Wings(released Aug/27)has always been touted as the winner of the first Best Picture award.Technically this is not the case.When they won their award in 1929 it was for the Most Outstanding Production for 1927/28.It was a year later that a Best Production award was instituted and the Academy decided retrospectively that that was to be the equivalent award.A year after that,this was again changed to Best Picture,whose namesake it has remained to this day.No matter,this was the start of Hollywoodland's(after /49,Hollywood's)self congratulatory back slapping.
Wings has been restored magnificently by Paramount,this their first release in their 100th birthday celebration.The original tinting and length is back.The only thing you won't see,as in the original theatrical release,is one of the early uses of Magnascope,a widescreeen effect used in some sequences.
Starring in this extravaganza is Charles Buddy Rogers,who became better known as a bigband leader and went on to steal Mary Pickford's heart in real life.Richard Arlen was a Paramount contract player at the time and he went on to marry his Wings co-star Jobyna Ralston,well known as a staple in many a Harold Lloyd film.Gary Cooper got his career start in this film,at the time the boyfriend to the star of the picture Clara Bow.Clara eats up the scenery every moment she is in the film.It is a testimony to Clara's emoting and acting skills in general that we get so involved,that we literally want to reach out and dry those tears away from her eyes.To top this,she is in and out of the film throughout its run,with far less screen time than her co stars Arlen and Rogers.But when you think of Wings,Clara is pretty much the first person you think of.
William Wellman of course directs and this is,to my knowledge,one of only two Wellman silents that still exist,which speaks volumes about film preservation.It was the the French Cinemateque that rescued Wings originally and it was the George Eastman House that rescued Wellmans other 1928 classic Beggars of life,starring Wings co star Arlen along with the iconic Louise Brooks.If it was not for these institutions,certainly not Paramount,we would have neither film to view today.A sorry commentary,indeed.
The plot of this film starts out with Rogers as Jack,who longs to be a pilot.He has a secret love in Clara(Mary),who lives next door and is always hanging around him,but is hardly noticed by the car tinkerer.Jack and another richer kid Arlen(David),vie for the affections of Ralston(Sylvia).However it is David that has really stolen the heart of Sylvia.When War comes and both boys volunteer for active duty,Sylvia doesn't have the heart to crush Jacks feelings.Over there,both are accepted into pilot training and become rivals.After a fist fight during training,Jack and David become fast friends and they are inseparable flying buddies from then on.
The War is a bitter pill to swallow at times as they see some of their closest friends get killed,and every mission could be their last.Mary in the meantime has also joined as an ambulance driver and is wandering the small towns of the French countryside,helping where she's needed.She herself gets into some close scrapes,such as coming into a town which is seemingly deserted,only because the troops have taken shelter from an incoming German bomber.She dives under her truck narrowly escaping death.Out of the sky comes Jack who has made quite a rep for himself in the air and on the ground.One of the soldiers recognizes the shooting star logo on the side of his plane;the exact same one Mary drew on his car back home.Mary instantly shouts up to Jack,who of course flies off unawares.
On a furlough in Paris Jack and David live it up to the max.David gets lucky while Jack never quite gets there(though he will always think he did),as he is just too drunk;seeing bubbles in everything.Mary happens to find Jack,tempts him away from a pretty French mademoiselle,and gets him to bed to sleep it off.However some MPs burst in on the two while Mary is changing back to her uniform and Mary is summarily sent back home.
The war continues and one day David is having a premonition that he is not coming back from their next mission alive.Jack poo-poos it and during a subsequent conversation,the two get into an argument over a picture of Sylvia Jack carries in his locket.They fly into the skies not speaking to each other.While airborne the two get separated when David ends up taking on a squadron of German planes by himself,while Jack carries on to the target of some observation balloons and destroys them.David gets wounded and is shot down and goes on the run behind German lines.Jack is devastated and when a German plane drops a note saying David was shot down and seemingly dead,Jack goes on a path of revenge for his buddy.Meanwhile David manages to steal a German plane and escape towards American lines.Jack who has been on the prowl shooting up everything he sees that is enemy,spies this plane going towards his lines.He pursues the plane and shoots it down.Landing to get the insignia off the plane rear rudder,he finds out it is David who he shot down,and who is dying before his eyes.They have a tearful and heartfelt last few moments together,as David tries to assuage Jacks guilt.
The War ends and Jack returns a hero.However the inevitable meeting with Davids parents comes and he is in tears.Realizing Jacks grief and remorse the two grieving parents reconcile their feelings towards the man who killed their son.Jack returns home and Mary,of course,is there still waiting;a little older and a little more reticent than her younger self.However Mary's undying love for Jack has never waned and Jack finally realizes that his true love was just across the fence all the time.
Wellman put great effort into his spectacular flying sequences and it certainly shows.I think the pictures main failing is that the sub stories of the relationships between the men and the men and women,never quite gets the same loving attention.Wellman also brought in comic El Brendel as Herman Scwimpf,the colourful "foreigner" who washes out in pilot training,but he was superfluous.There was enough comedy in the plot already,especially when Clara was on the scene.Having said that,there is no doubt the film packs a wallop even today.It has everything from drama,to comedy,to pathos and everything in between.While the film may seem a little uneven,it is still over all a well crafted picture and deserves the many laurels it has received over time and its place in cinematic history.
Technically speaking the film has been restored beautifully and the picture,while showing its age from time to time,is generally crisp and amazingly clear.The only extra(and this for Paramount's first 100th anniversary release at that!)is a featurette about the film's history and making by some "experts".
All in all this a film must have for every film buff out there.It has been restored to pristine condition and its story pulls you in almost from the start.All the stars do a great job but Clara is simply amazing to behold and it is fitting that she should have been in the first film to get the Most Outstanding Picture award(later to become Best Picture).While I would like to think this may be a trend to further restoration and release of more silent film titles(I would love to see a restored Beggars of Life,Paramount!),I am not holding my breath.