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Wings (1927)

     What makes a movie worthy of the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture? What constituted greatness in 1929? Apparently a couple million dollars and more effort than perhaps has ever been put into the production of a film.

     Wings would not have been possible had so many parties not come together to make it happen. Whether it was the director with flying experience William Wellman,  the starring actors who took flying lessons and filmed themselves in the air, the stuntmen whose spiraling-toward-death aerial moves were caught on film, or the $15 million-worth of equipment and personnel the military supplied to make the war flick as realistic as possible.

     This Paramount Picture was released on Blu-Ray this year and luckily with it came the release of a DVD reprint, copies of which have been hard to come by. This latest remastering produced images so clear they sort of blew my mind given they are 85 years old. The opening shot in particular is spectacular in clarity. The new edition also allows the viewer to watch the scenes with a re-recorded symphonic score complete with sound effects or an organ rendition. With the sound effects, one can almost forget she is watching a silent flick.

     Wingstells a story of love and war. Two young men are in love with the same high-class girl and both leave for WWI together. This Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), is preparing a locket with her photo in it for David (Richard Arlen) but when Jack (Buddy Rogers) arrives at her home first, he misunderstands the gift –and Sylvia’s affections– as being for him. Sylvia convinces David her love lie truly with him, but the men head to training with a rivalry brewing.

     After their tensions grow to a boiling point, the pilot trainees box each other until David is down and out. From then on the two are best pals. But the thrill of learning to fly –a lifelong dream of Jack’s– is sobered by the near instantaneous death of tent-mate Cadet White, played for a minute and a half by Gary Cooper, who crashes during a training exercise minutes after meeting the boys.

     Once overseas, American flyers Jack and David make a great pair but Jack is proving himself an obvious hero. During their time in France, a girl from the men’s hometown, Mary (Clara Bow), arrives as part of volunteer women’s group. Mary has been in love with Jack and good friends with the young man who is oblivious to her feelings. Mary comes across Jack drunk in the arms of a French woman at the Folies Bergere and fights to get him back by herself getting gussied up. The evening ends with Mary discovered changing back into her uniform in Jack’s room, leading her to resign in disgrace. Jack meanwhile was too drunk to know it was she who visited him.

     Jack and David’s relationship also gets a black eye when the two have a spat over Sylvia’s picture as David seeks to prevent his pal from discovering it was meant for him. The two head to the skies without their ritual “All set?” “OK”  routine and David crashes amidst enemy fire. He survives but flees the Germans on foot. He will later commandeer an enemy plane to get back to the Allied side, but Jack will see the lone plane as a target.

     The practical effects in Wings are beyond belief. Wellman had cameras bolted to the wings and bodies of planes to get all the amazing aerial shots of the battles and crashes. Planes were created with two cock pits for the actual pilot and the actor, Arlen had been a pilot in WWI and Rogers was also trained to fly the vehicles. In doing so, they would operate a camera affixed directly in front of them and do their own multiple takes as they conveyed expressions of victory and concern. When one German plane spirals from the sky, the stunt pilot is filmed face on and we can see the actual spinning background. Much of that is thanks to Wellman’s insistence that filming take place only with blue skies and clouds. Without clouds, he knew, there would be no context for the planes’ movement.

     I’m so excited to finally cross the first movie to win Best Picture from my Oscar list. True that the first ceremony was held in 1929, butWings spent two years in theaters at ticket prices of a hefty $2. It also one for Best Special Effects. I cannot imagine how blown away audiences were with the flight scenes in the movie at that time because they sure take my breath away now.

Source: DVD Extra “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”; TCM.com

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