Wings [film]

Actor Richard Arlen had actually served as a pilot during WWI.
Today I went to see the film Wings at the Little Theatre in Bath. It was the first film ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. I've wanted to see it for years, and I loved what I saw - but it wasn't what I expected. Wings has always been billed as a Clara Bow film; the most popular film star in America at one point in the 1920s, Clara's name was top of the billing. However, it wasn't really Clara's film, and I think a big chunk of the Clara storyline could have been removed. Let me explain...

Wings begins in small-town America. Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) would love to fly, but the best he can do is strip down and rebuild an old car, helped by his perky next-door-neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow). Mary is in love with Jack, but he can't see it, because he adores visiting city beauty Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who is in love with David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the richest boy in town. David and Jack both sign up to join serve in the Great War, and owing to a misunderstanding Jack takes the locket Sylvia had wanted to give to David. (There's a romantic twist to this story: in real life, Arlen and Ralston got married after meeting while making this film.)
The dogfight scenes are thrilling.
The bulk of the film and the main part of the action is devoted to David and Jack serving as pilots in the war. The dogfight scenes, where they take on German planes, are really impressive. Both male leads flew for real in the film. Arlen had served as a Canadian pilot during the war, and Rogers learned, so when you see them in flight, it's for real. The muzzle flash from the guns on the planes is hand-coloured yellow, which greatly surprised me, and really draws your attention to the guns and how rapidly they fire. I suspect this was a feature in the original film as most modern restorations of silents that I've seen have reintroduced the original tinting, but if you know for sure, please tell me! The dogfights are also enhanced by the soundtrack, which is not purely musical. There's also the sound of the aeroplane engines and the noise of weapons.

You expect films of this era to be a little less graphic than modern ones, and it's true that there's not masses of blood and guts, but the ruined village and the British trench are both remarkable, and I was really struck by the wide shots, where the film makers recreated a flat land with only barbed wire and dead trees, and seen from above a strange, meandering network of trenches. It really did look like news footage I'd seen of the front, albeit rather drier and less strewn with bodies. I'd always imagined trenches to be in straight lines, but this gave me a completely different impression of how they looked from above. There are other details that people at the time would've remembered and expected to see but modern audiences might not expect: as well as other 'planes the fighters take on balloons reporting American troop movement, and there's even a mention of influenza.

Mary does her bit as a driver - the part was rewritten for Paramount's biggest star
I mentioned that a chunk of the Clara storyline could've been taken out, and it happens in France. Mary joins up as a driver. Her scenes at the front aren't the problem. However, when David and Jack are on leave in Paris, she tracks them down to the Folies Bergere, where a drunken Jack is sharing champagne with a good-time girl, and borrows a dancer's dress to remove him from her clutches. It's all a bit silly - Jack's behaviour, especially is unbelievable (I'm English, I know what drunk people look and act like...) - and ruins the more interesting dynamic between David and Jack, who were first rivals for Sylvia, then firm friends.

Mary is unimpressed with Jack's drunken antics.
I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, but it's a real tear-jerker. It's not surprising, you can make a pretty good guess at the outcome from the start, but it's still really moving. In its first half, Wings feels like a flag-waving war film, but the ending makes you aware of the awful aftereffects. It definitely deserved its Academy Award.

Like silent films? See all my other silent film reviews.


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