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Wings (1927) movie poster Wings

Theatrical Release: August 12, 1927 / Running Time: 139 Minutes / 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 (The Sergeant), Henry B. Walthall (David's Father), Roscoe Karns (Lieutenant Cameron), Julia Swayne Gordon (David's Mother), Arlette Marchal (Celeste)

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- Viewed May 5-6, 2010

Not to be confused with the 1990s airport sitcom that launched the careers of Tony Shalhoub and Thomas Haden Church, this Wings also deals with American pilots, albeit ones enlisted in the Air Service during World War I. Although unanimously considered the first Best Picture winner,
this film actually won Most Outstanding Production, the closest thing to the honor established the following year. (F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won 1927-28's Most Artistic Quality of Production.) The only silent film to take home the top prize, Wings is one of just two never released to DVD. That made it more elusive than other winners, requiring me to do my first interlibrary loan and being one of a few hiccups in this project being completely chronological.

The jump from silents to talkies is no doubt the most significant technological advancement that film has experienced. This becomes evident in comparing Wings to its successors. Today, many of the most highly-regarded silent movies are comedies, from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I don't think that's entirely because they were the best filmmakers around then (although their talents as actor-directors are admirable), but also because the all-visual nature of the medium lent itself much better to gags and laughs than an engrossing story.

As the only silent film to win the Oscar equivalent to Best Picture, 1927's "Wings" uses intertitles like this to tell its story. Protagonists David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) hail from the same town, become part of the same Air Service unit, and even look in similar directions in similar ways.

Wings supplies a bit of both, following two local boys into the Air Service. Both the average David (Richard Arlen) and wealthy Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) have eyes for pretty city girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). She is only interested in the slick-haired Jack, but doesn't have the heart to outright reject David's advances. Meanwhile, David unknowingly has an actual admirer in the girl next door, Mary (Clara Bow).

Claiming top billing but only the third biggest part, flapper girl Bow was the cast's one established star in 1927. In the same year, she headlined the Cinderella story It, earning her worldwide fame and the label "The It girl." Today, Wings' best-known actor is Hollywood legend Gary Cooper, who makes his first credited appearance in a brief but memorable scene that kills him off.

Wings bounces between comedy and drama more than most war films dare. One moment, we're to laugh at Dutchman Herman Schwimpf, whose name invites enlistment suspicion that gyrating his "Star and Stripes forever" arm tattoo allays. The next, we're to be moved by the pilots' acknowledgement of their heightened wartime mortality. Mary joins the war effort overseas, where her attempts to be noticed by David fall even flatter. Heavily intoxicated, he doesn't even recognize her, too mesmerized by the (animated) bubbles he sees everywhere. It's the kind of prolonged comic sequence that never would have been filmed after synchronized sound's debut.

Doing her part for the war cause, Mary Preston (It girl Clara Bow) is excited to see a shooting star graphic indicating the object of her affections is nearby. Unfortunately for Mary (Clara Bow), even a sparkly dress can't pull David's (Richard Arlen) attentions away from the animated bubbles he sees emanating from his finger and other things.

The film seeks to move not just with laughter but with poignancy, taking to the air with David and Jack. The aerial photography here still impresses, without even having to consider context. Actors appear to be truly airborne, either the world's most convincing visual effect or an unthinkable risk. Apparently, it is the latter, as IMDb's trivia page claims that stars Arlen and Rogers were in charge of taking off, starting the camera, piloting, and landing, all the while acting. How is that for multi-tasking! Despite this ludicrous filmmaking process, only two injuries occurred during filming, one sidelining a stunt pilot for six weeks and the other killing an Army assistant to production.

While it relies more on coincidence and melodrama, Wings' depiction of war horrors somewhat lays the groundwork for the kind of commentary that All Quiet on the Western Front would soon provide. Wings may not hold up as a great film, but it is without a doubt among the most interesting of early Best Pictures, not just for its broadly erratic stylings but for its accessible all-American World War I story.

This young actor isn't trying hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper). It's the screen legend himself, at age 25, playing moribund Cadet White in his first credited movie role. Synchronized sound was yet to come, but actors filming themselves flying planes was part of cinema in 1927. How's that for an aviation effect?

It's a bit odd that Paramount, which has released all eight seasons of the other "Wings" on DVD,
hasn't seen fit to put this pioneering winner on disc. The demand is great enough for there to have been evident bootlegs turn up on Amazon and elsewhere, but still no real deal and with studios' current aversions to catalog DVDs, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. (Although Paramount recently did debut an even more conspicuously missing title, The African Queen, simultaneously on Blu-ray and DVD.)

As far as cinema's 1927 offerings go, Wings is one of just seven to have received more than 2,000 user votes on IMDb. The others: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Murnau's Sunrise, the French biopic Napoleon, dated but notable first talkie The Jazz Singer, Alfred Hitchcock's Jack the Ripper tale The Lodger, and The Unknown directed by Freaks' Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford.

Wings rating: 6.5 out of 10 - Buy from Blu-ray DVD VHS

Next: The Broadway Melody (1929) / Winners Index

Related Reviews:
Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit
Vintage Mickey Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities (featuring The Alice Comedies)
Paramount's Other "Wings": Holiday Treats: T.V. Sets

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Published April 14, 2010 / Updated May 23, 2010.

Text copyright 2010