Starring: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arden
Director: William Wellman
Wings has the distinction of being the first film to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Well, technically, it won the award for Outstanding Picture, Production. There was a second award given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans for Unique and Artistic Production. I’m not sure how they made the distinction back in 1929 when they awarded the statuettes. But, for all intents and purposes, Wings is considered the first film to win best picture. Thus, casting Sunrise into obscurity or some horrible fate unknown to all mankind.
Sunrise has been released on DVD and is readily available to add to your Netflix queue. Which is something that cannot be said for Wings.
And thus, I hit my first speed bump in this project. It’s quite an interesting speed bump as well. Wings is not available on DVD. The film was released on VHS some years ago. But, VHS involves way too many steps of frustration, including digging the VCR out of the closet with hopes that it might still work.
I did, however, find a solution that worked well. Some kind individual uploaded the film to YouTube. Sure, I had to watch the film in ten-minute increments. But, I was able to watch on my television, courtesy of Apple TV.
Let’s hear it for modern technology. Huzzah and all that.
Not to sound like a slack-jawed yokel, but I’m pretty amazed at what technology was available in 1927 when Wings was released.
Not only was Wings the first movie to win best picture, but it also holds the distinction of being the only silent film to win the honor. Sound on film was introduced the same year with The Jazz Singer, but it was still solely a gimmick. The fact that everyone involved with Wings was able to tell a cohesive, compelling story for 141 minutes without the help of dialogue is quite a feat. But, in retrospect, the film business was a couple of decades old at this time and they had this story telling deal down pat by now. Wings is just a culmination of it all.
It will be interesting to see what the addition of sound mean to the business when I watch the next couple of films. Interesting enough, the next film on the list to watch (The Broadway Melody) is a musical. This whole singin’ and dancin’ thing really benefitted from the addition of sound. But, was it just a novel concept? We’ll see.
Wings definitely benefitted from the crazes of the times as well. One of the reasons cited for its success is that Charles Lindbergh had, months earlier, completed the first solo transatlantic flight. Thus, the film itself was swept up in the public’s recently found obsession with aviation.
And, audiences were not disappointed to when they flocked to the theaters.
The film is about two men – the brash Jack and the cool-headed, affable Dave – who are in love with the same woman. Sylvia loves Dave, but Jack is in love with her as well. To complicate matters, Mary is madly in love with Jack. But, Jack won’t give her the time of day because he’s hung up on Sylvia.
Seriously, Jack… Mary is played by Clara Bow. The It Girl. If you don’t know what that means, ask your grandparents. Suffice to say, Jack is one dumb dude.
All grow up in Small Town America, but when the United States enters the war, Jack and Dave enlist to become pilots. They eventually find themselves fighting the Germans in aerial combat.
This is where the film kicks in. The brilliance of the filmmakers comes out in the various camera angles and multiple edits that keep the action moving. Cameras were mounted on the front of the planes, pointing straight at the pilots. This gave the audience the straight on view of the pilots themselves. It also proves to the viewer that the actors actually were flying the planes. They were definitely not put in front of screens in mock airplanes, pretending to fly.
What is also astonishing is that the amount of blood and carnage shown on screen. When pilots are shot, blood runs down their faces. The culmination of the movie involves the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and involves mustard gas; a soldier being run over by a tank; soldiers being slaughtered by machine guns (some at the hands of Jack); and a blind soldier being guided through the battlefield by his sighted, injured companion riding piggyback.
There is also scene that involves Clara Bow’s side boob.
It’s no surprise that this movie is a pre-Hayes Code film. The unfortunate thing is that it would take some time for movies to get this realistic again once the code is enforced.
Ultimately what drives the film is humanity and our basic needs. It’s the sadness expressed by Dave’s mother and father as he says goodbye to them before going off to war. It’s his farewell to his dog and the emotion he expresses. It’s Mary’s tenacity and devil-may-care attitude about life, coupled with her unrequited love for Jack. It’s also the tragic end, giving Jack the realization about what’s important in life.
We may have come a long way in 84 years, but we’re still human.
I cannot recommend this movie enough.
Next up: The Broadway Melody of 1929
Also, if you’re interested, watch Wings on YouTube here.