The first silent movie to take home a Best Picture Oscar is William Wellman's Wings (1927) a monumental achievement by any standard of cinematic storytelling. While time and technologies have undoubtedly changed the screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton remains as exhilarating as ever: ditto for the effervescent acting of Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, and then 'IT' girl, Clara Bow. Paramount Pictures really put its best foot forward on this last feature, made at the tail end of the silent era and the results hold up spectacularly well, even from a very contemporary perspective. Harry Perry's cinematography, that incorporated hand cranked cameras actually bolted to real biplanes flying perilous missions in the sky left me white knuckled and utterly appreciative for not only the cameramen lensing this spectacle but also the actors - all of whom do their own stunt work (most of it, harrowing). Completed on a then monumental budget of $2 million dollars, our story opens in the halcyon days before WWI with a manly rivalry between suitors Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) for the affections of town snooty, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) - a girl with big city experience and aspirations to marry well. David comes from the traditionally affluent family. But Jack is the boy next door. Happy circumstance for Jack since the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow) just happens to be in love with him.
Jack and Mary revamp a beat up car into the roadster they nickname 'The Shooting Star'. Mary tells jack, "You know what to do when you see a shooting star? Kiss the girl you're in love with." But this gives Jack the idea to go see Sylvia instead. Too bad for Jack that Sylvia's heart belongs to David. Learning that the boys have been drafted into the air corp. Sylvia prepares a silver locket with her picture in it for David to carry into battle. She even writes an inscription of love on the back of the photo before inserting it into the locket. Unfortunately, Jack mistakes the locket as a present for him and Sylvia, not having the heart to straighten him out, lets him keep it.
During basic training Jack attempts to knock David senseless in a boxing match. But after David refuses to surrender to Jack - despite being badly beaten by him - Jack realizes what a brave man David actually is and the two become the best of friends. Jack and David also meet veteran flyer, Cadet White (Gary Cooper in a star defining role) who is killed during a training exercise at base camp. Jack and David fly, train hard and eventually partake in air raids over enemy lines, wiping out many German pilots during their missions and winning the respect of Lieutenant Cameron (Roscoe Karns). Given furlough in France, Jack takes on with a French chorus girl (Arlette Marchal) at the Moulin Rouge before Mary arrives to rescue him from making a terrible drunken mistake. It seems Mary has joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corp. and just happens to be stationed in France at the same time. Taking Jack back to her room, Mary's superiors learn of their fraternization. Strictly forbidden under army regulations, Mary's association with Jack gets her fired from her job. She is forced to return home while the boy's fight on.
Jack and David come to a parting of the ways after David attempts to save Jack from humiliation by tearing up Sylvia's locket photo before Jack can read her inscription. The boys fly a harrowing mission in which David is downed behind enemy lines. Wounded but still very much alive, he steals a German plane and attempts to fly back to the base. But Jack, mistaking him for an enemy pilot, shoots the plane down. It crashes into a farmhouse and David is killed. Returning home a war hero, Jack is riddled with guilt. David's mother (Julia Swayne Gordon), who vowed to hate Jack for the rest of her life, forgives him instead after Jack returns to her the toy teddy bear David once vowed to carry with him through the battle. Jack rushes home where he is reunited with his parents (George Irving and Hedda Hopper) and later, Mary who reminds him, as they look up and see a shooting star, what he can do with the girl he loves. Having at long last realized how deeply she cares for him, Jack leans Mary into him and kisses her.
Viewed today, Wings' storytelling holds up remarkably well. Part of the reason for this is the liquidity of camera movement achieved by Harry Perry. Gone are the static long shots one generally associates with silent movies. Wings has a fresh and vital cinematography that is in keeping with the very best in contemporary movies. The camera soars - literally - and up into the wild blue yonder and beyond.
The one curiosity herein is seeing Clara Bow's name above the title. Despite her galvanic reputation as Paramount's 'IT' girl, she isn't in the film all that much. Wings is a buddy/buddy flick; its real stars, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. Both have matinee idol good looks to recommend them - Rogers appealing more to the prepubescent while Arlen likely appealed as a mainstay for the twenty-something female audience. But each can act too. It's a wonder their respective careers never advanced after Wings (or perhaps they did and are simply forgotten today).
The male bonding chemistry is really what gives Wings its sparkle and heart. 'Wild' Bill Wellman's attention to realism sells the drama, tragedy and heroism of those daring WWI pilots as high cinematic art. Wellman was a relative unknown in the director's chair when Wings was being prepared. Asked by Jesse Lasky why he thought he would be the ideal choice to helm such a weighty and expensive project, Wellman replied, "I'll make the best goddamn picture that ever was." That was enough for Lasky. And Wellman damn near succeeds in doing just that. Wings remains a high water mark in American film making. Despite the 90 plus years that have passed since its general release, Wings is a film of epic illusion and grandeur. It needs to be screened more often today.
Paramount's Blu-ray resurrects the glory and wonder of Wings as few more recent digital transfer have been able to do and with far younger films to work from for their 1080p inspiration. Undergoing an exhaustive restoration, Wings comes to life on home video as never before. The meticulous research and restoration yields a magnificently layered, texturally dense and often very vivid transfer. The film is presented in hand tinted sepia, purple, deep azure and golden hues depending on the mood Wellman is attempting to achieve. While certain scenes still retain a heavy patina of film grain and marginal loss of fine details, the overall visual presentation of Wings is one of gorgeous preservation. Truly, the film elements look marvelous beyond all expectation and will surely not disappoint.
Two scores accompany this presentation: the first preserving the 'organ music' that would have accompanied the film during its general release, but the latter being a full orchestra and sound effects re-orchestration that duplicates as close as possible the original road show engagement. This latter scoring session is preferred and really heightens one's appreciation for the film. Extras are limited to three short featurettes: on the making of the film, the underscoring and restoration process, and another on filming aerial dogfights. Bottom line: To kick off its 100 year celebration in film making Paramount Home Video has done an exceptional job preserving this vintage classic for future generations. Wings is a winner. Buy it today. Treasure it forever. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)