Watching “Wings,” the very first winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, both the strengths and the limitations of its era are obvious.
The downsides are familiar from silent film acting and early Hollywood in general: a stilted, theatrical acting style; maudlin portrayals of romantic and familial relationships; plots that often turn on happenstance and (mis)overheard conversations; action scenes constrained by the primitive special effects of the time.
But it’s still a terrific picture, with some stuff I didn’t expect. The gritty, uncompromising portrayal of World War I is shocking for its bloody mayhem and overt depiction of suffering and death. One of the main characters gets shot out of the sky, blood bursting from his mouth like a fountain. There’s some daring sexual depictions, including a pair of lesbians, some naked male behinds at the military recruiting office and a brief topless shot of Clara Bow.
And the aerial dogfighting scenes, though they contain a number of fake-looking collisions and other weaknesses, are still pretty cutting-edge for their time. Most notable was director William A. Wellman’s use of rear-facing cameras mounted on actual airplanes, so he could film his stars as they experienced the real gyrations and windswept thrills of open-cockpit aviation.
Bow received top billing in the film even though her part is a supporting one and she disappears for long stretches of the movie. The “It Girl” had a distinctive look that seems almost quaint nowadays — kewpie-doll face, boyishly short haircut, huge expressive eyes and petite figure. She plays the (literal) girl next door, Mary Preston, who’s been in love with Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) since they were kids.
Alas, Jack only seems to have motors on his brain, tinkering around with his hotrod, the Shooting Star. Soon war arrives, and Jack signs up to be a pilot. After a misunderstanding, he goes to Europe mistakenly thinking that Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), the sophisticated city girl, has given her heart to him.
In reality, she adores David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the upstanding scion of the town’s wealthiest family. Jack goes to war bearing Sylvia’s locket with her picture inside, unaware the inscription on the back is made out to David. Meanwhile, Mary signs up as a volunteer to drive trucks for the Allies, hoping to be near Jack.
After an initial period of hostility, Jack and David become fast friends — and ace pilots. I found it curious that there’s very little footage of planes in the air during the film’s first half, and then all of a sudden, the aerial combat scenes wash over you like a tidal wave.
I’ve long been a fan of World War I aviation, a period in which new technological breakthroughs seemed to change the tide of the war in the air every couple of months. The film shows real hazards of those claptrap machines like the machine gun jamming (a frequent occurrence), although no one ever seems to run out of bullets.
“Wings” also depicts how dogfighting was hardly the epicenter of aerial combat. Attacks on ground targets are frequent, plus one thrilling sequence where Jack and David raid some zeppelins that were used effectively to spot out enemy troop moments.
The love story is less thrilling. Mary does indeed unite with Jack, but he’s so plastered while on leave that he fails to recognize her — instead (implausibly) becoming obsessed with “lil’ bubbles” that he imagines jumping from his champagne glass into virtually every object he sees. Mary is sent packing back to the States when MPs discover her changing clothes in Jack’s room with him passed out on the bed, thinking they’ve witnessed an unsavory dalliance.
The last extended sequence is emotionally gripping, although it doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. David is shot down during a mission, crashing in German territory. Gravely wounded, he makes his way to a German airfield and steals a plane. Meanwhile, Jack, believing his friend dead, goes on a mad killing spree. Seeing David’s plane approaching, he peppers it with fire — somehow missing David’s frantic signals. After David crashes into a house, Jack lands nearby to collect a trophy and discovers he’s killed his best friend.
The moment is genuinely touching … though the final sequence after Jack returns home is somewhat maudlin and unlikely. Jack — having managed to obtain gray hair in between his mustering out and traveling to his hometown — begs forgiveness from David’s parents, giving the mother the tiny stuffed bear David carried with him as a good-luck charm. (Of course, he left it behind during his ill-fated final mission.) Having received absolution, Jack meets up with Mary and realizes he’s loved her all along.
Gary Cooper shows up for about two minutes as Cadet White, in one of his first major screen roles. It’s an electric moment, and I found his more naturalistic acting style in sharp contrast to the stiff antics of Rogers and Arlen.
I very much enjoyed “Wings,” even as I realized it was a product of its time. Perhaps the time is now right for a remake?
It was thought for many years that “Wings” had been lost to the ages, but a negative was found and restored. The film is being released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time tomorrow, Jan. 24. It’s a first-class restoration. They even used different film stocks for the day and night scenes, with sepia for the former and a bluish tint for nighttime.
In addition to the musical score, the soundtrack also includes a number of sound effects — plane engines, machine guns firing, cannon explosions and so forth. These were actually played during the film’s initial release using then-new technology.
The filmmakers also hand-tinted frames to show planes plummeting to earth in flames. The effect is rather primitive, but lends a great deal of authenticity to the air combat.