1929: Wings

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures
  • Year Released: 1927
  • Directed by: William A. Wellmen
  • Starring: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen
  • Expect to Pay: $10-20

Let’s just get this out of the way so it isn’t dangling over the rest of this review: the story of Wings is hokey, overly-sentimental and arguably a cliché-ridden mess. It is a story that audiences had seen plenty of times by 1927, and to a modern audience, it may induce more than a few groans. There’s a small-town American boy who becomes a hero, a girl-next-door lover who he doesn’t notice and a rich rival that becomes his friend. There’s loss, there’s one-dimensional comic relief and plenty of things that go boom. So, with all of the plot’s problems, why do I still give Wings my highest recommendation? Through the use of high-budget special effects, a whole lot of heart, and excellent cinematography, it presents these tropes in a way that creates ideal film escapism with a twinge of realism.

The story of Wings follows two American boys named John Powell (“Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). They both are in love with a woman from the city named Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). They compete bitterly for her affection, while John’s next-door neighbor Mary (Clara Bow) can’t quite seem to work up the courage to tell John how she feels. Then the Great War comes and all of them enlist, with David and John joining the Army Air Corps., and Mary becoming an ambulance driver later.

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John and Mary, both gearheads, bonding over their car.

At boot camp, John and David put aside their rivalry and become fast friends and if by now that you haven’t suspected that this is going to end badly for someone involved, I have got bad news for you. In addition to the setup being trite, the logistics of some of the story’s events are suspect. The fact that Mary was attached to John and David’s unit is such a coincidence that it borders on being unbelievable. Later on, when John gets some R&R in Paris, she appears there and tries to convince John that he’s the only one for her. She gets put into a compromising position and is sent straight back to America. It’s as if the screenwriters said, “Okay, we got her in for the necessary T and A so audiences will stay interested. Now let’s get her out of here so we can build up for the inevitable tragedy at the climax!” Speaking of the climax (which I won’t spoil), is it ever contrived. It culminates with an easy-to-predict speech that leads into a saccharine, over-long ending.

WINGS, classic DVD
This scene does not happen in the film.

With all of that said, it must seem like I hate this movie, but this is not so. Wings, the only silent film to win Best Picture until The Artist, is a cinematic marvel that took many risks that payed off. The director, William Wellman, employs all kinds of groundbreaking techniques, from double exposure to extreme closeups to aerial shots to sweeping land battles. It also moved the production value of Hollywood forward. Where most films in the 1920s took about a month to shoot, Wings spent nine months in production and cost $2 million to create. All of the battle scenes were filmed around San Antonio, Texas. Over 300 pilots provided the aerial stunts and some 3,500 extras were brought in to play infantrymen. Planes were loaned out by the Army Air Corps., and the trenches and barbed wire were real. Another thing that was also real was the controversy surrounding Wings’ content.

I was not kidding earlier about Clara Bow being there solely for a little bit of sex appeal. In the aforementioned Paris scene, Clara Bow’s breasts are briefly exposed to the camera. Wings was one of the first mainstream films to depict nudity of any kind. John’s drunkenness is also real, as Rogers was not used to alcohol at the time. On top of that, there is a man-on-man kiss on the lips in the film (though it is not romantic or erotic in any sense of the word). Indeed, Wings was the first films to show men kissing.

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Clara Bow was the influence for Michael Fleischer’s cartoon character, Betty Boop. Image Courtesy of Pinterest.

Wings also came out a good time. It was released right after Lindberg’s transatlantic flight. The public became fascinated with planes. With that fascination and the controversy around its content, Wings would have been a success no matter what. They didn’t need to go for spectacle. But they did. And boy, what a show. Wings has some of the best choreographed action scenes in film history. While the movie’s premise and story are heavily romanticized, the action scenes are soberingly realistic.

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Image Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

I really felt the flow of battle as the armies pushed and grappled with each other, sometimes for a good twenty minutes of screen time. Sometimes, it was difficult to tell if I was looking at film stock fromWorld War I or not. The flight scenes are equally superb, and set a standard for aviation films that in some ways has never been surpassed. These planes move with delicacy and grace while also packing a lot of sting. The first-person perspective used for some of these scenes really helped with that feeling. No doubt these flight scenes would prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, who would in turn influence George Lucas when he shot his own dogfights in Star Wars. What this produces is a contrast that makes the more tragic elements of the plot hit even harder than I expected.

But while the film often is shot in broad, bold strokes, it also hashints of subtlety in its quieter moments, such as when a cigarette is snuffed out or when a plane propeller stops moving when someone dies. And yes, while I dislike the plot overall, I still wound up enjoying the story in spite of myself because all the tropes were acted out so nicely. Clara Bow, when the script gives her something to do, is great. Rogers and Arlen are both extremely likable and their chemistry as friends is believable and worthy of investment. For those interested in such things, look out for a young Gary Cooper in one of his first roles as Cadet White. Blink and you’ll miss him. The best performance however, comes from Julia Swayne Gordon as Mrs. Anderson, whose face at her son asking for his Teddy Bear before leaving for war had me choking back tears. It was enough to make me forget about how melodramatic the whole plot is.

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Image Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Indeed, that’s the best way to describe Wings: melodramatic. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s emotional, it’s cheesy, it has plenty of things that explode, it has romance and it has an ending where there’s a kiss that leaves you feeling like everything is going to be okay. In short, it’s the quintessential Hollywood blockbuster and escapism at its finest. I can’t recommend it enough. This time, the Academy was right.

Now, the second and third Academy Awards are interesting in that they both happened in the same year, 1930. This is due to the Academy moving the date of the Awards around to better fit in with the eligibility period at the time. So 1930 is the only year where two Best Picture winners were chosen. Next time, I’ll be taking a look at the first winner, The Broadway Melody. See you then.

Order Wings here

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