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Wings (1927) Blu-ray Review

Wings (1927) movie poster Wings

Theatrical Release: August 12, 1927 / Running Time: 144 Minutes (Newly-Restored Soundtrack), 139 Minutes (Pipe Organ Soundtrack) / Rating: Not Rated

Director: William A. Wellman / Writers: John Monk Saunders (story); Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton (screenplay); Julian Johnson (titles)

Cast: Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Charles "Buddy" Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwimpf), Richard Tucker (Air Commander), Gary Cooper (Cadet White), Gunboat Smith (Sergeant), Henry B. Walthall (Mr. Armstrong), Roscoe Karns (Lieutenant Cameron), Julia Swayne Gordon (Mrs. Armstrong), Arlette Marchal (Celeste)

Buy Wings from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD

The 1927 film Wings has two major claims to fame.
It is the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, doing so back when the award was called "Outstanding Picture, Production" at the untelevised inaugural ceremony. Secondly, it is the only silent movie to date to win that top prize. The Jazz Singer, released two months after Wings, ushered in synchronized sound and the industry never really looked back.

In five weeks, that second accomplishment will vanish when The Artist becomes the 84th film to win the most esteemed Oscar. Certain prognosticators will tell you that the race remains open and that Alexander Payne's The Descendants and Martin Scorsese's Hugo have good shots at collecting the gold statue. But everything I know about cinema and the Academy tells me that the silent French movie about a star of silent Hollywood movies has it in the bag. That's okay by me; the subject matter and bold/gimmicky design may cast it as obvious awards bait, but The Artist is wonderfully done and deserves its accolades. And if you want to get technical, it is only like 99% silent.

Among the many things to thank The Artist for is that its acclaim and anticipated Oscar night triumph seem responsible for the long-awaited DVD debut of Wings. This week, what was one of just two Best Picture winners never officially released to DVD becomes one of the first issued to Blu-ray. The absence on DVD has always been puzzling; Wings' status as the premier Best Picture no doubt earned it more notice than the vast majority of 1920s cinema. Paramount even released their other "Wings", the 1990s NBC sitcom that launched the careers of Tony Shalhoub and Thomas Haden Church, to DVD in its entirety while this one languished in obscurity. The concurrent, relatively rapid Blu-ray debut makes sense; again, that historic status invites collectors and film buffs, two demographics that number among the hi-def format's adopters.

And as far as the general public is concerned, having two of the year's most celebrated movies (the other being Hugo) center on silent films is bound to push the pre-talkies era into people's thoughts and the media's pages like it hasn't been in over eighty years. Wings won't break any sales records (for that matter, Hugo and The Artist have both been fairly stunted commercially), but the choice timing is more than mere coincidence.

Beauty-marked silent starlet Clara Bow, the newly-proclaimed original It Girl, claims top billing in the role of girl next door Mary Preston. Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) looks into a rescue of his friend in one of the film's blue-tinted sequences.

Wings was evidently the most expensive movie of its time. Estimates place its production costs around $2 million, a sum that independent movies can still keep under today even nearly a century of inflation later.

The film centers on World War I, a conflict that cinema has not dramatized nearly as extensively as World War II and Vietnam. With those and the Great Depression yet to come, the Great War was the big recent global event to lend dramatic weight in 1927. The movie opens in an unnamed American small town in 1917, where it quickly and concisely sets up a love rectangle. Our protagonist is Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), a pretty ordinary but not too perceptive young man. He is unaware of the feelings that friendly girl next door Mary Preston (top-billed Clara Bow in the year she became known as "The It Girl") holds for him. Instead, Jack has his sights set on city girl Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Sylvia is spoken for by rich boy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), but this information eludes Jack as he and David prepare to ship off.

In training, the two young men overcome their hostilities toward each other and become ace pilots and friends. Their common romantic interest hangs over their heads as they wrangle with the Germans in France. Meanwhile, Mary takes up the cause and joins the soldiers overseas as an ambulance driver. She tries to catch Jack's eye there as she has not back home.

Long before CGI made things easy, filmmakers and actors staged and shot real flying sequences up in the air. Screen legend Gary Cooper makes one of his earliest and briefest credited appearances as Hershey's-eating Cadet White.

Wings has an interesting tone, the likes of what we have not often seen in a very long time. It is silly part of the time and sentimental the rest. It doesn't fluctuate back and forth the way today's indies do, easing tension with laughs or only getting serious near the end. Instead, it alternates: lengthy comedy sequence here, prolonged action sequence here. The action and drama far outweigh the comedy,
but there are some long stretches where the opposite is true, chiefly the extended post-intermission scene in which Jack is heavily intoxicated.

As usually is the case, I find the character-driven parts of Wings quite a bit more compelling than the action ones. The latter do impress; this was long before convincing visual effects were a staple of films; stars Rogers and Arlen are really shown doing their own flying, an absurd notion compared to what constitutes doing one's own stunts these days. The movie boasts a couple of additional impressive techniques, an editing effect where war visuals are laid over a sky and then the animated bubbles that indicate just how drunk Jack is in the aforementioned scene. It's not much, considering what The Wizard of Oz would achieve just twelve years later, but it's something. Another something noteworthy is the amount of practical ambition brought to this, which surely exceeds most of today's CGI and greenscreen-driven, spectacle cinema. Observing the filming locations of certain major scenes during the shoot would have been breathtaking in ways that controlled, postproduction-reliant contemporary movies are not.

The historical interest of Wings exceeds its entertainment value, but it isn't too deficient in the latter department. By modern standards, it's overlong and overdramatic, too broad and not poignant enough. When most choose to recommend a World War I film from this era, they pick the third Best Picture winner, All Quiet on the Western Front. Where that 1930 film emphasizes the horror of war, this one glamorizes the heroics. You could say that Wings is Pearl Harbor and All Quiet is Saving Private Ryan. The gap in quality between those two very old films, however, is much more narrow. Both are bound to be judged too harshly by the general public and too easily by classic film lovers. Wings' tonal miscalculations and somewhat dull action bits are fairly easy to forgive because you're watching an 85-year-old movie, made before they even had mastered sound, by cast and crew that have all passed away. Chances are that is not a regular occurrence for you and that renders it a more enriching and fascinating experience than your typical movie viewing.

The packaging here gives fourth billing, complete with the "and" credit to Gary Cooper, who makes one of his first credited appearances as Cadet White. The character has just two minutes of screentime, but they are memorable ones, possibly only because it's Cooper, soon to be one of Hollywood's biggest film stars. Cadet White's brief turn contributes to the film's fascination with objects. In his case, it's a Hershey's chocolate bar he leaves behind before hitting the skies, perhaps the advent of product placement in films. Other objects treated to lingering insert shots are a locket with Sylvia's photo and David's lucky childhood teddy bear.

If you ordinarily stop reading my reviews when I move from the film onto the technical aspects of the disc and its bonus features, I encourage you to continue here because this Blu-ray's picture and sound transform the movie from its previous states.

Wings (1927) Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
5.1 DTS-HD MA (Re-Recorded Score & Effects), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (Pipe Organ Score)
Subtitles: French, Spanish, Portuguese; Extras-Only: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($24.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Wings is presented in 1.37:1, the standard Academy Ratio of its year and over twenty-five years to come. Where Paramount normally identifies a film as "Color" or "Black & White", the case here states "Color Tinted" and that accurately describes the movie. Different scenes of the film take on different hues. Most either have a yellow or blue tone to them. That is apparently true to the original theatrical release, although it was not something found on the VHS release previously relied upon.

The picture quality looks amazing, even without considering the age. It is clear that Paramount has invested in extensive remastering efforts for this title and the results are dazzling. The title screens are as clear as can be. Signs of age and film's primitiveness are infrequent and nearly absent.

There are two soundtrack options and there is no question which one the studio would like you to experience. That would be the default 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix (though it won't be selected without your approval), which boasts a re-recorded score composed by J.S. Zamecnik, orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser, and featuring pianist Frederick Hodges. This track also employs sound effects by Pixar/Lucas sound wizard Ben Burtt. You read that right: sputtering cars, gunfire, wailing plane engines, and punches are heard throughout the movie. Although those noises are tastefully composed, they are questionable, surely depriving us a faithful version of the original silent film. Supposedly, the film was reissued not long after its debut with synchronized music and sound effects. But these aren't them; it doesn't feel all that different from getting actors to dub the speaking parts; I'm sure a fitting job could be done there, but that would undoubtedly betray the movie. I'm not convinced that what's done here is altogether different from that, despite what a restoration featurette tells us.

Included in Paramount's restoration efforts was the addition of orange flame trails meant to reproduce the look of the Handschiegl color process.

Particularly suspect are the orange flames that are colored on plane guns and fires. Evidently, this was originally achieved with dyes by something called the Handschiegl color process and the restoration team makes use of original documents outlining their use. But it's tough to say with any degree of accuracy if the results are true to the movie's original exhibition.

The 5.1 soundtrack has the clarity of modern-day scores and though it mostly remains anchored in the front, some of Burtt's effects do make their way to the rear channels.
With this audio selected, the film opens with a montage of Paramount Pictures logos, starting with the present day one and revisiting the variations from all over the years, to accompany the couple of minutes of overture score before the windowboxed credits appear. It's kind of narcissistic of the studio, but also fun and it's not like it's replacing any other visuals.

The other soundtrack option, which you are unable to switch to during playback, is a Dolby Stereo 2.0 pipe organ score composed and performed by Gaylord Carter, apparently in 1987. Carter specialized in creating scores for silent films and he was the perfect age for such a calling, having been born in 1905 and played organ for them in Los Angeles theaters beginning at age 21. The reason you can't simply toggle soundtracks is because this one yields a different presentation, one running 5 minutes shorter than the alternative, due to a shortened opening (without the extra music and studio logos), the lack of an intermission, and no restoration end credits. Though it's less flashy without the sound effects, this seems truer to Wings' original making, but those orange flames still remain. The mix is very clean and crisp, which isn't too surprising since it's only 25 years old.

The title cards are translated in foreign subtitle tracks; not every line uttered is deciphered in English, but only those whose meaning is clear from the body language are not.

William Wellman Jr., the son of "Wings"' director, adds an important voice to the new retrospective "Grandeur in the Sky." Handlebar mustachioed Technicolor executive director Tom Burton discusses the challenges of "Restoring the Power and Beauty of 'Wings.'"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The film is joined by three bonus features here, all presented in high definition.

"Wings: Grandeur in the Sky" (35:56) recalls the making of the film. Historians James V. D'Arc and Frank Thompson, director's son William Wellman, Jr., and others put the film in context by detailing its origins and production.
The piece is loaded with information, which is relayed in an interesting fashion. It mostly focuses on in-flight filming procedures and locations, but then moves onto the reception and snubs of Wellman, Sr., with crew cameos identified alongside the credits scroll.

Naturally, "Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings" (14:21) covers the extensive restoration performed for the film's long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray debuts. Individuals from Paramount archives, the Academy Film Archive, and Technicolor describe the substantial challenges faced, like flicker and instability. They tackle color questions by referencing documents confirming the intended sequence tinting and the Handschiegl silk screen work. The piece then moves to the creation of the new soundtrack and Ben Burtt sound design. This goes a long way to easing any concerns of impropriety and betrayal, and the speakers all emphasize being as true to the original as possible, but I'm not sure they haven't slightly overshot that goal.

Former Air Force fighter pilot and current Old Rhineback president Hugh Schoelzel talks old planes in "Dogfight!" The three leads of "Wings" -- Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen -- pose together on the film's Blu-ray menu.

"Dogfight!" (12:54) takes us to the Old Rhineback Aerodrome for some discussion of old planes, many of which are on display at the New York museum. It probably won't interest anyone who isn't into military and aviation, but that should still keep plenty of Wings fans happy.

Sadly, no original or reissue trailers have been dug up.

The menu is a simple still sepia-toned image backed by a looped piece of the opening titles score. Though the disc doesn't resume playback, it does support bookmarks on both cuts of the film and is quick to get you to the menu, with no trailers preceding it.

Wings is packaged in a standard eco-friendly Blu-ray case. Its unusually stylish artwork is reproduced in an embossed cardboard slipcover.

The titles by Julian Johnson get a bit poetic with the onset of the Great War. This scene between Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) includes one of cinema's first same-sex kisses, but there's nothing gay about it.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Wings' creative shortcomings are no doubt compensated for by its statuses as the first Oscar Best Picture winner and one of the most ambitious silent films ever made. If you don't appreciate cinema history, I can't guarantee that you'll be riveted by the long and tonally inconsistent production.
But having seen almost all of them, I can tell you there's more entertainment value to this than a number of subsequent Best Picture winners.

Paramount makes up for the long DVD wait with the short Blu-ray wait and the picture quality of their restoration is nothing short of fantastic. I have mixed feelings about their efforts to recreate the Handschiegl color effects and about Ben Burtt's lively new sound design, but clearly the intentions are good and they make a convincing case that they're bringing us as close to the intended presentation as possible. The new mix is a lot easier to accept with the pipe organ score still an option. The three bonus features are pretty great, the price is reasonable, and the film is almost as historically significant as any. All of that plus the fitting timing of tomorrow's two leading Oscar nominees should inspire you to check out this long-forgotten milestone.

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Reviewed January 23, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1927 Paramount Pictures and 2012 Paramount Home Entertainment.
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