12 March 2012


Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richare Arlen in Wings.

Last month I was fortunate enough to attend a sold out screening of Wings (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award. Recently restored by Paramount, it was part of a three-week long William Wellman retrospective at Film Forum. William Wellman Jr. and Ben Burtt, who recreated the sound effects for the restored version, were on hand to introduce the film and answer questions.

One of the first films to tackle the subject of World War I, Wings is the tale of two young men, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), rivals for the affections of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) who prefers David while the girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is madly in love with Jack. The men enlist in the Air Service and are sent to training camp where after an initial dislike of each other, they are soon the best of friends. Sent to France, the two new combat pilots quickly become known for their daring flying. Meanwhile, Mary joins the war effort and is sent to France to drive an ambulance. While on leave in Paris, she runs into an inebriated Jack at the Folies-Bergère who fails to recognize her. Changing out of a borrowed dress she has donned to get Jack's attention, two MPs barge in, misunderstand the situation, and send her packing. Back at the front, David is shot down during a major air battle and presumed dead. But he survives, steals a German plane, and attempts to fly back to the American side only to run into Jack, hell bent on revenge, who spots the German plane and shoots it down. Jack soon realizes his mistake and reunites with David who offers him forgiveness before dying in Jack’s arms. Returning home a war hero Jack, now older and wiser, sees Mary and finally realizes that she’s the girl for him.

Before and after the restoration.

At the screening, Ben Burtt showed before and after clips to the audience to illustrate just how much work went into the restored film, which looks beautiful. In addition to the removal of dirt and scratches, colour tinting was added to certain scenes, including hand-tinting the flames from a gun, something that had been done back in the 1920s. And sound effects were added to the re-orchestrated original score like punches, shots, and popping champagne bubbles (but alas, no Wilhelm screams).

Wellman, who had been a pilot during World War I, was determined to give audiences an honest portrayal of war and the dog fights in particular still stand as some of the best aerial scenes ever shot. Much of this was due to the large number of men and planes made available to him by the War Department. So concerned was Wellman with the authenticity of the scenes, the lead actors were required to fly their own planes (can you imagine that happening today?) so their close-ups would look real. There are no special effects in Wings. If a plane crashes, a plane really crashes. In fact, Wellman employed stunt flyer Dick Grace whose specialty was crashing planes (Grace had one mishap during shooting that resulted in him breaking his neck; he recovered and went on to fly many more planes).

Wings also includes groundbreaking camera work. In the Folies-Bergère scene, there is an incredible tracking shot where the camera appears to fly across the tables; this was achieved by hanging a track from the ceiling, something that had never been done before. And for the aerial scenes, cinematographer Harry Perry mounted cameras on the planes, which the actors operated themselves, allowing shots that would not have been achieved otherwise.

Even for a pre-code film, Wings contains a remarkable amount of daring scenes for its time: At the Folies-Bergère, Jack and David are seen drunk and carousing with “dancers;” Clara Bow is briefly nude as are some men undergoing physicals at the recruitment office; a lesbian couple are clearly shown sitting at one of the tables at the Folies-Bergère; and there is a kiss between the two leading men.

 Gary Cooper in Wings.

As for the actors, Rogers is beautiful and Arlen is stiff as usual (I’ve never been a big fan). And Clara, well she steals every scene she’s in. Adorable and full of spunk, she’s heartbreaking during close-ups of her with tears in her eyes. But perhaps one of the most important actors in the film is a young Gary Cooper who appears in just one scene. Playing an older pilot, he speaks with Jack and David about destiny ("When your time comes, you're gonna get it."). He crashes his plane and dies soon after. Cooper is so commanding and striking looking in this scene that it helped launch his career and after viewing it, you'll see why.

 film is making the rounds of festivals and special screenings so if you get the chance to see it, please do. It’s been released on DVD and Blu-ray but nothing beats seeing it on the big screen.

 from Paramount Pictures.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...