Oscars won: Best Picture (Paramount Famous Lasky); Best Effects, Engineering Effects (Roy Pomeroy).
Oscar’s love affair with War Time pictures began at the very start of their history. Wings was the first motion picture every to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and would remain to be the only silent picture till 2011’s The Artist would win in the new millennium. Though, I can’t say Wings truly deserved to win the big prize (this and The Jazz Singer are the only films I’ve seen from this year), I can clearly see why the Academy had chosen it. It’s clear storyline on American soldiers, brotherhood and love, all told through classic melodrama, is still a recurring theme in today’s motion pictures that seems to capture the Academy’s attention. Shot in a the period of one year, Wings would go on to become one of the biggest money earners of the silent film era. To kick off Best Picture Series, we take a look at Wings, its performances, direction and entire production value.
SUMMARY – Set in World War I, the film opens in a quiet American town where we meet our two lead characters. Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) is of middle class upbringing. The other is David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who is from the richest family in town. Though the two boys come from very different worlds, they both vie for the love of the same woman, Sylvia. What Jack doesn’t realize is that his tomboyish neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow) longs for his affection. When the two boys go off to war, they learn to stick together and a brotherhood is formed. Facing the harsh realities of the war, the two boys work up the ranks of the army as pilots. But as success comes to them, so does tragedy. The war is growing faster and Europe becomes a horror land. Meanwhile, Mary joins the army and continues to catch Jack’s attention. What she doesn’t realize is that Jack’s newly found fame within the army has begun to change him.
DIRECTION – Rumour has it that Director William A. Wellman was not fond of actors. Especially female actors because of the amount of time it took them to get their wardrobe ready. But it didn’t effect the direction that Wings was going for. It is however evident that his fight sequences (plane and war battles) flourished. Wellman directed Clara Bow into a fine, leading lady defining performance. But fell flat as he directed his two leading men. However, the general look of the film and the tones of melodrama that it provides were spot on. Wellman was a sure innovator of the “airplane war film genre” that would spark the career of Gary Cooper in his follow up film. He was also very aware of his material, being a World War I pilot himself, he was able to paint a perfect depiction of brotherhood in war and the effects that come after it. Wings was a well directed motion picture that often forgot about its actors, but for what it was worth, the action filled film is still able to get the same emotional effect its trying to achieve.
BEST PERFORMANCE IN THE FILM – The clear standout performer in the cast is Silent Screen Queen Clara Bow who played the desperate underdog Mary. Though it is understandable, especially in the silent picture era, that actor’s need to be larger than life to get their message across without dialogue (ala theatre performing), Bow was very natural. Her greatest screen moment is when she looks for a drunken Jack in a Parisian nightclub. Because of Jack’s proud new mentality as a war hero, he forgets about her and numerously hits her with a champagne glass as he arrogantly celebrates. Bow was on the money at that scene, with every tear and look on her face, she was far from being self aware and conveyed the most emotion then anyone in the cast every did throughout the duration of the film. How she wasn’t nominated for the Best Actress Oscar will always be beyond me. She was flawless in the role, giving us her goofy and naive tomboyish American girl who longs to be loved and touched like a beautiful, glamorous woman that she sees her man interested in. She played underdog like a winner.
PRODUCTION VALUE – The most fascinating asset that Wings has is its production value that very much seems like it’s before its time. Film was a fairly new medium at the time, and director Wellman was able to make each shot count. Cinematographer Harry Perry (who would later lens Howard Hughe’s Hell’s Angels) did a fantastic job as the man behind the camera. His shots didn’t only make war look beautiful to look at but gave the film its general vibe. The use of long shots were also spectacular in the film, most notable in the Parisian nightclub scene where we jump from table to table till we reach a drunken Jack and David. The sets created and/or used were realistically done, and so were the costumes that were never too over the top. Bow’s sequin gown and iconic army uniform were the creme of the crop. The editing could have been a little better. Some of the film’s transitions seemed a little bit unnatural, and it seemed like such a waste for this epic which was already a grand spectacle.
RANKING OF ALL BEST PICTURES
7.7 – Wings (1927/28, William A. Wellman)