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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

1929 Best Picture winner Wings

For the past few months I've undertaken the task of watching every Best Picture winner from the first ceremony (1929) to current day in chronological order. I've watched and provided a spoken review for the first seventeen (1929 to 1945) winners on our podcast but, until today, haven't posted any of the written reviews. Following is the first of what will hopefully be a weekly feature.

Title: Wings
Release Year: 1927
Nominations*: 2 (Best Picture, Production, Best Effects, Engineering**)
Competitors: The Racket, 7th Heaven, Sunrise, Chang, The Crowd

Director: William Wellman
Stars: Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers

*The Best Picture category was broken up into two sections. Artistic achievement was won by Sunrise but the Academy considers Wings, the Production winner, as the Best Overall Picture winner.

**Bold denotes win.

Wings, the very first Best Picture winner, is, for its time, an odd beast. It somehow straddles the line between terribly outdated and shockingly modern. First and foremost, it is a silent film – the only silent film to win Best Picture -which places it firmly in the 1920's when electrical talking was considered the work of the devil. It also has one of the most generic and hackneyed of all early Hollywood stories. Jack and David, two dashing young men (Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen) take their devil may care attitude and eternal friendship to the skies of World War I, fighting for the Allies and the heart of their small town neighbor, Mary (Clara Bow) who becomes the world's most convenient Army nurse, ever present at whatever battlefront Jack and David happen to be deployed to. These outdated plot elements are countered by some of the most convincing, exciting and brutal battle footage ever put to film.

One of the good parts of Wings

THE GOOD: The wartime experience of decorated World War I fighter pilot and Wings director William Wellman clearly shows as the highlight of Wings is undoubtedly the aerial dogfight sequences that break up the schmaltzy love story. These sequences are one aspect of the film that benefit from the lack of sound. Since Wellman wasn't worried about recording dialogue or ambient noise he simply mounted his silent cameras on the wings of the stunt planes and let them go crazy. The result is some of the most amazing stunt dog-fighting ever put to film. It's often bloody (the red stuff pours from helmets and facial orifices) but Wellman gives the airborne combatants a nobility often absent in war films. The ground battles, however, are consistently brutal. Wings' arresting depictions of soldiers being thrown through the air like rag dolls and agonizing trench warfare counter the chivalrous knights of the troposphere and foreshadow more accomplished anti-war films like All Quiet on the Western Front. And, if silent anti-war propaganda is not your thing, remember – Wings has not one but two exploding German dirigibles.

Drunken bubble revelry helps me forget about war

Can you caption a title card?

THE BAD: Basically anything involving an actor opening up their mouths or wildly pantomiming strikes false. The love story between Jack, David and Mary, while deceptively simple, is convoluted into the realms of absurdity. It consists of strange, barely comprehensible scenes in which the Jack and David are extolled for their bravery and ability to imbibe liquor while Mary kind of tags along. These parts made me miss spoken dialogue. It's hard to sort through complex love triangles when all you have is title cards and over-animated body gestures. Also, when your social commentary of the United States' treatment of German-Americans during war time is embodied by a guy named Fritz who flexes his biceps to make his stars and stripes tattoo wiggle whenever he is thrown to the ground you should probably just drop that plot element and replace it with another shot of a plane crashing into an inanimate object.

THE UGLY: There's a scene in which one of the pilots is drinking in a bar when Mary wanders in. Not only does the pilot not recognize his childhood friend (liquor - its a hell of a drug) but the director decided to decorate the scene with floating bubbles. This leads to a title card that simply reads “H'ray for bubbles!”

Clara Bow in Wings.

Richard Arlen and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers share a tender moment

ACTING: The acting here is not even worthy of a silent film. None of the actors are particularly expressive and the most convincing scenes between the two male leads are when they are embracing in a homoerotic (and historic as it includes one of the first male on male kisses in cinema) scene towards the end. Clara Bow just bounces up and down, crashes her car and acts generally bubbly. Gary Cooper's brief appearance as a doomed fighter pilot, carries more gravitas than the three leads combined. Go watch a Charlie Chaplin film if you want expressive silent film acting. Did I mention like 400 planes explode in this film?

HOW DOES IT COMPARE: I don't really know. I haven't seen enough films from 1927 to accurately compare Wings. The only other nominee from that year that I've seen was Chang and that was just an odd travelogue with monkeys. Looking at the nominee list I'm guessing Sunrise could probably eclipse Wings. In the grand scheme of Best Picture Winners this is the 1927 version of Titanic. Its the kind of film with interminable love scenes but awesome looking set pieces of human tragedy. In other words the kind of film fast forward was made for.

IS IT WORTHY: In the end this isn't as much a movie as a spectacle. There's little logic at work here, and I couldn't tell you a damn thing about the dramatic story arc here. Hell, I don't even know which one was Jack and which one was David. I do know there was a plane crashing into a house. If you want something with nonsensical, hyperactive violence and vapid talking heads then go watch WINGS! Or the Fox News Channel. I deem it halfway worthy.

Take that symbolism, Kaiser!

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