Wings – 1927

The best parts of any journey are not the main highways, but the side-trips.  It’s not the interstate, but the odd little roads that carry you off the the concrete ribbon of predictability that make travelling worthwhile.  For me, the movie “Wings” was an exit ramp off the highway of  films nominated for the academy award for special effects and onto a Clara Bow side trip.

Wings won the Oscar for engineering effects at the first academy awards ceremony in 1929 beating out “The Jazz Singer” and “The Private Life of Helen of Troy“.  It also won the academy award for best picture at the same ceremony.

Wings tells a simple story about two young men from the same town with different backgrounds who start as rivals but end as brothers.  There is a romantic thread about one of the young men (Jack, played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers) who starts out in love with a girl who is “out of his league” but ends up finding true love with the girl next door.  Pretty standard stuff.  If you pay attention at all, you’ll be able to predict the ending after the first 5 minutes.  The aerial warfare of WWI is the setting for the story and the true star of the film.

The girl next door is none other than “It” girl, Clara Bow whose name I recognized but whose work I was previously unfamiliar with.  In her first entrance from behind a line of drying laundry, the famous flapper  frames her face with a lacy woman’s undergarment.  A simple gesture that cleverly manages to convey innocence and sexuality at the same time.

Clara Bow knew how to make a memorable entrance.

Clara Bow knew how to make a memorable entrance.

Jack comes from a middle class family while his rival, David (Richard Arlen) is the son of the wealthiest family in town.  Despite the obvious affection of the vivacious Mary, Jack is smitten by Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) who we first meet playing a lute and looking bored.   Sylvia carries a torch for David who appears equally bored with life.  Interestingly Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston met and married during the filming of this picture.

As the great war breaks out, we follow the two young airmen through training where their rivalry comes to a head in a boxing match.  Predictably, they become inseparable afterwards.  Once they get transferred to the front, the movie truly begins.  The aerial combat scenes are why this film is still watched today.  There were no green screens or rear projection systems in use here.  The actors portraying pilots learned to fly so that a rear-facing camera mounted on the front of the plane could record reactions as they flew away from  danger and destruction or were killed in battle.

From behind the pilot we see him line up the target, then a second shot records his reaction.

From behind the pilot we see him line up the target, then a second shot records his reaction.

Mary volunteers to drive a medical supply truck to help the war effort so she happens to be in Paris at the same time that Jack and David are there on leave.  She is at first shocked and upset to see jack, very drunk and in the arms of a French courtesan.  Then, in a move which I learned was classic for Clara Bow’s characters, she takes matters into her own hands.  Through a mixture of luck, wile, feminine charm, and, lets face it, balls, she manages to borrow a slinky dress and wrest Jack away from the other woman.  All the while her true identity is unknown to the very inebriated Jack.  When she gets Jack up to a room, she innocently tucks him into bed.  Then, while changing back into her uniform, she gets caught by the MPs who misread the situation, assume the worst, and send hapless Mary back stateside.  All this happens while Jack snores obliviously.

Jack and David enjoy a leave in Paris before the big invasion.

Jack and David enjoy some feminine company during a leave in Paris before the big invasion.

The next morning, we see the coordinated assault on German forces using infantry, armored vehicles, artillery, and, of course, airplanes.  This spectacle amazed viewers and impressed WWI war veterans with its realism.  The filming used thousands of military personnel as extras and required precision timing in the use of pyrotechnics and movements of men and machinery.   Despite the enormous undertaking, relatively few accidents occurred during filming.  Director William A. Wellman was chosen to direct because of his WWI flying experience.

Wings featured a vast and unprecedented depiction of modern warfare.

Wings featured a vast and unprecedented depiction of modern warfare.

In the story, David is shot down by a German plane and is presumed to be killed.  Jack then goes on an aerial berserker rampage, killing every enemy he can find.  We see that David was not killed but, down behind enemy lines, he manages to steal a German plane and fly towards allied forces.  Jack spots David’s German  plane and unknowingly shoots his friend down.  There is a protracted death scene where Jack and David are reunited and say their goodbyes.

Stunts for the film required staged plane crashes and precision flying.

Stunts for the film required staged plane crashes and precision flying coordinated with explosions and large scale ground action.

Jack returns to his hometown where he returns Davids effects to his parents and accepts their forgiveness.  The film ends as Jack realizes that Mary, not Sylvia, is his one true love and they share a passionate fade-to-black kiss.

I watched this film on an online free site that I won’t name because the copy was very poor quality and the presentation was marred by frequent commercial interruptions.  If you intend to watch “Wings” I highly recommend you seek out the 2012 restored version on either DVD or Blue-ray.

I would highly recommend this film to WWI history buffs or fans of Clara Bow.  Chances are, if you fall into either of those two categories, you’ve already seen this film.  For everybody else, I’ll say that Wings is an amazing spectacle wrapped around a melodramatic story.  For modern viewers, the spectacle can’t hold a candle to what can be accomplished with CGI.  It is amazing because all of it is real.  The plane crashes, the aerobatics, everything, all real.

For me, the revelation was leading actress Clara Bow.  Every scene that her character (Mary) is in, the actress demands our undivided attention and she is clearly a genius at doing just that.  This lead me on a mini Clara Bow Film festival that I will share in a later blog entry.

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