And so it began.
On May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented its first awards for excellence. There was very little drama due to the announcement of the winners three months prior to the event.
It makes perfect sense that Wings was chosen as the Outstanding Picture for 1927-8. The highly romanticized WW I tale of two American pilots waging war in the air on Heinies certainly swept audiences away with the recreation of the good guys winning again.
At 144 minutes, there is a lot of time for the back-story. Jack (Charles Buddy Rogers readily smiling his way into myriad hearts even as he battles air sickness more than the Germans) dreams of flying and gets his wish when the U.S. enters the fray in 1917. Next door neighbour Mary (makeup perfect in every scene—including a pre-censor flashing bosom—Clara Bow plays more for the camera than the audience) has the hots for Jack, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
In the rich part of town, David (a wonderfully brooding performance from Richard Arlene whose frequent upward gazes effectively hint at inner tension that dare not speak its name: whether in a silent picture or not!) takes leave of his stoic parents, butler and perfectly staged dog before heading off to training camp. Alas his own belle (Sylvia’s brief role—readily discarded by the artistic trust once she’s managed to mislead Jack as to her intentions—is dutifully rendered by Jobnya Ralston) botches her final farewell by feeling sorry for the infatuated Jack, much to David’s despair.
No worries: it doesn’t take long for the arch enemies’ feud over the same girl to burst into inseparable friendship, due in large part to Gary Cooper’s (a.k.a White: need any more hints as to who the good guys are?) sudden death, which is magically accomplished when two shadows try to share the same airspace.
On this 2012 remastered DVD, viewers are offered the choice of Gaylord Carter’s 1985 full-blooded organ tracks or Dominick Hauser’s redo of J.S. Zamecnik’s original score. Without a doubt, the pipes win hands down, fuelled with jerky rhythm action, appropriately cheesy tender moments, church-like dignity as the body count mounts, ominous low trills when danger lurks and bits and pieces of Wagner when the enemy begins feeding on its prey.
All of that aside, it is director William Wellman’s firsthand experience flying the fragile fighters that—alongside the most inventive, aerial photography of its day, thanks to cinematographer Harry Perry’s extraordinary problem solving skills and sheer stamina—make all of the film’s other shortcomings readily fade to black.
When the battle moves on to the ground, the senselessness and stupidity of armed conflict (incredibly, wave after wave of the Allies walk right up to the German’s machine gun nest, patiently taking their turn to die) puts a large stain on the victory and stateside celebration of heroes’ homecoming even as “our” side’s leaders sat down to carve up the spoils and plant the seeds for the next awful conflict to come.
How curious that quietly woven into the manly, testosterone-rich fabric are shots of bare-assed recruits waiting their turn to cough and a mouth-on-mouth kiss that spoke volumes as Jake comes to grips with David in their darkest hour. No wonder Sylvia vanished and Mary had to rely on a very rare shooting star to finally get any lip time. JWR