Consider it coincidence that I post my look at Wings (1927), the first ever Best Picture winner back at the 1929 Academy Awards, on the morning leading into the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Perhaps not that great a coincidence since my recent recording of William Wellman's aerial spectacular came courtesy of TCM's 31 Days of Oscar February 2011 programming. And while I did start writing this a little over a week ago you can bet I did push myself to post it prior to the Oscars!
But I'm not so much concerned over this silent classic's Award for Best Picture as I am in what actually goes on in the film, especially as a fan of both Wellman and Clara Bow. I thought the best summary of what Wings actually is came from a parenthetical aside in the Flapper section of Jeanine Basinger's Silent Stars where she writes "It's an epic war movie enclosing a small Clara Bow movie" (441).
Bingo, Miss Basinger, though to be specific it's really Wellman's spectacularly filmed air battle scenes that steal the show. Just 30 years old when he was handed the project by Paramount producer B.P. Schulberg, Wellman himself explains how he landed the assignment in Kevin Brownlow's classic, The Parade's Gone By...
"They gave me Wings because I was the only director who had been a flyer, in action. I was the only one who knew what the hell it was all about. That's literally the only reason--except that I had fortunately made a successful picture just before that, You Never Know Women ... (174).
Lucky for us! Tie Wings' action together with the story of the friendship between Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and toss in the energetic as always Bow as Mary Preston and you've got a pretty entertaining package. The effects are still rousing and Bow fans will continue to wish for even more Clara Bow, if anything it's the relationship between Jack and David which has grown a bit cornball over time, a shame since it is clearly meant to be the most important aspect of Wings.
Wings opens with a just long enough introduction to our main characters on the home-front, 1917. Jack Powell (Rogers) is a fresh-faced youngster customizing his Ford with the help of cute neighbor girl Mary Preston (Bow), who christens the remodeled vehicle by painting a shooting star on its side and giving it the same name. Mary tells Jack that when a fella sees a shooting star he has the right to kiss the girl he loves to which Jack responds by speeding off to Sylvia Lewis' (Jobyna Ralston) place leaving poor Mary primping herself up for a kiss which doesn't come.
Doe-eyed Sylvia seems chronically depressed every time we see her because, I guess, Jack's affections put her off and she's actually in love with well-to-do David Armstrong (Arlen). But Jack is such a ball of energy that I get the idea that Sylvia just hasn't found more than a second to set him straight, as is the case this first time we see them all together and David gentlemanly stands by while Jack whisks Sylvia away with his enthusiasm and the Shooting Star.
You caught the year, didn't you? 1917, war is here, and our boys, Jack and David, are soon off to serve. We see David say goodbye to his parents, played by experienced silent stalwarts Julia Swayne Gordon and Henry B. Walthall. David spots a little stuffed bear that was his as a child and asks his parents permission to take it with him off to war as a good luck charm. Unfortunately their sad faces and insistence on its return are kind of a tell for how David's story is going to turn out, but we have a good two hours of action before we reach that point and so it doesn't really serve to spoil Wings in the least.
Meanwhile Jack breaks in on Sylvia to say goodbye to her just as she was signing the back of a photo intended as a keepsake for David. Jack spots the photo and naturally assumes it's meant for him so he spouts his love for Sylvia while David appears outside to overhear the scene. Then Jack heads home to say goodbye to Mary in much more reserved fashion, though he's obviously touched when the kid offers him her photo as well. Meanwhile Sylvia swears to David that it's him who she loves, but Jack was so swept up in the moment that she didn't want to break his heart on the eve of his going off to war.
In training camp the boys come to fisticuffs over Sylvia but earn each others respect after a bit of a knock-down, drag-out battle, forging a friendship which, as previously mentioned, is the central focus of Wings. We meet other characters while we're still on the ground including the unfortunately named Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel) who's forced to prove his patriotism by the constant unveiling of an American flag tattoo on his bicep which waves as he flexes the muscle. Usually Schwimpf gets himself knocked to the ground by a Hun-hating American before he's allowed to unveil this loyalty piece.
We also meet, in a far briefer than expected turn, a grizzled youngster full of calm and confidence, Cadet White, played by a startlingly young Gary Cooper. I'm sure you've seen the images of Cooper in Wings before, but if you haven't, don't blink, because I swear if you just get up to refill your drink you're going to miss him. I knew Cooper only had a small role in Wings, but I wasn't aware that it was a single scene about two minutes in length. Anyway, despite being about the same age as our two main boys, Cooper's White towers over them as a man, as an example of what these babyfaced youths yearn to become. That quick he's gone.
While the relationship between the Arlen and Rogers characters is the main story inside Wings, the air battles are the unabashed scene stealing star of this show. Often filmed at too great a distance to look like much more than a flea circus on my TV, it's easy to imagine how spectacular these battles would appear opened up wide on the big screen. While the comforts of my couch likely cost me the best part of Wings, there were many tense close-ups of our stars mumbling curses and gritting their teeth in battle supplemented by enough cuts to enemy planes exploding into flames and nosediving to the ground to supply my home body with plenty of action. Though despite all the glories of the air, from my seat the most gripping of the war scenes actually took place on the ground where the trench warfare immediately brought to mind the later Paths of Glory (1957), though this cruder battle in Wings actually seems more vicious.
One of the more interesting moments in Wings comes midway through the film when after Jack and David are deemed Aces they earn their leave and take off to relax at the Folies Bergere in Paris, where men went to forget war. The scene is largely an excuse to bring top-billed Clara Bow back into the picture, as she had enlisted with the Women's Motor Transport Corps, and had become aware of Jack's being in the area.
When she goes to the club to reunite with her hometown love she discovers him practically falling down drunk in the arms of a local Parisian. Jack slams his Champagne glass onto the table and sees a number of bubbles float upward from it. Pretty soon the effect is being used to have him see bubbles everywhere, so many in fact that he decides to select his companion for the evening by virtue of which woman elicits the best bubbles.
Well, Clara Bow isn't giving off any bubbles in her sobering uniform and so she takes to the powder room in tears where an older women decides to sex her up some with one of the dancers' gowns. Back at the table Celeste (Arlette Marchal) has just about won Jack over by being so bubbly, but when Mary returns look out--it's the It Girl on the loose and the bubbles are even floating out of her eyes which seals the deal for Jack. Mind you Jack is way too drunk to realize that the sex pot he stumbles off with is sweet little Mary from home so luckily for Mary's virtue he passes out soon after they reach their room.
Tucking in Jack tenderly as his flesh and blood guardian angel, Mary spots the locket he wears and smiles warmly assuming it hold the photo she gave him of her. But popping it open she sees Sylvia staring back at her and breaks into tears at the idea of Jack never even thinking of her during this time. Still it's war and so after some additional time spent caressing her fallen hero, who's totally out cold, she moves behind a dressing screen to change from her borrowed gown back into her uniform with hopes of slipping away without being noticed. But the door springs open as she's changing and a superior officer leers at half-naked Mary while scolding her for corrupting a fellow soldier who's obviously had too much to drink. Mary soon goes home, her suspect morals forcing her to resign from the military.
The war rages on for the boys with a disagreement over Sylvia threatening to separate them and a mistake in battle bringing them together for one final heartfelt scene which assures the viewers that a little spat over a girl wasn't going to tear our pals apart when the chips are down. As Wings culminates Wellman seems to deliver two messages: 1) War is not worth the waste of life, and 2) The glories of war unite men for all of time. All of the action and peril throughout has been meant to enhance the relationship between Jack and David, two men at odds at home, who develop an emotional intimacy during the course of service.
Once the war ends life is meant to return to normal. And so Wings ties a neat bow on the end of our 141-minute journey through 1917-19 with the start of a new romance and all of the hope which comes with love and peace.