Through out my movie-watching career, I have only seen a handful of silent films. To be perfectly honest, I feel like watching a silent film puts my artistic stamina to the test. I wish I could say the silent films I’ve watched were enriching, cultural experiences. However, any enjoyment I’ve reaped from a silent film has been more for the time-capsule novelty aspect it offers. And like all novelties, they expire quickly and lose that appeal.
But in the spirit of this blog, I decided to scrub the present of any past prejudices before watching “Wings,” the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1927/1928. (In those days it was referred to as “Outstanding Picture.” The term “Oscar” wouldn’t be officially coined until years later.) The film is certainly worthy of holding this distinction, as it has all the hallmarks of a Best Picture film: It’s a sweeping war epic propped up by romantic adventure. The visuals are vast and ambitious. The performances are intense and forceful; which are all traits that have popped up time and again in succeeding Best Picture champs.
Directed by William Wellman, the film stars Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and features a cameo by a then unknown actor named Gary Cooper. Arlen and Rogers’ characters scrap over their shared affections for the tempting Sylvia Lewis who “had an advantage over the small-town girls. She was a visitor from the city.” However, they soon put their bickering aside and form a brotherly bond as WWI fighter pilots, flying dangerous missions together against the Germans.
Silent film superstar Clara Bow plays the sweet girl next door to Buddy Rogers who does her darndest to pivot his attentions in her direction. It made me wonder if the genesis for the term “girl next door” is rooted in this film. As Mary Preston, Bow embodies many of the adjectives that have come to illustrate those girl-next-door qualities. As one of the biggest box office draws of the day, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think Bow inspired some journalist or producer to coin the phrase. After all, she found fame playing a plucky shop girl in a film called “It,” which led to her being nicknamed “The It Girl."
Anyway, to watch a movie as old as “Wings” can be a somewhat tricky affair because it poses a challenge to not automatically, and unconsciously, compare it to its contemporary counterparts. Of course it isn’t going to stack up against a modern war film like “Saving Private Ryan.” But it feels almost reactionary to make that kind of comparison, which makes it’s easy to dismiss it as a primitive and cliché piece of work. Without music or dialogue, silent films present narratives in a somewhat different language, which requires more effort to understand. In attempting to make that effort, I think I came to appreciate “Wings” as a clever and admirable achievement.
I’m no historian on the topic, but in 1927 I doubt most audiences had ever flown in an airplane, given the youthfulness of the aviation industry. It seems plausible that aviation of any kind was primarily accessible to the wealthy or members of the military. In fact, Charles Lindberg had only made his famous transatlantic flight just prior to the film’s release; reinforcing a notion that aviation belonged to heroes and not the masses. Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that “Wings” became the first film focused on the war in the skies, which presented a variety of difficulties and dangers for the filmmakers. In filming the dog fights scenes, cameraman Harry Perry devised innovative techniques by strapping the cameras to the cockpits in order to film the pilots and airplanes as they skimmed past one another.
Given the limitations of special effects in that time, options for manufactured spectacle were few, particularly in filming the dog fight sequences. Essentially, what transpired on screen in “Wings” was the real deal. Thus, at times the actors were required to fly their own airplanes, which posed a major challenge, particularly for Buddy Rogers. Not only did he not have any experience in the air, but each time he was wheels down between takes, Rogers would throw up before doing another round. All in all, it was estimated that he logged nearly 100 hours in the air. I just hope somebody at least offered him a Tums or something.
|Charles "Buddy" Rogers|
However, great visuals alone don’t make a great film, and “Wings” is no different in that regard. Despite its lack of sound, I would wager to guess the story elicited a lot of noise from audiences due to some compelling moments and a tragic twist in the film’s climax. But I don’t think “Wings” stakes its claim solely on entertaining ground because it does attempt to consider the effects of war on the individual and their ability to resume a normal life.
Apart from being the first war picture in the skies, “Wings” is also apparently one of the first widely released films to feature nudity. At one point in the film, Clara Bow is in a Parisian hotel room changing outfits when some men burst through her door at the precise moment she is fastening up her blouse. Although just a fleeting wardrobe malfunction that would hardly go noticed by today’s standards, I have to honestly say it was still a little bit shocking. I suppose it has to do with this sense that all entertainment “back then” was so much more buttoned up, which I think creates a rigid set of expectations. In that context, I think even the briefest nude image has this power to completely pierce your sensibilities and deliver a shock well beyond what it should be capable of.
“Wings” is often referred to as the last great silent film, which is probably true as talkies were already nipping on the heels of their silent counterparts. Despite my earlier admission of not being particularly fond of silent films, I would enthusiastically recommend “Wings,” especially if you have an interest in history and WWI. In terms of detail and depiction of those events, I think “Wings” can lay claim to an authority that modern films can’t, due to the fact The Great War had recently occurred. In that light, “Wings” continues to soar as a film worth viewing.
Favorite Line: Given that “Wings” is a silent film, there weren’t exactly any lines to choose from. So my favorite title card from this film is “Mary Preston had always lived next door. Once Jack had picked her out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it."