#415) Wings (1927)
OR “1917: The Multi-Take Version”
Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. Story by John Monk Saunders.
Class of 1997
The Plot: After the outbreak of World War I, small town boys-next-door Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) enlist in the United States Air Service. David leaves behind the beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), but Jack also vies for her affection, completely unaware that Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with him. After basic training, Jack and David fly several missions, while Mary enlists as an ambulance driver. There’s plenty of love triangle complications to be had here, as well as some of the most amazing aerial footage ever preserved on film.
Why It Matters: While the NFR admits that “Wings” is “[s]hort on story but long on action”, their write-up is a tribute to the film’s “[d]azzling aerobatic dogfights”. An essay by film historian/curator Dino Everett also praises the film’s technical accomplishments.
But Does It Really?: The cultural significance of “Wings” has always seemed trivial to me: it’s the first Best Picture Oscar winner. But after viewing “Wings”, I can say that the film has a lot more going for it. The plot’s a bit thin, but the action-packed aerial sequences more than make up for any shortcomings. “Wings” was a technical innovation in its day, and those effects (as well as the film in general) hold up remarkably well 90 years later. “Wings” deserves a second look, as well as its place in the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Of the main cast, Richard Arlen actually served as a pilot in Canada’s Royal Flying Corps during WWI, though he did not see combat. Arlen met Jobyna Ralston on the set of “Wings”, and the two married shortly after production wrapped.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Wings” premiered in August 1927 and was second only to “The Jazz Singer” at the box office. In February 1929, the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted “Wings” the winner for their Academy Award. The first ceremony was held that May, where “Wings” won Outstanding Picture and Best Engineering Effects. Still fine-tuning their new award, AMPAS eliminated Engineering Effects the following year, and merged Outstanding Picture with Best Unique and Artistic Picture (won by “Sunrise”) to create the Best Picture category. “Wings” was retroactively declared the first Best Picture winner, cementing its legacy in Hollywood history.
- First of all, shoutout to the team behind the 2012 restoration. In addition to an incredible picture restoration, this print rerecorded the original J.S. Zamecnik score, and recreated the Handschiegl color process, used here to colorize the flames when a plane is shot down. This restoration helps a modern viewer appreciate the epic scale of the original release.
- Clara Bow’s part was essentially shoehorned into Wings, as Paramount insisted on their biggest star being in their most expensive film. As Bow herself put it, “I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.” It helps that Clara Bow has that certain…quality about her. I don’t know how to describe…that quality.
- I get the everyman appeal of Charles “Buddy” Rogers, promoted at the time as “America’s Boy Friend”. To badly paraphrase, he doesn’t need dialogue, he has faces.
- The film’s comic relief comes in the form of vaudeville performer El Brendel as Herman Schwimpf, the German-American recruit who constantly has to prove his loyalty to America because of his name. Good thing we don’t do that anymore…
- And here comes Gary Cooper in his breakout film role as Cadet White. I can’t wait to see young Gary’s star power in full….and he’s dead. What a waste.
- What can I say except that the dogfight scenes in this movie are amazing. Director William Wellman was hired for the film thanks to his flying experience in WWI, and his expertise really shines through. He even revolutionized filmmaking when he had cameras mounted onto the plane to capture closeups of the pilots mid-flight!
- The film’s action sequences were filmed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas with assistance from the War Department. Wellman insisted on perfect weather conditions for shooting, leading to production delays. At a time when most movies were shot in a month, principal photography for “Wings” lasted seven months.
- For the record, a Fokker is an aircraft manufacturer that began in Germany just before WWI. Nothing else.
- “Wings” has two moments of pre-Code nudity! Blink and you’ll miss some male rear ends as Jack enlists in the Air Service, but the film’s most famous example is a brief shot of a topless Clara Bow as Mary is caught changing back into her uniform. No wonder this movie won Best Picture.
- The random doughboy who cheers on Jack during the climactic battle isn’t so random after all: it’s director William Wellman. Wellman’s wife Margery Chapin and daughter Gloria appear as the mother and child whose house is crashed into.
- In addition to all its other claims to fame, “Wings” also contains what is purported to be the first on-screen kiss between two men. It’s definitely not in a homosexual context, but it’s still there.
- The film’s stance on war is a bit muddled. Ultimately, the French soldier says it best: “C’est la guerre”. War isn’t hell, it’s just war. A bit down the middle, but the more extreme stance of “All Quiet on the Western Front” was still three years away.
- “Wings” was considered a lost film, until a print was discovered by a Paris archive in 1992. This, however, conflicts with a recorded screening of the film that occurred at the Mary Pickford Theater in 1987. Any leads on this one?
- “Wings” still gets its share of references, primarily every year at the Oscars when previous Best Picture winners get their shout out.
- Here’s a weird one: Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen appeared as themselves in connection to “Wings” on two separate sitcoms in the late 1960s. A 1967 episode of “The Lucy Show” features the two in a musical revue about pilots with Lucy and guest star Carol Burnett, while a 1968 “Petticoat Junction” has them attend the Junction’s premiere of “Wings” 40 years after the fact. The latter episode includes footage from the film.
- Hmmm, do I go for the Paul McCartney reference or the NBC sitcom reference? “Maybe I’m Amazed” is great, but I’m opting to end this post with some vintage Tony Shalhoub!