Friday, January 20, 2012

Stubs - Wings

WINGS (1927) Starring: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper. Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton. Story by John Monk Saunders. Produced by Lucien Hubbard, Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky, B.P. Schulberg, Otto Kahn. Music by J.S. Zamecnik. Run Time: 144 minutes. Color Tinted. U.S.A. Silent, Action, Adventure, War, Romantic, Drama.

Wings was the first film to win the Academy Award (1927/1928) for Best Picture (called Best Picture, Production). But despite this claim, overtime, it seems to have fallen out of favor and almost seems to have been forgotten all together. WINGS is sometimes unfavorably compared with the other “best picture” from that first Oscar ceremony, SUNRISE (Most Artistic Quality of Production), and for a time it was even considered lost. But a print was found in the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris and quickly copied to safety film. This year, a restored WINGS, derived from that print, will finally get a DVD and Blu-Ray release, as part of Paramount Studio’s 100th Anniversary celebration.

As part of that release, it was shown recently in the Paramount Theater. Since it is a rare opportunity to see this film as it was meant to be seen, I wanted very much to take advantage of the opportunity. I have already gone on record for my love of SUNRISE, and I wanted this review to be about WINGS itself.

My first impression after seeing this film is that it is a great movie, not only for 1927/28 but for now. The old adage that they don’t make them like they used to is appropriate when describing this film. The aerial photography is incredible since it is so realistic. The actors were actually up in the airplanes, in some cases actually flying them, for all the dogfighting scenes. There were no such things as rear projection, blue screens, green screens or CGI. Arguably, some of the shots of flying, especially the close-ups, could have been shot on the ground, but they weren’t. When you see Buddy Rogers flying and another plane passes through the view, that is really another plane flying by. Even the crash landings, though staged, were really crashes.

Coming less than a decade after the end of World War I, WINGS may have been made as a reaction to MGM’s successful THE BIG PARADE (1925), one of the first Hollywood features made about that war. Things haven’t really changed much in Hollywood, and when one studio hits with a particular genre or subject matter, you can be sure there will be copycats or similar types of movies made. Separating it from THE BIG PARADE is the fact that WINGS is essentially a film about flyboys. And it was made at a time when America was fascinated by flying. Remember, Charles Lindberg had just crossed the Atlantic in 1927, making himself and flying big news.

Add to the mix, the IT girl, Clara Bow, who brought with her star power based on her cute and sexy public persona. She was Paramount’s biggest star and was at the height of her popularity. Earlier in the year, she had made the film she is most identified with, IT. Sadly, her career, like so many others would collapse with the coming of sound and even though THE JAZZ SINGER was already out, the transition to sound was still in the future when WINGS was made and released.

In the film, Clara plays Mary, a small town girl with a crush on the boy next door, Jack (Charles Rogers). They have a friendship, more than a romance. We see her help him put together a jalopy, which she christens the Shooting Star. But Jack’s heart belongs to Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), a city girl visiting the small town. As soon as the car is ready to drive, Jack leaves Mary and drives over to Sylvia’s so she can have the first ride. However, Sylvia’s in love with David (Richard Arlen), the son from the richest family in town. David returns Sylvia’s affections. Jack, for his part, is oblivious to Sylvia’s love for David, but he has disdain for his rival just the same.

Jack, we’re told, has always dreamed of flying and when the U.S. finally enters the war, he signs up to be a pilot in the Army’s Air Corp. Much to his chagrin, he finds himself signing up next to David. When he’s going off to war, Jack goes to Sylvia to ask for some sort of memento to take with him into battle. He finds one that she has already made for David, her photo in a locket with a personal note on the back of the photo. David walks in while Jack and Sylvia embrace. She later tells David that she couldn’t tell Jack the truth after seeing the way he looked at her. The two agree not to burst Jack’s bubble.

David, we’re led to believe has lived a sheltered life and while he loves his parents and they love him, it’s not the touchy feely kind of relationship. He feels more comfortable saying goodbye to the family dog and to the butler. Like Jack, he has a good luck charm, but rather than a photo, it is a tiny teddy bear that he used to play with as a child. We’re talking small, fit in your pocket-sized bear.

Just as Jack is leaving, Mary calls him over, hoping for a last chance for him to see she is the one for him. She gives him a photo of her, which is about as cute as they get, but she gets a handshake instead of a kiss.

Jack and David find themselves together throughout training and their eventual deployment. It is while training that Jack and David finally get into it. Jack lets his hatred for David bubble over and the two get into a fistfight. The fact that David won’t go down easily changes Jack’s mind and the two become best friends. On their deployment to Germany, they bunk for mere minutes with Cadet White (Gary Cooper).

I say mere minutes, because while they’re still unpacking, the tall and lanky White goes off to practice figure eights before eating and does not return. This brief appearance has been said to have launched Cooper’s career.

Meanwhile, back in small town U.S.A., Mary reads an ad for ambulance drivers for a volunteer women’s corp. Sylvia, apparently just waits.

Jack and David become heroes, shooting down German planes and winning citations. One of which gets them a pass to Paris on the eve of the Big Push by the Allies. Mary, who happens to be in Paris as well, hears about the recall of the troops and goes to find Jack. It is at the famous Les Folies Bergère, where Jack is not only intoxicated but smitten with another girl. Taking the advice of the washroom attendant, Mary changes into one of the dancer’s costumes in an effort to win Jack away from the woman in the bar. She only succeeds when she bubbles more than the other woman when drunken Jack shakes her. (Jack is having hallucinations and bubbles are his pink elephants.)

Mary takes Jack to a hotel room. The assumption here is that she’s trying to get him a chance to dry out before returning to the battlefield, not to seduce him. Even if that had been her purpose, Jack is too drunk to do anything but pass out. While Jack is out, Mary decides to change back into her ambulance driver’s uniform. At the same time, MPs who are tasked with rounding up pilots burst into the room and see Mary half-naked with a drunken flyboy on the bed. This situation, though innocent as it may be, in the morals of the day, is enough to get Mary kicked out of the Woman’s Corp.

It is back on the battlefield, and minutes away from going into battle that Jack reads about Mary's resignation from the Woman's Corp. When Jack states that he's surprised that Mary would quit, Lt. Walter Cameron (Roscoe Karns), another pilot, suggests she was fired for sexual misconduct. Jack takes offense at that and almost comes to blows with Walter. David hopes that means Jack's affections have switched to Mary. But Jack insists that is not the case and shows David his good luck charm, the locket that Sylvia had intended for David. Jack had kept the locket a secret up to then and when he shows it to David, the photo falls to the floor. David finds it and reads the inscription on the back, that Sylvia had written to him. Seeing no way to put the photo back without Jack seeing the inscription, David almost fights his friend to avoid him seeing it. But they are called to their planes before that happens. David, who has already stated he fears he might not return from the mission, leaves behind his teddy bear.

On their way to shoot down some German observation balloons, David runs interference with four German planes, leaving Jack to go after the balloons. While David is initially successful he is eventually shot down. Crashing behind enemy lines, he is thought to have been killed when a German patrol comes upon him and shoots when he doesn’t surrender. A German flying ace delivers the news by flying his plane into the enemy camp to deliver the news in a tube.

But David is not dead and manages to make his way to a German airfield, where he steals a plane to fly back to the Allied side. However, on his way back he runs into Jack, who sees the German plane as another way to avenge his fallen friend, and he mercilessly shoots it down. When he lands to take a souvenir, he discovers that the dying pilot is David. Jack stays with his friend until he dies.

When the war is over, Jack returns to a hero’s welcome. He is relieved that David’s parents don’t blame him for the death of their son. And finally, Jack realizes that it is Mary he loves.

While all of this may sound melodramatic it isn’t. There are obviously places where it could have gone that way, but it doesn’t. And it is not all drama either. Comic relief is supplied by El Brendel and Gunboat Smith. El Brendel, a vaudevillian comic, plays Herman Schwimpf, who gets into scuffs along the way when his intentions are misunderstood. Mostly, he gets into it with his Sergeant (Gunboat Smith). Gunboat, a former heavyweight fighter turned actor, is perhaps best known for losing to Jack Dempsey in 1917 and again in 1918. El Brendel, ironically, left Paramount the same year as this film and went back to vaudeville. He would return to films again and again in his career, first at Fox and later in shorts for Columbia Pictures.

What helps set this film apart are the visuals in it. The shots revolving around flying and dogfights are simply stunning. William Wellman, a former pilot in World War I, brought realism to the movie. As stated before the actors who could fly were actually flying the planes. In addition to onboard cameras, Wellman also used platforms and balloons to capture some incredible shots.

In addition to flying, the shots of the battlefields are likewise spectacular. The bombed out landscape, as well as the subtleties of war, are truly captured here. And perhaps it took someone who had been there to bring it to life. The immensity of the battle scenes reminded me of the Civil War footage that D.W. Griffith shot in his flawed epic BIRTH OF A NATION. The realism captured would be either now be supplemented with stock footage or created using green screens and CGI.

And the camera work is not only spectacular for the flying and battle sequences. Be sure to pay attention to such scenes as when Jack goes to show Sylvia his Shooting Star car and when we enter the Les Folies Bergère. Like SUNRISE (1927), the camera work is sophisticated and something that would be lost for a time when sound forced everyone to gather round the microphone.

While WINGS was definitely Wellman’s first major film, it would hardly be his last. He would go on to direct such classics as THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933). A STAR IS BORN (1937), BEAUE GESTE (1939), ROXIE HART (1942), and the OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943). Wellman, also called Wild Bill, liked to work fast, disdained actors but hated actresses more. Known for bullying his actors, he did manage to the performance he wanted from them and seven of them would receive Oscar nominations for their troubles. Wellman himself, who was not nominated for WINGS, would receive them for A STAR IS BORN, BATTLEGROUND (1949) and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954). His only Oscar came for Best Writing, Original Story for A STAR IS BORN, which he shared with Robert Carson.

Like other films made in the late silent era, WINGS is a sophisticated work. There are not lots of title cards, because, by that time, audiences knew how to watch a movie. They didn’t have to see every bit of dialogue written out for them to be able to follow the movie. The film also employs sound in some very interesting ways.

To begin with, silent films were not usually totally silent. Music usually accompanied their showings. While it may have started out as a way of drowning out other noises that might interrupt your viewing pleasure (coughing, talking, etc.), Hollywood quickly realized that music could be used to enhance the film. Oftentimes, films came with suggested pieces that could be played by the theater’s piano player or organist to set the mood. For really big films, music was written for them and played by an organist or a small orchestra for truly big budget films. Such is the case of WINGS.

A score was written for the film by J.S. Zamecnik that incorporated both original music themes as well as songs, such as George Cohan’s Over There and symphonic passages. This score was arranged for both orchestra and for organ. While there were no recordings to be used for this restoration, the score has been brought back to life and Zamecnik receiving the credit that eluded him at the time.

The film score also employs sound effects that were designed to enhance the film, such as machine gun fire and planes in flight. These were also done live when the film first was shown. Though as part of the move from silent to synchronized sound it is possible that by the end of its two-year theatrical run, some of the sound effects were no longer live.

To see WINGS is to be impressed, not only with the original film but with the restoration process. There are occasionally jump cuts perhaps from a missing frame or two, but considering the film was all but lost, its resurrection is all that more impressive.

A success at the time of its release, WINGS’ return to life is a triumph.

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