) and can barely contain their excitement about actually getting to fly planes for the first time. They meet their cool (in every sense) new tent-mate, Cadet White, played with devastating sang froid by Gary Cooper (this scene-stealing appearance would launch his career). After taking a few bites of a chocolate bar, White says they’ll be seeing a lot of each other and takes his leave, as he’s “Got to go out and do a flock of figure eights before chow.” He throws the half-eaten chocolate bar on the bed, and the camera zooms in on it. Unlike our boys, White doesn’t carry a lucky mascot as “Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it!”
Then the music turns ominous and seconds later, White’s plane crashes and he is dead.
It’s one of the most memorable moments in the film, and it takes place before Jack and David have even got inside the cockpit of a plane. They appear as stunned as I was. The camera follows Jack’s eyes to White’s bed, with its indentation from his recently sleeping body. Someone comes to the tent and asks them to pack White’s belongings. They do as they’re told, visibly shocked. A photograph of White’s mother is lingered over. Jack realises that in order to pack a pair of socks, he will have to dislodge them from under the half-eaten chocolate bar. The camera zooms in on the bar again, White’s teethmarks apparent. Jack’s obvious reluctance, and the care with which he pulls out the socks from under the chocolate bar, now a symbol of everything White was but in the blink of any eye no longer is, conveys genuine tragedy as economically as anything Hemingway might have produced. Then, moments later, Jack and David are called for their first flight instruction. It’s difficult to conceive of a more dramatic way to set up their first airborne experience.
There’s a touching moment when Jack and David have to transition from their shock over White’s sudden demise and their excitement about flying at last. But for me this is over too quickly, let down a little by the music, which suddenly changes back to the key of ‘everything’s alright again’. I wanted that conflict between their thoughts of White and their schoolboy excitement to come through more. I’ve re-watched this scene with both the Zamecnik and the Carter scores, and the effect is the same in both.
Instead, what we get is some unexpected gallows humour: they arrive at the airfield in time to see the arrival of a van with CRASH TOOLS emblazoned on the side. A mechanic gets outs and leans against the side, dispassionately smoking a cigarette before yawning widely. Jack and David look on with comic unease. But any ambivalence evaporates when they climb into the planes, and we watch them take off enthusiastically.
The flying scenes
Nothing prepared me for quite how good these are. They really are as well-filmed as many aviation scenes shot today – in 1927, they must have been jaw-dropping.
The first time I watched, I sat there trying to work out how certain shots had been done. I thought they must have used miniatures. Or possibly a cockpit was mocked up, and a screen with planes flying in the distance projected behind it? (It was seamlessly done if so, I thought). Or – maybe they used archive military footage?
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Every shot is real, as I subsequently learned. Director “Wild Bill” Wellman – an intriguing character in his own right – had been given the job based on his previous career flying planes during the war, and writer John Monk Saunders, as well as Richard Arlen, had flown too. Buddy Rogers, the youngster of the bunch, learned to fly specifically for the film and reportedly spent 98 hours in the air during filming. When you see him in the cockpit, he really is up there and in some cases controlling the plane. He is reported to have been terrified and to have thrown up after every flight, but is said to have earned Wellman’s respect and affection for gamely going up time and again. The rest of the flying was done by the US military, plus some stunt pilots.
Wellman and his cinematographer, Harry Perry, came up with a way of attaching the cameras to the planes themselves (as opposed to being held by the cameramen), which is how they were able to capture shots that had never been seen before. Audiences in 1927 wouldn’t have seen a pilot in his cockpit before, or how other planes appear when you’re up in the sky. One of the cleverest camera angles is of looking down on bombs being dropped from the plane and watching them fall from above – the precise inversion of the view of bombs with which civilian viewers would have been familiar.
Even so, there were some shots that I was convinced must have been faked. In particular, a plane (filmed from above) is seen going into a tailspin, spiralling towards earth. Again I tried to work out how this had been achieved, only to find out that it was indeed a real live stunt – proof that for as long as there have been aeroplanes, there have been batshit crazy stuntmen.
In Wings: Grandeur in the Sky (a Making Of documentary that comes as a special feature on the Blu-ray edition – love a good Making Of!), Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr, notes that his father realised that clouds were needed in frame in order to get any visual perspective of the planes in the air, and angered studio bosses by delaying filming to wait for cloudy conditions. I remember a similar storyline in The Aviator, and had thought this cloud business was attributed to Howard Hughes. I believe Hughes admired Wings, and he and Wellman met – did The Aviator get it wrong or did both directors just realise the same thing (as seems possible)? Any answers in the comments!
Depiction of the First World War
As noted, Wellman was hired because of his flying experience. So it’s all the more surprising that he turned out to have a brilliant eye for composition. Every battle shot is a work of art:
One reviewer at the time noted the film made extensive use of Magnascope technology, which if I’ve understood this blog correctly, was a type of widescreen format which, if your local cinema was equipped with the latest kit, meant you viewed a much bigger, wider screen than previously. I believe this contributes to the epic quality of some of the war scenes – if I have not understood correctly though please don’t be shy – explain it to me in the comments!
Wings does not shy away from death and tragedy, but these do not dictate the tone of the film, which is concerned primarily with the heroism and accomplishments of the lead male characters – definitely more Top Gun than Catch-22. Aspects that today we have come to expect as de rigueur in any war movie, such as fear, horror, futility, anger – all that trench-based “unpleasantness” – are not really dwelt upon.
Youth laughed and wept and lived its heedless hour, while over the world hung a cloud which spread and spread until its shadow fell in some degree on every living person.
And Youth answered the challenge-
Here was a door that only the bravest of the brave dared open – a path of glory mounting toward the stars!
So the intertitles tell us after the main characters have been introduced: “war” is an amorphous evil sucking everyone into its path. The film does not question its inevitability any more than it attempts to understand the causes and reasons for the war, or why young American men are heading to Europe as ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’. The point in the film in which Jack and David have been posted to France is introduced with the intertitle, Like a mighty maelstrom of destruction, the war now drew into its center the power and the pride of all the earth. The war is an evil spirit which the brave young Americans must vanquish.
Although the characters refer throughout to the Kaiser, ‘Captain Kellerman’s Flying Circus’, ‘heinies’ and the ‘hated Iron Cross’, it is War which is personified as the real enemy, rather than the Germans, which are portrayed with surprising ambivalence. In one scene at the end of a battle, David is left alone in the air with a German plane on him. His machine-gun jams and death seems certain. “But there was chivalry among these knights of the air”, we are told, and the German shows mercy. Later on in the film, after an incident involving one of our heroes when the Germans believe they have killed him, the Americans receive a polite note from the Germans explaining as much. Ironically, the only real xenophobia depicted in the film is via the buffoonish character of Herman Schwimpf, an unfortunately-named Dutch American who enlists the same time as Jack and David. Every time he receives anti-German abuse on someone learning his name, he strips off to reveal his Stars and Stripes tattoo – whereupon the raised fist becomes a pat on the back. Change ‘Herman Schwimpf’ to ‘Mohammed Hussein’ and it’s a case of plus ça change…
Hatred and fear is transferred to the trappings of war, rather than people. One section of the film follows the launch of the German ‘giant’ Gotha (large battle plane) and ensuing attack, and the plucky efforts of the American pilots to thwart it. Who knows, the unleashing of the Gotha may have inspired Tolkien to Grond, the warhammer in The Lord of the Rings, so sinister does the plane itself seem and so effectively does the film make you see this weapon of war as a terrifying monster. It is referred to as a ‘dragon’ and has even been decorated with an evil-looking dragon, as well as skull and cross bones.
Other aspects of the war are frankly puzzling. During one battle, Jack is forced to make a crash landing in order to escape two Fokkers on his tail. He finds himself in no man’s land, jumping in and out of craters and dodging cannon fire. Luckily for him, “Help comes from a nearby British trench”.
“Hello, Yank. Welcome to a very merry little war!”
“- and now how about a wee drop for the King and Uncle Sam?”
Suddenly it’s all gone a bit Blackadder…To a modern viewer however, it’s quite a shocking trivialisation of trench warfare which, though its status as a symbol of the futility of war and “lions led by donkeys” may be questioned, its status as a symbol of mass slaughter may not.
The film does depict multiple casualties and killings, especially later on when there is more focus on the ground war – Wellman himself even makes a cameo appearance as a soldier dying a particularly hammy death on the battlefield. But these are not brought out to the extent of certain later war films. There is one notable moment during the final ‘Big Push’, when the Allied troops are marching on the ground. One soldier is so weary he sits down for a break; one of his comrades gives him a cigarette. Then a shell attack – everyone hits the ground, but our friend is too tired to move and is hit. The cigarette is still in his mouth, still burning. Afterwards, when everyone gets up and it’s time to move on, his comrade calls at him to “snap out of it!” His corpse keels over and the cigarette falls out of his mouth. His fellow soldier looks at him impassively for a moment, and then stubs out the cigarette. That is all. It’s a brutally unsentimental depiction of a fatal bombing.
But in other respects the depiction of the marching troops seems sanitised – it’s certainly a million miles away from ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks…’
All in all, it’s a bewildering mixture of patriotism and naivety, brutality and tragedy.
The Jazz Age
Wings was made during the so-called “Pre-Code Era”, that is the era before the censorship code was fully in force. Pre-Code films are known for featuring all sorts of morally dubious activities, such as women having strong characters and married couples sleeping in the same bed. So I had some hope that there might be some sexual realism in this film.
There is some casual nudity – bare bottoms at the barracks and a glimpse of Clara Bow’s breasts when she’s getting changed. It’s hardly scandalous but compared with the prudery that followed, it’s practically outrageous.
Halfway through, Jack and David have been decorated and are granted some leave as a reward. They immediately head to the bright lights of Paris and cut loose at the Folies Bergères. The camera pans round the room, alighting on a succession of couples sharing tables – one of them is a cross-dressing lesbian couple sharing a tender moment. The camera moves quickly but there is no mistaking it, even in the crappy DVD version. It’s a reminder that in 1927, the Jazz Age was still in full swing. Although set during 1917-18, there is no real effort to place the costumes and hairstyles any earlier than the year the film was made. (Bow in particular sports a simply hideous curly bob throughout – it really is the ugliest bob this side of Julie Andrews’ in The Sound of Music.)
During this scene, Jack gets very drunk on champagne. In a cute bit of photo wizardry, he sees bubbles rising out of his glass.
Then they’re coming out of the bottle and the end of his finger, while the orchestra plays I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (another minor anachronism, as the song was not released until 1919). It’s all very well, but this bubble business goes on and on. 10 minutes later and the bubbles are still bubbling. He is so drunk he fails to recognise his old friend Mary, but he agrees to go with her on the basis that her sequinned dress reminds him of bubbles. I was surprised at the camera work here – the camera takes on a ‘Jack’s Eye’ view and zooms drunkenly in on the blurry sequins, and then shows Jack’s double vision view of Mary. I know these techniques are hackneyed gimmicks nowadays, but I hadn’t appreciated they go way back to 1927.
In the next scene, in a hotel, Jack is still seeing bubbles. He shakes the bed and makes bubbles come out of the bedpost. I mean come ON! Enough with the bubbles! This blog has a nice array of GIFs showing the various bubble sequences, so you can see the special effects (and Rogers’ amusing drunken turn).
I’m guessing the bubbles were achieved using the same technique as the titles – does anyone know?
I don’t think there is any evidence that the film is suggesting David and Jack might be sexually attracted to each other. However, there are moments in the film which are so sensual it’s impossible to avoid homoerotic overtones. When the men are decorated by a French army officer, the Frenchman kisses them each twice. But these are not the quick cheek pecks we associate with a Gallic bisou, but lingering lip-to-neck actions. Most famously, there is a very emotional scene towards the end that looks a lot more like two passionate lovers than best friends.
This is an excellent film. My main complaint is that it is too long – there’s only so much battle I can watch before fatigue sets in. Day turned to night as I sat sofa-bound. However, when I watched it again on Blu-ray, it transpires there is an intermission halfway through, which makes sense and helps greatly.
One criticism of the film at the time was that the ending was too sentimental, but I disagree. Jack returns home, sporting some unconvincing grey hair courtesy of a bottle of talc (you know, to show that War Has Affected Him). He has to Deal with Some Stuff. I cried. But it’s a film about the First World War for God’s sake! It’s significant that the ‘sentimental’ happens at home, and not in action. I think this is what elevates Wings from “silly flyboy stuff” to a meaningful war film.
The first time I watched the Blu-ray version, I wasn’t sure I liked the music. Like a philistine, I thought I preferred the ersatz organ accompaniment. But although the orchestral score sounds a bit too clean and new compared to the picture, it really is superior – not least because as was common at the time, it incorporates samples from just about every great classical composer you can name. It is not as closely connected to the characters’ emotions as we often expect today, but it is far more nuanced than the organ recording.
The Oscars may be at the primordial stage, but I’ve learned that by 1927, film was quite advanced. Technology may only have been at what might be termed the Tetrapod era, but the artistic endeavour – the story, character and artistic direction – well, we’re talking opposable thumbs. Watching this film, I felt the same way as I do when reading certain classic novels: yes, the characters speak in the dialect of the period; yes, the cultural references are obsolete; but the story-telling draws you in so you barely notice. We may have got used to Talkies and Technicolor, and our attitude to the First World War may have changed, but there are so many other aspects of Wings that just haven’t got much better since 1927.
Next up: The Broadway Melody…what a change that will be!