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March 02, 2012

Movies You Missed 28: Wings

WingsThis week in movies you missed: The first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was a fighter-pilot extravaganza that, in adjusted dollars, could be the most expensive flick ever made.

It's also one of two silent films ever to receive the big prize (The Artist, as of last Sunday, being the other). Now Wings is out on DVD and Blu-Ray in an edition painstakingly restored from Paramount's 35mm negative, with color tinting and visual effects, a newly recorded score and sound effects from Ben Burtt (more info here).

What You Missed

Small-town boy Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) dreams of flying. He's madly in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), a girl who is particularly desirable because she is "visiting from the city" — but her affections belong to David (Richard Arlen), the richest guy in town. Meanwhile, Jack's childhood pal, Mary, tries desperately to get his romantic attentions, while he treats her like a mild annoyance, apparently not recognizing her as "It Girl" Clara Bow.

Drum roll ... the U.S. enters World War I! Jack and David enlist and become fast friends during flight school. They have a brief encounter with ripe-for-stardom Gary Cooper, as a pilot who meets an unpleasant fate in training. Then it's off to Europe, where our heroes zoom around shooting down "the Heinies." Mary's there, too, as a driver of supplies. Can she keep our boys away from the temptations of the Folies Bergères? Will they make it home? Will Sylvia be waiting? Will Jack finally stop ignoring Mary's girl-next-door charms?

Why You Missed It

You probably weren't around in 1927, when Wings started a triumphant run that, in some theaters, lasted as long as two years. And that's with tickets priced at a whopping $2, the equivalent of today's 3-D markup.

Should You Keep Missing It?

I watched Wings expecting to compare it with The Artist. But it's really the silent equivalent of Avatar: an immensely expensive spectacle made by a demanding director against studio resistance that ended up paying off in a huge, crowd-pleasing way. The difference is that its unprecedented effects aren't CGI.

Much of the film consists of flying and battle scenes, and I spent it wondering, How the hell did they do that? Those planes zipping dramatically through the clouds and spiraling and tumbling to earth; those shots of the heroes in the cockpit with landscape flying behind them. The orange flames shooting from planes were obviously painted onto the film, but how real was the rest?

Totally real, it turns out. An indispensable featurette on the DVD explains that director William A. Wellman had the cooperation of the U.S. armed forces, which ponied up pilots, locations and as much as $15 million in hopes of getting a fancy recruitment ad. The Air Force pilots flew in formation for the film, but it was the Hollywood stunt pilots who did the crazy stuff, such as simulating a crash.

Wellman even had the actors taught to fly and sent them up with cameras bolted to the planes for the cockpit footage. And he fought with Paramount about waiting to shoot with cloud cover, which he knew would make the flying scenes way more stunning (it did).

As for the earthbound parts of Wings: Well, it's a simple story, though not as simple as The Artist. I loved what Wellman (who went on to direct The Public Enemy, A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred and other classics) did with the Folies Bergères sequence, where Jack gets drunk and starts hallucinating champagne bubbles everywhere.

Overall, as old-fashioned WWI epics go, I didn't find Wings as corny as I did Spielberg's War Horse. The musical score, while ever present, is subtler, and there's comic relief. Clara Bow was a surprise. I always assumed she was an Angelina type, since sultry actresses are today's "It Girls," but Bow is mugging and impish enough to give Bérénice Béjo a run for her money. She's freaking adorable, and Rogers is personable, too. (I was afraid he'd died young, since I'd never heard of him, but in fact he lived till 1999!)

Verdict: I need to watch more silent films. It's easy to forget what a sophisticated, highly developed genre they were. Let's just hope people aren't saying similar things about 2-D films in 40 years. ("Flat films are so quaint! But they had their own kind of complexity, even if they couldn't make giant robots explode in your lap.")

For anyone interested in fighter pilots on film — or stunts and spectacles, really — Wings seems essential. Might be interesting to contrast it with all that CGI-enhanced flying in Lucasfilm's recent release Red Tails.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • Answers to Nothing (Dane Cook in a heavy dramatic role. OK.)
  • Beneath the Darkness (Dennis Quaid plays a small-town psycho in the latest from former Vermonter director Martin Guigui.)
  • Hugo (which is still playing in theaters here, so if you want to see it in 3-D, get there fast. It's worth it, though so is the flat version.)
  • I Melt With You (Thomas Jane and Jeremy Piven are among the middle-aged dudes who reunite to reminisce with an '80s soundtrack.)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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