Monday 30 March 2009

Wings (1927)

Director: William A Wellman
Stars: Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston

It's about time I saw this film, which holds a couple of unique places in motion picture history. It was the first film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, though technically there were two winners in the 1929 awards: Wings won 'Best Picture, Production', while Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won 'Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production'. These two films are also the only silent winners, leaving Wings the only silent on the standard lists you're likely to see of Oscar winners. It's also an aviation picture, the granddaddy of all the aviation pictures that for a while during the thirties appeared to be everywhere. It was a genre all to itself in those days, as made very clear by the number of aviation pulps there were on the stands.

We're quickly introduced to our main characters, who all live in the same small but unnamed town. It's 1917 and we watch what the title card tell us is 'youth and the dreams of youth'. What this boils down to is that a couple of young men are in love with the same woman, who surprisingly, given that this is a Clara Bow film, is not played by Clara Bow. She's Sylvia Lewis, played by another very capable young actress, Jobyna Ralston, best known for replacing Mildred Davis as the on screen Mrs Harold Lloyd after Davis left the screen to become the real thing.

This pair of young men are from different backgrounds: David Armstrong is the son of the richest family in town, while Jack Powell is middle class, rich enough to be able to tinker around with his own car but not in the same league as his rival. David is played by Richard Arlen, who won out in real life because Ralston married him the year this film was made. Jack is played by Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, and he wins her photo instead through persistence, even though Sylvia has inscribed it on the back with her love to David to take with him to the war. Naturally he doesn't even notice the inscription.

He doesn't notice Mary Preston either, though she's his next door neighbour, she's played by the It Girl herself, Clara Bow, and she's head over heels in love with him. When Jack and David sign up as airmen and travel off to the war in Europe to become fast friends and flying colleagues in the 39th Squadron, he almost forgets to even say goodbye to her, so much does he take her for granted. He does leave her in charge of the Shooting Star, his highly customised car, though and she puts that driving skill to use by following them to Europe as an ambulance driver in the Women's Motor Corps of America.

They almost cross paths a few times, the most obvious being at Mervale when the action kicks in big time. There's a huge German Gotha plane flying over to bomb the town into pieces, given that it's full of Allied servicemen, and Jack and David go up to take him on. The air scenes throughout the film are decent, especially given that this is 1927, but the destruction of Mervale is awe inspiring. Mary arrives in town in her ambulance right after everyone has vacated the streets only to find once the battle is over that Jack was in one of the planes above her.

They don't meet until Paris though, with Jack and David on leave and getting incredibly drunk at the Folies Bergeres. In fact Jack gets so drunk he doesn't even recognise her and a misunderstanding of circumstances sees her sent back home in disgrace. The way this scene is set up is very clever indeed, with Jack high on special effects bubbles and Mary trying to win her man from a local rival by virtue of a sparkly dancer's dress, but it's all really calculated to achieve one thing above all others: to get Clara Bow as close to naked as could be in 1927. She has a surprisingly small role all things considered but it's bigger than Ralston's and she makes her presence known.

The romantic melodrama is really there to draw in a particular audience and while it does find resolution, it's hardly an emphatic one. Similarly there's a comedic element, but it's mostly restricted to one character, a Dutchman called Herman Schwimpf, who has 'Stars and Stripes Forever' tattooed onto his arm with an American flag that waves as he jiggles his muscles. These are all very much extras, as this is an action film first and foremost and we have plenty of action to experience on the battlefields of Europe as the film reaches its finale.

The American airmen have long battled German ace Count von Kellerman and his flying circus, who was the adversary on Jack and David's first dawn patrol, and he's there too for the grand reckoning as the Allies make their big push. Director William Wellman did pull out all the stops when it came to the action, which is plentiful and exciting, but it would soon be trumped by succeeding aviation films of the thirties, which also benefitted from being less melodramatic while continuing to be based on stories by John Monk Saunders, who won his only Oscar for possibly the most consistent of them, 1930's The Dawn Patrol.

Buddy Rogers is the most obvious of the actors and he's the most effective on the ground, reminding very much of Ramon Novarro. However Richard Arlen is far more effective in the cockpit, though how much of that is because he was actually a pilot during the war is up for debate as he apparently never saw action. While this is an epic film, running over two hours in length, there's very little opportunity for any of the supporting actors to get much of a look in, though a young Gary Cooper steals a scene early on as the first cadet at aviation school that Jack and David run across. He was far from a star at this point in time, having to settle for the third credit in the 'and' category, which itself came after the four leads. In many ways though, this scene is the one that set his real career into motion.

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