Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: Wings (1927)
  • Standing: Best Picture Winner of 1927/28 at the first Academy Awards 1929 ceremony
  • Type: Silent, Drama, Romance, Action, War
  • Other AA Wins: Best Engineering Effects (Roy Pomeroy)
  • Director: William Wellman
  • Studio/Producer: Paramount Pictures / Famous Players-Lasky; Lucien Hubbard, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, B.P. Shulberg
  • Cast: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, Gary Cooper, El Brendel, Gunboat Smith, Arlette Marchal, (and if you look close you’ll see Hedda Hopper as the character Jack’s mom)
  • Production Notes: Based on a story by John Monk Saunders and re-written for the screen by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, Cinematography by Harry Perry, Film Editing by E. Lloyd Sheldon, Costumes by Travis Banton and Edith Head.
  • Viewing Order: 3/270
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Rogers, Bow, and Arlen in uniform

Summary & Viewing Experience:

Before they go off to fight in World War I, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are rivals for the same girl, the ultra feminine Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, Jack’s neighbor, effervescent tomboy Mary Preston (Clara Bow), pines for him openly, though he’s too infatuated with Sylvia to notice. Jack is under the impression that Sylvia desires him, but it’s really David her heart belongs to.

No love is lost between Jack and David as they their rivalry deepens throughout basic training, but after a fistfight which leaves David a bloody mess, the boys decide to kiss and make up (and quite literally do later-  one of the most memorable moments of Wingsis the onscreen kiss later in the film between the male leads). Among the other men in arms are the unfortunately named comic relief Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel) and the expendable tall drink of water Cadet White (Gary Cooper in the role that would launch his career).

The following aerial dogfight scenes are so spectacular and exciting that we almost forget about the love triangle (squarer?) storyline. But before we can, Mary arrives on the scene as an ambulance driver, her presence like an electric jolt of energy, and immediately gets herself into danger on land while the boys are doing the same in the sky. There was more than one moment where this film made me audibly gasp; I’m still in awe of how 1927 filmmakers were able to execute some of the aerial shots. I can only imagine what the reaction of 1927’s audiences were!

On leave, Mary meets up with Jack in Paris at the Folies Bergere, but he’s too drunk to know who she is. The scene is delightfully racy with its unapologetic cleavage shots, lesbian couple sharing a moment, nude statues, and a hopelessly drunk Jack whose taste for champagne prompts him to shout, “H’ray for bubbles!” as a woman tries her best to sit in his lap. All of this is witnessed by Mary who runs the gamut of emotions (this is Bow at her finest) and vows to steal her man back in a scene that is ridiculously fun, hypnotic, and full of bubbles.

Clara Bow has a tendency to walk away with most films she’s in due to her energy and range of emotion so I wasn’t surprised that she was fabulous in this role, but I have to admit I was blown away by the physical and emotional acting of both Arlen and Rogers, especially Arlen who showed enormous restraint and depth in his role as the thoughtful, intuitive David, a perfect foil to Rogers’ bright eyed, excitable Jack.

The action comes to a climax as, right before a big air battle, Jack admits to David he still loves Sylvia while David, knowing Sylvia loves him instead, tries to hide that from Jack to spare his feelings, which instead causes a fight between them. Tragedy follows…

Nothing about this film is stagnant. It’s well-balanced and feels shorter than its two hours. Unlike some silent films, nothing feels unclear, every action is perfectly explained through a combination of acting, cinematography, editing, and perfectly timed title cards. At times, you even forget that you haven’t been listening to dialogue. The cinematography is a dream; many of the shots are impressive even by today’s standards. The final fight scenes, on land and in air, go on a tad too long from a modern viewer’s standpoint, but I can’t see 1920s audiences complaining considering how packed they were with innovative effects, creative camera angles, and excitement.

Behind the Scenes:

Wings was based on an unfinished novel by writer John Monk Saunders, who was an aviation instructor during the war. Saunders recommended his pal William Wellman to direct, as he was the only director in town with wartime flight experience, having been in the Lafayette Escadrille. Their knowledge combined with the expertise of the hundreds of pilots enlisted as extras and technical advisors made for a realistic outcome that shocked audiences.

Wings was not only technically innovative, it was pioneering in less conventional ways. Notably it included a blink and you’ll miss it topless shot of Bow, one of the first occurrences of onscreen nudity in a film, which, rather than causing Puritan-like outrage in audiences only made Clara more popular. The kiss between the two male leads was also one of the first male lip-locks recorded on screen.

Offscreen, the romance in the film seemed to rub off on the cast. Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston became an item, and it’s rumored that Clara Bow (who was engaged to director Victor Fleming at the time) and Gary Cooper did, too, though her biographer David Stenn refutes this. Bow and Cooper would become a bonafide couple after Wings so I’d like to think their interaction on set may have at least included a few sexy, stolen glances. Since the cast and crew were needed on location in San Antonio longer than usual for a film, as the right weather and lighting were fickle but necessary to achieve the many aerial scenes, the sexual tension of the cast and crew spilled over into the town. William Wellman, in his memoirs, mentioned they were there staying at the Saint Anthony Hotel for nine months, which he knew “was the correct time because the elevator operators were girls, and they all became pregnant.”

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Clara Bow completely covered up in a film? Not happening!

Academy Awards Trivia:

Wings was the first and only silent film to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Afterwards, all other winners were talkies (with the so-so exception of 2011’s winner The Artist, which wasn’t a true silent as it included moments of sound).

Why did it win Best Picture?

Audiences were in awe of the innovative, realistic in-air flight sequences and the overall production value. Bow, Rogers, and Arlen all received praise for their acting, but as far as the critics and audiences seemed to be concerned, the biggest stars were the airplanes.

How does it hold up today?

Excellent! Most can agree that, though the film is lengthy and some of the acting is exaggerated, these are minor issues and Wings remains a fun and important film in the history of the medium. Also, the effects and flying sequences still succeed in impressing modern audiences.

  • IMDb rating = 7.5 out of 10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating = 93% out of 100% fresh by critics (38 fresh votes vs. 3 rotten) and 78% by viewers.

Would this be my pick for 1927/28’s Best Picture?

I definitely thought Wings would be hard to top when I began watching it. Then, midway through I began watching 7th Heaven and was blown away by that, as well, though for very different reasons. I think Wings is the most logical choice for Best Picture as it is the more flashy and exciting of the two, but keeps up in its emotional appeal, as well. As I write this, I have yet to see The Racket, which I hear is also excellent, so I may be surprised again…

UPDATE: Click here for my full ranking of 1927/28’s films. 

 

*****

Sources: 

Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin Wild. Cooper Square P., 2000.