Nether Regions 03.02.10: Wings
Posted by Chad Webb on 03.02.2010
Nether Regions continues its Oscar theme with the first of two out-of-print Best Picture winners. Here's a clue: It's not the TV show starring Thomas Haden Church...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, and Richard Arlen Directed By: William A. Wellman and Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast Written By: Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton Running Time: 138 minutes Theatrical Release Date: August 12, 1927 Missing Since: 1996 Existing Formats: VHS and bootleg DVDs if you know where to look Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rare and tough to find
Wings was the first movie ever to receive an Academy Award for Best Picture, and the only silent one to do so. Back then it was called Most Outstanding Production because the term "Best Picture" had not been coined (nor had "Oscar" for that matter). The award for Most Artistic Quality of Production went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is why you'll see the two films share the spot for official "Best Picture" victor on many lists. Make no mistake, Wings was the official winner. For many years, Wings was considered a lost film, until a surviving copy was located in the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris and copied from nitrate film to safety film stock. It was shown in theaters once again, and eventually was entered into the United States National Film Registry for the Library of Congress, but it remains a rarity to this day.
Clara Bow got top billing despite being a supporting character.
It is one of two Best Picture winners that has not received an official region 1 DVD release. Unfortunately, little to no interest has been shown to urge the studio for a DVD release. The fact that it's a silent film with stars that are not household names over 8 decades later doesn't help either. Wings was one of the last of the silent era spectacles; a big, bold, and expensive production that demanded attention. Despite the fact that the entrance of talkies were 3 months around the corner when this debuted, Wings was a smash at the box office, and remained in first-run theaters for over a year before being moved to second-run theaters. Many of the more artistic silent pictures would continue to flourish in the 1930's, but for the most part, the public would soon be focusing on efforts with sound after Wings. That did not stop William A. Wellman's $2 million blockbuster from being a hit though. The public's fascination with Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight had just occurred, so everyone was infatuated with air travel.
As popular as it once was, it is not hard to observe why Wings became almost non-existent. Many never had the chance to see it. If put under the microscope today, it would likely not be one of the more heavily praised Best Picture winners. This is a long film, clocking in at over 2 hours, but it's also easy to watch, engaging, and action-packed. The primary problem lies with how incredibly dated the whole package is, and how many blatant clichés it embraces. We have to remember that in the 20's, the lack of innovation wasn't really frowned upon nearly as much as it might be today. In the eyes of many, the years will gradually eat away at Wings because the hackneyed aspects of the story will not disappear, only grow increasingly glaring. Thankfully, Wellman and company made this with enthusiasm and heart, which in my opinion eases the story's flaws.
In a random American town, Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are vying for the affections of the same girl, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). In reality, she is fond of David, a handsome and wealthy young man, but Jack is pretty persistent, and misinterprets Sylvia's kindness as signs that she likes him. Meanwhile, Jack's next door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is totally in love with him, but he only views her as a friend. The batting of her eye lashes and extended stares are obvious, but Jack is more worried about Sylvia, and his car, which he calls "The Shooting Star."
Jack, Mary, and David enjoy each other's company.
Before long, war comes calling, and both men enter the armed forces for Aviation Examinations. They eventually become pilots, and spend a lot of time together in the same camp. Initially, they hate each other due to the shared obsession for Sylvia, but a swift brawl cures that. Jack beats the living daylights out of David, who keeps rising for more, and this toughness makes them buddies. They are an inseparable pair, protecting one another at all times, especially in the air. At the same time, Mary joins the war effort as an ambulance driver, and of course winds up near Jack and David. Anything can happen in war, and fate acts in strange ways for Jack and David.
If you've ever seen the film Catch Me if You Can, that will give you an idea of how alluring and thrill-seeking pilots were and are viewed (in case you didn't know already). That could probably be doubled back in the late 1920's. Many people were literally fanatical with flight. Houdini was one of the earliest and most outspoken, even filming a movie involving wild plane stunts. Director William A. Wellman and Paramount Pictures took advantage of this craze in full force with Wings. The majority of the action takes place in the clouds and clear blue sky, and the dogfights captured on camera were considered groundbreaking. Special effects were not exactly advanced, so much of what transpires is genuine. Richard Arlen, William Wellman, and story creator John Mark Saunders were all military aviators in World War I, so they brought this knowledge and savvy to the picture. Charles Rogers actually underwent flight training so both he and Arlen could be filmed for close-ups in the cockpit.
As exciting as the detailed and vivid battle re-enactments in the air are, the romance dilemma on the ground is a bit eye-rolling since it will become quite clear who will end up with whom, and who will fall victim to the consequences of war. Screen time and character development make most parts of the ending foreseeable. The fact that Mary enlists as an ambulance driver is fine, but planting her in the same area as Jack is contrived for any decade. One of the memorable sequences is also one of the worst of the film. During the troops' brief leave, they waste no time embarking for late night shenanigans in Paris. Sadly the "big push" memo arrives, and all soldiers are ordered back to base. Mary's list just so happens to include Jack and Dave. She finds Jack plastered out of his mind with a girl hanging over him. He sees bubbles everywhere. Yes, for some reason, his drunken stupor causes him to visualize bubbles that emanate from all objects, mainly women when he shakes them. I'm sure many of us are familiar with being intoxicated, but I doubt bubbles are a common vision. Jack is taken care of by Mary, but cannot see straight and has no clue it's her. This could have been funny, but instead it's stupid.
Jack and David each carry lucky charms along with them prior to departure for the armed services. Jack mistakenly thinks Sylvia giving him her locket indicates her love for him, but she just does it out of pity. David, stuck without the necklace, gets a small stuffed bear and puts it in his pocket. David is portrayed by Richard Arlen, a subdued person, even for a silent film. He has a tall, dark, and shady guise about him that makes him sort of an enigma throughout the story. His performance is fairly adequate, and Arlen is hardly the type of guy who would strike you as carrying a toy bear for luck, but c'est la vie. He would delay his Hollywood career to teach as a US Army Air Forces flight instructor during World War II. He would go on be in The Four Feathers in 1929 and The Island of Lost Souls, the first adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau with Charles Laughton in 1933.
Charles "Buddy" Rogers is Jack Powell, and is definitely our central hero. He is a foolish, but energetic young stud who is most comfortable and sharp in the plane. His strengths are on full display during the battle sequences. On the ground, Jack is carefree and silly, but he means well. Rogers has the most appealing turn for the men as he is in nearly all of the climactic moments and amusing scenes. The only other notable appearance by a man is a very young Gary Cooper as Cadet White. This fact has become almost as recognized as the Best Picture win.
Comparing Clara Bow and Jobyna Ralston is intriguing. Ralston is Sylvia, and looks more like a silent film star than anyone else on the cast. Bow however, stands out. She was one of the leading sex symbols of the 1920's, and an immense star who was known for her high spirits. She was also the original It girl, which was a film in 1927. The term "It Girl" would be forever used to describe a currently popular celebrity. Clara Bow's performance as Mary Preston is one of spunk, comedy, and earnestness. She dominates the screen and steals every scene she is in. Apparently Bow was unhappy with her military uniform because it did not accentuate her curves sufficiently. This prompted numerous fights with the costume staff. Ralston starred previously alongside comedian Harold Lloyd in 6 of his features. She would actually marry Richard Arlen due to meeting on the set of Wings.
Director William A. Wellman would go on to make numerous classics after Wings. Among them: The Public Enemy, A Star is Born, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe and some underrated pictures like The High and the Mighty with John Wayne and Beau Geste with Gary Cooper. He was a filmmaker that got the job done quickly, but actors absolutely hated his guts, and the feeling was mutual. He disliked male actors so intensely because of their narcissism, yet preferred them to women because they took so long to get ready for shoots. His experience as a fighter pilot and ambulance driver with the French Foreign Legion in the Lafayette Escadrille paid off with Wings despite any "behind-the-scenes" issues. Add to that the fact that World War I had only just finished 10 years before, and you'll understand why the air battles have undeniable vividness and authenticity. One action scene involved an aerial raid on a German troop train, but it was scrapped, and used later in Wellman's The Legion of the Condemned (1928).
He integrates some fancy shots in Wings. Despite its lameness, the Paris drunk sequence begins with a nifty zoom into Jack's table. Later, the audience witnesses a tank crush a soldier, and we see his point of view! Wellman injects Wings with a brisk pace and a suspenseful atmosphere regardless of the predictability of the plot and the ignorance of the romance angles. As credible and breathtaking as the dogfights are, Wellman's practicality does slip on occasion. Take for instance when David's gun jams in mid-air while a German is right on top of him. An intertitle informs us that there is chivalry in the air, thus the German spots this snafu and flies away to fight another day. Strangely, this mishap could have easily been avoided taking the ending into account. Maybe I'm nuts, but I do not think Germans were nice in these situations.
Director "Wild Bill" Wellman aiming for a shot.
Regrettably, the main film comparison for Wings is Michael Bay's dud Pearl Harbor. The stories are similar, and in fact, the set-up in Wings would be rehashed often over the next 80 years, but that does not stop it from being a lively, exhilarating, and engrossing piece of popcorn entertainment. The difference between the two rests with the faithfulness of the period and the zeal of the cast and crew. It does contain a few scenes that were controversial prior to the Hays Code taking effect. One is a brief shot of Clara Bow's breasts, another is of soldiers undergoing physical exams naked, and another is the first male-to-male kiss (a fraternal one). It is also worth mentioning that Wings was nominated for Best Effects, Engineering Effects for Roy Pomeroy.
Wings can be recommended more for its conveyance of soldier camaraderie and accurate depiction of World War I battles than it can for the love triangle. It is far from a perfect motion picture, but it is not a poor offering either. The characters do not drown in their stereotypes and the formulaic premise is augmented by a passionate filmmaker with spectacular cinematography by Harry Perry and a rousing score from J.S. Zamecnik. William Wellman Jr. authored a book about Wings and his father's contribution called The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture. It is hard to believe that Wings will go much longer without some sort of DVD release. It certainly deserves something, and it should only be a matter of time before someone realizes that and gets the job done.
So I've had to contend with being sick and dealing with the snow...again. I seriously hate the winter season and am greatly looking forward to its conclusion. During all the time I was snowed in with the fiancée, we decided to break out the complete series of The Wonder Years. I still love that show all these years later. I watched an extremely good film from 1954 called The Three Faces of Eve, which might be the best attempt at multiple personalities I've seen. There is a narrator, sort of a Robert Stack ala Unsolved Mysteries, that adds a layer of foreboding to the story, but Joanne Woodward's performance is just amazing.
The Oscars are this Sunday, and I still need to see a few, well, minor movies. I haven't caught The Messenger yet, but I can find it online somewhere, and I plan on seeing 1 or 2 more foreign film nominees before the big day. I have only seen one documentary, but it's the only one I needed to see because it is virtually guaranteed to win. Right now I'm pretty indifferent about the ceremony overall. The only thing that would change that is to see a bunch of the films I loved going home with statues. Be sure to check out the podcast this week as the fellas and I will be providing our picks in various categories.