WINGS – A Look Back at the 1927 Oscar Winning Best Picture
Article by Sam Moffitt
I have a personal connection to World War One combat aviation, a personal and family connection. My Uncle Millard Brooks, my maternal Grand Father’s (Eli Brook’s) brother and my mother’s uncle, (thus he was my great Uncle,) volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) when America finally got off the fence and committed troops to what was then called The Great War or the War to End all Wars (yeah, right!)
Uncle Millard had worked in Grandpa Brook’s blacksmith shop, at the crucial time when blacksmithing (shoeing horses and other work with iron) was giving way to mechanical work (repairing the engines in Model T Fords and other early automobiles).
I’ll give you the short version of Uncle Millard’s story (he wrote many letters home, my Mother, Nell Allen, years ago collected his letters into a book, fascinating stuff.) Millard Brooks was such a good mechanic he was sent to a special school in Scotland to learn how to time the engines on the bi planes when they were first used in aerial combat. If you have ever seen the Disney animated documentary Victory Through Airpower you may have seen the problem they had with those early planes. With the machine guns mounted right behind the propeller, the propellers got shot off. It was determined, mostly through trial and error, that if the engines were timed properly, the bullets would pass between the propeller blades. It was crucial that this be done every time a plane was taken up in formation for combat use.
My Uncle Millard was one of the mechanics who timed those engines. Thus he lucked out and almost never went near the trenches, where British, French, Canadian, Belgian and finally American troops, and other countries, wallowed in mud, inhaled deadly gas and were routinely slaughtered in mass attacks that could only be called suicidal.
Yes, Uncle Millard was lucky, he spent most of his time at what were called aerodromes and was so good at his job he would time the engines for other countries’ aircraft. Some combat aviators asked for him personally before they flew into German territory. As my Uncle Charlie Brooks (Millard’s brother) stated years later “Millard Brooks was one of the men who founded the US Air Force, before it even had that name. He laid the foundation for what the Air Force would eventually become, a respected branch of the US Military in its own right, to stand with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.’
I say all of this as introduction to my thoughts on one of the most astonishing silent films I have ever seen. How Wings escaped me all these years I do not know, but I was so excited to finally see it I have watched it three times and could watch it many more, and probably will.
I have loved silent films as long as I can remember. I grew up watching television shows that were made up of clips from silent films, Fractured Flickers, and Who’s the Funny Man? Movies like Robert Youngson’s Days of thrills and Laughter and The Great Chase and When Comedy Was King.
My sister Judy gave me a Christmas present in 1967, a book called the Parade’s Gone By written by Kevin Brownlow, a history of silent films. (One of the best gifts I ever received, thank you Judy!) I read that book cover to cover at least three times and dipped into it repeatedly and read certain chapters by habit, again and again, kept it for years. And tried to watch all the silent films I could, all my life long. And I have grieved for years that most of the silent era is gone, well over 75 per cent of the movies made up until 1928, when sound started coming in, are lost, forever.
So, I finally have made it to Wings and again, it is astonishing, the pity is that many people in this country would not bother to watch it, silent, black and white, old. They don’t know what they are missing!
The story is simplicity itself, two young men from a small Midwestern city, one working class, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and one from a wealthy family, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both in love with the same young woman Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Sound familiar? Sounds like a cliché? Well Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, this is the movie that invented that cliché, this was the movie that set the standard for all air combat movies that were ever to be made.
But Wings’ character relationships are even more complicated. Jack’s best friend, literally the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is obviously madly in love with him. The doofus misses every signal she gives and instead pursues Sylvia despite the obvious heartache it causes for Mary. So instead of a simple love triangle we have a, what? A four sided triangle? A “love square” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. It would be even more complicated if David had a crush on Mary and she ignored his signals. But, no both of these guys are crazy about Sylvia, despite the fact that Mary would obviously be more fun to hook up with.
At the very start Jack and Mary modify a run about car (a Ford?) and basically turn it into a hot rod. Mary paints a shooting star on the side. When America enters the war Jack and David both join up and volunteer for aviation school. Jack leaves the car with Mary and asks her to take care of it.
In a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, the kind that only happen in the movies, Jack takes a locket from Sylvia, with a note meant for David and thinks he has her affection. He decides that will be his good luck charm during the war. We are asked to believe that Jack never opens the locket and reads the note meant for David, through the entire war.
David is given a tiny teddy bear by his Mother, which becomes his lucky charm. At flight school they share a tent with a young Gary Cooper, in his film debut, who tells them a charm will do no good, not a rabbit’s foot, or a lucky coin, not even a Bible. When your time is up, that’s it brother. Cadet White (Cooper) then immediately gets in his plane to do some training and crashes. Cooper is on screen for not even 5 minutes but audiences were enthralled. His movie career started right here, and on rerelease Gary Cooper’s name was featured prominently in the advertising.
There is quite a bit of Wings that is silent era silly, for instance the comedy relief from El Brendel playing a “Dutchman,” although his routine after sound came in was to use a Swedish accent. The less said about his contribution to Wings, the better. And what exactly is funny about someone having a Swedish accent?
But it’s in the air that Wings really takes off and soars (I am so sorry, I could not resist!) The flying scenes truly are astonishing. The Paramount DVD has only one special feature, a making of documentary but it is invaluable. The technology was not there to film an air combat movie at that time. William Wellman and his crew had to invent the technology to get the job done. The actors had to learn to fly and cameras were mounted in front of the cockpits that the actors could run by push button. When you see Arlen or Rogers or any of the stunt and Army pilots in the cockpits, they are flying the plane. We never ever lose track of who anyone is in the air or what is happening.
Some of the pilots were Army but several were stunt pilots and the barrel rolls and spins are gut wrenching. The movie does not shy away from the horrors of war. When pilots are hit they cough up blood, one stunt pilot put his plane into a spin that everyone, on the ground and in the air, thought he could not pull out of, but he did it. The proof is in the film.
This is one war movie that managed to get one of the women to the front. Clara Bow’s character Mary, instead of sitting at home and weeping and worrying about Jack volunteers to be a Red Cross Ambulance driver, since she not only took care of Jack’s car, she learned to drive it and work on it.
I have to admit I am late to the party where Clara Bow is concerned. I did not see any of her films until I got a copy of IT, the movie that made her a star. The documentary for Wings advises us that at the time this film was made she was the biggest box office attraction worldwide, bigger than Chaplin, Keaton, Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks or anyone else.
I find it amazing that modern film makers have never attempted a bio picture about her, she came to Hollywood after winning a beauty contest, overcame a horrible background and struggled with health issues, both mental and physical. In Wings her acting is often over the top silent style but damned if you can’t take your eyes off her.
Once she gets to the front and drives her ambulance she positively kills it in her Red Cross uniform. She looks infinitely more military and squared away than any of the aviators, with her garrison cap, black dress uniform, knee high lace up boots and black leather gauntlet gloves (oh be still my heart!) The only thing missing is a side arm on her hip. No, women were a long way from being in combat but the mere fact that she is a driver puts Wings years ahead of other silent films. Largely forgotten today except by history buffs like myself, women were not expected to be able to drive back then. Women were not even supposed to want to know how to drive. There were “experts” who warned that a woman could not be trusted behind the wheel of an automobile,(too emotional) and that the act of shifting gears and steering a vehicle might……damage a woman’s ability to bare children. Seriously, there was such “thinking” in those days.
The main promotional photo shows Clara with her arms around both male leads, there is no such scene in the movie. For the purposes of movie coincidence and misunderstanding the men get liberty and go into Paris for a good time. I have already praised the aerial footage in Wings but there is an amazing shot in a night club scene. The camera trucks forward THROUGH a set of tables, each with customers sitting at them. I’m damned if I can figure out how it was done, not sure I want to know, seriously, the camera goes right through the tables, not around , not over. Just as an aside, at one table sits two mannish looking women dressed in men’s clothes.
It’s here in the night club scene that Wings gets ridiculous. Mary is there and keeps trying to talk to Jack. We are asked to believe that Jack is so hammered he doesn’t even recognize Mary. Seriously? In another set of coincidences and misunderstandings Mary is sent back to the states and Jack narrowly misses getting into trouble.
When the movie gets back to the war it is incredible. The major set piece begins, the battle of Saint- Mihiel, and it is literally jaw dropping. Hundreds, if not thousands of extras run across no man’s land, while explosions go off in every direction and the planes constantly dog fight or strafe the men on the ground.
Here is where tragedy inevitably strikes. David is shot down in German territory and despite being wounded manages to steal a German plane. Jack spots David’s plane in the air, and, well, you can guess the rest. On the ground Jack learns the truth, not just about who he has shot down but who Sylvia back home was really in love with.
I would say there is a happy ending with Jack and Mary back home, seeing a shooting star, which means he can kiss the girl he loves. But Jack would, I can guarantee, carry a load of guilt the rest of this life, as well as shell shock from having survived the biggest war in history (to that point in time.)
The restoration job on Wings is incredible; I have never seen a silent film look so immaculate. The images just glow, very few scratches, dirt or splices. And the entire movie has been tinted, gold for daylight, light blue for night scenes. In the aerial combat scenes when planes catch fire the flames are animated, and colored red and yellow. Machine gun bursts are red, sound effects are added in every scene involving armaments.
At the very beginning we are treated to 8 different versions of the Paramount logo, from the current brand to the original logo for the movie, apparently in chronological order (you wouldn’t think there would be that many ways to portray a mountain!) The newly restored version has a full orchestra musical track and there is an alternate version with pipe organ music, as would have been played in most theaters in 1927.
The making of documentary is invaluable, one of the best I have ever seen. On hand is William Wellman Jr., a good film maker in his own right. We learn that Paramount had a lot riding on Wings, Wellman had only directed a few movies before he got the green light. For the aerial scenes he drove the money men crazy, having his crew stand around for days……waiting for clouds. Wellman and his cameramen knew, if there were no clouds there would not be enough perspective, the planes would just look like dots. As one film critic points out, it makes sense, seeing clouds in the background, and especially seeing the planes flying in and out the clouds makes for compelling action scenes.
Wings famously was the first movie to win the Academy award for best picture, and Wellman and almost none of the cast were at the awards. The Academy Awards were completely different in those days, winners were announced well before hand, there was no opening of envelopes, no speeches, just dinner, a few clips of the winners when they were announced, and “everybody go home!”
With a new movie about WWI recently released, Sam Mendes incredible 1917 and the recent English documentary They Shall Not Grow Old (I highly recommend both by the way) it’s only right to take a look at a movie made when the Great War was a very recent memory, for the audience and for many people involved in the making of it. Wellman himself had been a combat pilot, many of the aviators in Wings had also served. Wings was a major hit, it was the Jaws, Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan of its day. It played at the Criterion Theater in New York City for over two years! In an early wide screen process called MagnaScope (I love that name!)
For all true Movie Geeks Wings is essential!