Friday, February 3, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Wings (1927)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!

We're setting the way-back machine nearly a century for this one.  That's right, all the way back to 1927, and the first-ever Academy Award winner for Best Picture (in addition to being the only silent film to achieve said accolade, until 2011's The Artist).  Today's subject is the World War I flying epic Wings, starring Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen.

Directed by former military pilot William A. Wellman (whose legitimate combat flight credentials sold Paramount Studios on his being the perfect candidate to helm this picture), Wings focuses on a sort of love triangle between three (or more accurately four) small-town characters, whose lives are impacted significantly by The Great War.  Fresh-faced Jack Powell's lifelong dream is to fly a plane, but being a young fellow of modest means he's settled for fixing up an old jalopy and calling it the Shooting Star.  His neighbor Mary Preston (a wonderfully expressive Clara Bow) is desperately in love with him, but Jack's got designs on the glamorous Sylvia, who in turn is in love with the town's richest bachelor David Armstrong.  Once the characters and their relationships are established, the film wastes no time plunging us headlong into Jack and David's exploits as Army Air cadets-turned-star pilots.  
What follows is some of the most remarkable aerial battle footage ever put to film, particularly considering the technical limitations of the day.  When Paramount greenlit Wings, they had no idea how arduous and expensive a shoot it was going to be.  Wellman insisted on capturing in realistic detail what flight combat was really like; indeed, he refused to film any footage on a day that didn't include both sun and clouds, because if either element was missing the footage wouldn't capture any scale or speed.  The resulting battle scenes are visceral and oddly thrilling, while the aerial stunts are truly spectacular.  The production employed fearless stunt pilots, daring enough to actually crash planes in service of a great shot (one pilot failed in his attempt to flip his plane as it hit the ground and sustained a serious neck injury from which he somehow recovered in only a few months).  The film's soundtrack is sweetened to great effectiveness, with the roars of plane engines, buffeting machine gun fire, and booming explosions.  This film is silent of dialogue only, and these battle scenes still hold up quite impressively today - Top Gun and films of that ilk owe Wings a debt.  

As for the two lead actors, Richard Arlen did have flight experience, having served in World War I in Canada, but Charles Rogers had never been in the air before and had to learn to fly a plane from scratch, showing incredible resiliency and daring.  Why did Rogers need to take flying lessons?  Well, the actors in all the aerial scenes were tasked with doing their own flying!  Cameras had to be mounted on the planes themselves to compensate for the wobbliness of the aircraft, and while some planes had safety pilots hidden in the cockpit, the closeup shots required the actors to be fully visible.  

All this would of course be for naught if the story didn't work, but it absolutely does.  The romantic elements are quaint, to be sure, but the lead performances are quite believable, particularly Bow (at the time one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the only proven commodity in this film's cast), whose teary eyes tell her whole story.  Her most significant scene involves Mary, now an MP stationed in Paris, attempting to inform a blind-drunk Jack that his leave has been canceled.  This sequence features the famous cafe tracking shot, where the camera sweeps across a row of tables to find Jack guzzling champagne and flirting with local girls.  It veers a little far into cartoonish territory as Jack hallucinates bubbles (to go with the bubbly he's been imbibing), but ultimately it proves a saccharine reprieve from the harrowing war sequences.  Both male performances are very strong as well; Rogers is the youthful romantic, prone to jealousy and risk-taking, Arlen's rugged, stern features make us think he'll be the antagonist but his character proves otherwise.

Wings was a smash-hit when it came out, such a spectacle that some theaters charged an exorbitant two dollars for admission.  It made the careers of Rogers and Arlen, put Wellman on the map as a filmmaker, and introduced the world to Gary Cooper (despite his scant few minutes of screen time).  Nearly a century later it's a paragon of silent film, in addition to being one of the great flying films and one of the great war films.  If you're a film historian at any level, seek this one out.

I give Wings **** out of ****.

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