What makes the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival special is the guest lineup. The screening of newly restored Wings (1927) was preceded by a discussion with A.C. Lyles, who is known as “Mr. Paramount.” Unbelievably, he has worked for the studios for 83 years. Upon seeing Wings as a ten year-old boy, he began his career as an usher and set the course for the rest of his life’s path. He made writing letters to Adolph Zukor a sport, sending them out every Sunday from his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Later he added Zukor’s secretary to the mailing list, and ultimately showed up unannounced at the Paramount lot. His persistence won him the job of an office assistant to the company founder. He never worked for any other firm.
Mr. Lyles is not the only person, whose professional life was determined by this particular movie. Some think of Wings as the film that launched Gary Cooper’s career, albeit his appearance was very brief. I must say the man was quite memorable, impossibly handsome, really. Tall, lean and melancholy in his aviator uniform, he stole the scene from the two male leads unequivocally. His role fits into the general melodrama scheme, as he shows up to make a statement in favor of fatalism, only to crash his airship minutes later. At the time the Hollywood “star system” was already well institutionalized; films became vehicles for actors, who in turn constituted a commodity to sell to audiences. Clara Bow, the original “It girl,” also starred in the film.
Aside from well-defined narrative structure and genres, the golden age of American silent cinema had some pleasing visual techniques in its tool chest. Silent era lent itself extremely well to epic long shots and bird’s eye views. Wings takes this literally to new heights – please excuse the obvious pun – with its areal battles. Not only are they the equivalent of modern-day action sequences, they are quite beautiful. I am tempted to say, forget about the Fokkers, look at the clouds! In addition to airplanes on fire, spiraling out of control, plummeting downwards, pulled by gravity, the ground battles are quite impressive. I am not certain an anti-war statement was intended, for all the sentiment of the story, in which armed conflict makes men out of boys without any irony. Nonetheless, as you watch the masses of soldiers, the machinery, the weapons move forward over the soil they had already scorched, you realize what is at the core of their effort. They are systematically creating a wasteland, where nothing can survive, including them. And, the wasteland spans the horizon in all its cinematic glory.
A joyous experience is the Folies Bergère scene, with Buddy Rogers’ character drunk on a leave in Paris, watching the world turn into bubbles. It expertly takes the audience on the leave with the flying aces, recklessly abandoning the main story line for a bit of flirtatious fun.
Wings is notable as the very first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, or as the category was then titled: “most outstanding production.” Also recognized for Engineering Effects, the aerial fights and battleground scenes were unparalleled at the time. The original budget of 1.2 million soared to 2 million, and in today’s dollars the production cost would translate into 1.5 billion, according to William Wellman, Jr., the director’s son, who came by the presentation of the newly restored movie. He quickly announced the critical distinction between him and his father: while William A. Wellman was known as “Wild Bill,” his son identifies himself as the “Mild Bill.” The explanation of the former attribute followed promptly. The director was a pilot himself, which came quite handy when instructing stuntmen. Since the aviator stunt union (The Black Cats, later Thirteen Black Cats) was in its infancy, Wellman Sr. apparently hopped into a plane to flip it over himself, when he needed to give stunt pilots a precise idea of his expectations. During his World War I engagement he had five major crashes, “so he knew how to crash a plane.”
The actors, including leading men Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, were also filmed while in the air. Arlen had also experience piloting airplanes during World War I, and Buddy Rogers was asked to take flight lessons. While professional pilots manned the biplanes as well, they ducked at the director’s instruction midflight, and the actors were asked to turn a motorized camera on themselves. They had to perform, pilot the plane and operate the camera, as long as there was film stock in the magazine – which held 400 feet of film.
Wings was truly completely silent when first released; the musical score and any sound effects were reproduced behind the movie screen in the theatre for the first two years following its release. After introduction of talkies, the film was re-released with a sound track that however did not include spoken word. The restoration of the film involved recreation of this original soundtrack by the Oscar winner Ben Burtt.
As a piece of film history, a viewing of Wings is certainly a rewarding experience. It is also remarkable to observe the evolution of societal norms and standardized behaviors, as well as shifts in language. Two adult men kissing and stroking one another’s hair would be definitely interpreted as homoerotic in the present day. Emotional connection is expressed through physical contact that modern audiences may find uncomfortably intimate, say where parents and adult children are concerned. It leaves me wondering, how much can be chalked up to the lack of sound, which necessitated dramatic gesture – and how much is to be attributed to expected behavioral patterns of the era.
One thing is certain: no matter how one-dimensional the characters are, with their one-track minds and all, the film really succeeds at creating a connection of caring between them. Undercurrent of warmth is established through simple gestures.
If you are interested in the beginnings of cinema, Wings is definitely worth your time. All 139 minutes of it.