Wings (1927) Director: William A. Wellman
The year is 1929, the place is the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where the first Academy Awards ceremony is underway. Inaugural emcee Douglas Fairbanks calmly distributes the first award for Best Picture, he hands it directly to the scandalous “It Girl,” Clara Bow, who accepts the award on behalf of the whole crew involved in making the silent war epic, Wings. These were the circumstances in which Wings won Best Picture. The ceremony was humble, even quiet, the speeches were minimal, and the mood was optimistic. By all accounts this was a far simpler ceremony than the carnival-esque indulgent extravaganzas we have become accustomed to these days. At the time, the cinematic world was seated upon the precipice of a gargantuan change –the shift from silent movies to talkies. Interestingly enough, Wings was the only silent film to win Best Picture prior to 2011’s The Artist (awarded in 2012), however Wings remains the only film from the true silent era to claim the top award. While often overlooked today, Wings was a mammoth undertaking at the time. Hundreds of extras were involved in filming, all of whom were supervised by experienced World War I military officers, along with a cohort of 300 U.S. Air Corps pilots and actual warplanes were used for the spectacular aerial scenes. The film’s production team clearly took its cues from the successful earlier war epic The Big Parade (1925).
Forever overshadowed by All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Wings is nevertheless an undeniable film. It is stands alone as the first Oscar-winner for Best Picture, though in my opinion this honor could have easily been bestowed upon F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (which actually won a one-time Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, a prize which has been since discontinued). Nevertheless, the grandeur of Wings exists in its lengthy high-flying aerial acrobatic scenes coupled with impressive camera handling in order to capture the myriad of extraordinary stunts. In watching Wings for the first time I was utterly struck by these extraordinary technical achievements –tracking shots, long panning angles, and high-flying cinematography showing planes soaring over vast valleys and fields. I can only imagine how death-defying stunts like these in Wings might have dazzled early 20th century audiences –bringing them closer to the more recent events of the “Great War.” Wings also launched a number of Hollywood stars, such as Gary Cooper, as well as Clara Bow, who was forever cemented as the “It Girl” (feel free to click here to read my review of Clara Bow in 1927’s It). She was apparently unhappy with her role in Wings, lamenting that it is little more than a “man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie.” She was also engaged to Victor Fleming at the time of filming, but that didn’t stop her from having a torrid affair with co-star Gary Cooper. Amidst all the drama and stress of Hollywood, this was to prove Clara Bow’s last major film before she had a nervous breakdown and retired to a Nevada ranch to raise a family. Wings also stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, both of whom performed their owns stunts (Mr. Arlen was actually a World War I veteran). Amazingly, only two stunt accidents occurred on set, one of which was sadly the fatal crash of a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot.
Dedicated to “those young warriors of the sky whose wings are folded about them forever,” Wings follows the intertwined rivalry of small-town friends Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) as they enlist in the the Air Force during World War I. However, both Jack and David fall madly in love with a pretty girl named Sylvia Lewis, while another girl –a close friend and “girl next door” named Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is tragically in love with the oblivious Jack. Together, Jack and Mary come up with a name for Jack’s automobile he built called the “shooting star” after Mary draws a star on it. When the United States enters World War I, both men are sent away. Jack pays a visit to Sylvia who offers him a picture to carry with him, but secretly, her heart belongs to David.
In training, Jack and David share a tent with Cadet White (Gary Cooper) who tragically dies in an air crash. After completing their training, both Jack and David become close and they are shipped off together to France to fight the Germans. Meanwhile, Mary works as an ambulance driver and overhears that Jack has garnered a reputation as “The Shooting Star” for his skilled piloting. One evening she spots him on leave in Paris. She tries to approach, but soon learns that he is drunk with his friend along with a loose woman. In truth, the actor Rogers was drunk during this scene as he was only 22 and had never tasted alcohol before. At any rate, Mary convinces Jack to go home where she puts him to bed. Although nothing immoral occurs, while changing back into her ambulance uniform, a band of military police barge into the room and force Mary to resign her position in disrepute.
The apex of the film occurs at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. David’s plane is shot down and he is believed dead. However, he survives and escapes from the Germans while running through the forest. Soon, he recovers and steals a German plane in the hopes of crossing back over the allied line. Tragically, Jack spots the plane and believes it to be a lone German plane on the attack. In a poetic twist of fate, Jack shoots down the German plane piloted by his old rival David.
On the ground, Jack realizes his error and embraces his dying comrade as they share the first on-screen same-sex kiss (much has been made of this moment, though it is clearly platonic). Jack is forced to return home where he is celebrated as a hero. He visits David’s family to beg forgiveness but they do not blame him. Instead, they all lament the evils of war. Jack is reunited with Mary and in the end he realizes his true love for her. It is a bittersweet conclusion.
The studio executives at the Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be Paramount Pictures) were unsure of this bloated, untimely production, and antipathy toward director “Wild Bill” Wellman was high (so much so, in fact, that he was not invited to the film’s premiere, nor to the first Academy Awards ceremony where his film won Best Picture). The story was based on the writings of John Monk Saunders, an aviation instructor during the war who inspired the film. During production, Wings had run over-budget, it was delayed, and the air corps threatened to withdraw their support if one more plane was destroyed in its production. Nevertheless, Wings quickly became a public sensation upon its release, especially considering the public’s infatuation with Charles Lindbergh and the newfound fascination with aviation at the time.