Popcorn. Movie candy. A darkened room. A wide-screen TV.
I could say “Lights! Camera! Action!” But I won’t.
What I will say (er, write) echos the beginning of Charles Dicken’s classic book, A Christmas Carol:
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
The parallel to the 1927 movie Wings is this:
There is no doubt that movies in the 1920s were silent. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
By that, I mean to fully understand and appreciate Wings one must keep in mind that this movie was made during the Silent Era of Hollywood and judge its merits on two levels: (1) As a movie (does it hold up? is it made well? is it interesting?), and (2) As a moment in time.
Director – William A. Wellman
Story by – John Monk Saunders
Screen play by – Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton
Photographed by – Harry Perry
Titles by – Julian Johnson
Mary Preston……………Clara Bow
Jack Powell………………Charles Rogers
David Armstrong………Richard Arlen
Sylvia Lewis……………..Jobyna Ralston
El Brendel………Richard Tucker………Gary Gooper
Gunboat Smith……..Henry B. Walthall………Roscoe Karns
Julia Swayne Gordon…….. Arlett Marchal
The movie opens with Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) lying on the ground, daydreaming about being a pilot in the days shortly before World War I. A few minutes later, neighbor girl Mary Preston (Clara Bow) enters the scene. Mary is nuts for Jack.
Jack, however, only has eyes for Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Unfortunately, Sylvia is hot for David (Richard Arlen).
Some things never change.
Forget what you think you know about silent movies. This is not your typical low-budget, flickering-light, pancake white-faced silent movie. Wings is filmed as professionally as any movie made today.
It surprised me. In more ways than one.
For example: Two of my questions (found on The Rules page) had to do with swearing and nudity. Believe it or not, both are in this movie!
About 8:25 seconds into the film, Jack enters the Aviation Examining Station to enlist. There, in a room at the back of the main room, stands a bunch of cadets, buck naked. All you see is their butts through the open door. The door closes. But then opens again. So you don’t just see them once. You see them twice. One shot – around 8:37 into the movie – is one of the strangest I’ve ever seen: an actor in the foreground with a bare butt (from the open door and the naked cadets in the back room) clearly visible in the background. But not just visible. Seemingly cheek to cheek with the guy in the foreground!
Then, about 45 minutes into the movie – during an incredibly realistic dog fight in mid-air – Jack clearly mouths the words “son of a bitch” when his plane is sprayed with bullets from the German Fokker on his tail. I kid you not. I even backed up the movie and watched it again. Any movie-goer from that era would clearly be able to lip read…and discern what Jack said in the heat of battle.
Finally, at about 1 hour and 34 minutes in, Clara Bow is caught slipping into something more comfortable when two MPs burst into a hotel room she and Jack occupy. Forget bare butts. This time it’s Clara Bow naked from the waist up – albeit for a very brief second. Still, for that brief – glorious – second, she’s exposed. In 1927, mind you!
So, there you have it. Anyone who says Hollywood movies have deteriorated into nudity and profanity these days only need to watch the 80-year-old movie Wings.
I looked up the director (Wellman) on IMDB. His bio said:
Paramount paid Wellman $250 a week to direct Wings (1927). He also appeared one time as a stunt-pilot, flying one of the German planes that landed and rolled over. The production employed 3,500 soldiers, 65 pilots, and 165 airplanes. The massive production went over budget and over schedule due to Wellman’s perfectionism, and he came close to being fired more than once. It took a year to film Wings (1927), but when it was released, it turned out to be one of the most financially successful silent pictures ever released and helped put Gary Cooper, whom Wellman personally cast in a small role, on the path to stardom.
Yes, THE Gary Cooper is in this movie. However, he’s only it it for three minutes. He appears around the 27-minute mark as Cadet White – and dies by the 31-minute mark when his plane crashes in a training exercise.
The scenes of the pilots embroiled in dog fights are astonishingly realistic. So much so that I couldn’t say the actors weren’t really in airplanes screaming through the sky. I’ve never seen such realism in a movie. It was thrilling.
I looked up the actors to see how old they were in this film. Clara Bow (1905-1965) was 22. Gary Cooper (1901-1961) was 26. Charles Rogers (1904-1999) was 23. Richard Arlen (1900-1976) was 27. El Brendel (1890-1964) was 38. And Jobyna Ralston (1899-1967) was 28.
And how about that Clara Bow, huh?
One of my favorite movies is Somewhere In Time, the three-hanky tearjerker starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. In it, Reeve’s character (Richard Collier) becomes obsessed with a portrait of a beautiful woman (Elise McKenna, played by Seymour). Trouble is, it’s 1980 and the picture was taken in 1912. So he finds a way to go back in time to meet her.
That’s how I feel when I see pictures of Clara Bow. She fascinates me. Alluring, flirtatious, charismatic, more sensual than any actress today.
So I found her biography (Runnin’ Wild) and read it.
Like most silent-screen stars, Clara didn’t make the transition into talkies. She was born in Brooklyn and sounded it. So, when talking pictures appeared, movie-goers were able to hear her speak. And the illusion that she was a dulcet-toned little minx was shattered.
Her story reminds me of one of the best movies about the silent-screen era: Singin’ In The Rain. “I cain’t stand’im,” the silent-screen star Lina Lamont nasally intones. That was how Clara Bow sounded. And it ruined her career.
Clara Bow’s story is amazing. And tragic. A huge talent. By all accounts, a gifted, natural talent. But Hollywood exploited her, her past haunted her, and her family used her. Once one of the biggest stars Tinsel Town ever produced (indeed, she was Hollywood’s first “It” girl, the 1920s Flapper to end all Flappers), Clara Bow retired and lived in relative obscurity just six years after making Wings. She was only 28.
I can’t figure out if Wings is a comedy or a drama. The first half seems comedic. But the second half features some of the most realistic battle scenes ever filmed. Tanks crushing soldiers, bombs falling from the sky, pilots shot down and crash landing, soldiers strafed by aircraft buzzing over their heads, death, death, death – it’s all here. This almost looks like vintage newsreel footage shot in World War I. It does not look like a movie.
Although the movie is too long by at least 30 minutes, it’s still a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, it’s one of two Oscar-winning movies not released in the United States, the other movie being Cavalcade. Both are available as import-only DVDs through Amazon. But be careful that your DVD player can play them; they may not be coded Region 1.) I’ve seen a few silent movies. They pale in comparison to Wings, the first Academy Award-winning movie, and the only silent movie to be so lauded.
Oh, and did I mention Clara Bow?