I’ll let you in on a secret — few movie experiences are more exciting and rewarding (and possibly immersive) than watching a late-era silent film properly presented from a good print. Our modern tendency is to think that these films are rather quaint — even crude — but the truth is they’re anything but. And a film like William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927) is a perfect example. This winner of the very first Best Picture Oscar isn’t — and never was — a stodgy art movie. It was, in fact, a blockbuster of its time. Think of it in those terms — a huge, sprawling action picture meant to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It’s an exciting movie about a pair of best friend fighter pilots — Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen — in World War I. And it smacks of authenticity. Not only are the flying scenes the real deal, but director Wellman had himself been such a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1917. He knew what he was talking about, and he was artist enough to know how to present it.
The year it was made, 1927, was perhaps the pinnacle of silent film technique. The roster of great films made that year — 7th Heaven, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Metropolis, The Cat and the Canary, Underworld, Wings, to name the most obvious ones — remains stunning. The sophistication and technical achievements of those films represent the full-flowering of the art form. Wings — probably the most populist-oriented of the lot — is no exception. It is that rare film that bridges the gap between art and popular entertainment. It clings to a pretty basic storyline of two young men — Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) in love with the same girl (Jobyna Ralston), while spunky tomboy (top-billed Clara Bow) waits for Jack to notice her. But that storyline feels wholly authentic, and it completely works on a satisfying emotional level. It is that story that makes all the spectacular war and flying footage resonate — and helps turn the film into something more than a blockbuster. It is a very human drama — and the prospect of finding a dry eye in the theater at three (at least) key moments in the film’s last 30 minutes is pretty slim.
There’s scarcely a false note in the film. Its development from early scenes of small town life to training camp to the first hint of tragedy is flawless. That first hint — involving a doomed cadet flyer (Gary Cooper) — is where Wings starts to grow up. (The casting of Gary Cooper was a masterstroke, since the brief role needed someone who is immediately likable — and Coop is nothing if not that.) That’s as it should be, since at bottom is more of an anti-war picture than a war picture — and more than that, it’s the story of the journey of two boys into men, and at a great cost. (The film’s final scenes present “Buddy” Rogers so transformed that he scarcely seems to be the same actor from the earlier parts of the film.)
That the film gives Clara Bow top billing will seem strange to modern audiences, but at that she was the biggest star. And while the film is more about the relationship (actually, a kind of romance) between Jack and David, Bow’s character gives the film another, deeper dimension. The scenes in Paris (probably the most brilliantly cinematic section of the movie) where she essentially sacrifices her own needs (or at least her reputation) to save Jack from a possible court-martial make her participation a lot more than some kind of tacked-on female character. She may not quite deserve that star billing, but she’s far more than window dressing — and this may just be the best performance of her career.
It’s interesting to realize that an entire generation (mine) grew up with the idea — used as a dumb joke about backwards yokels in the Petticoat Junction TV show — that Wings was the last word in quaint, out-of-date movies. The truth was — and is — very different. This is a vital movie — one of the great films that still has the power to work on an audience just as it did in 1927. Seen in its newly restored form — complete with a reconstruction of its original music and sound effects track — on a big screen as it was intended makes that wonderfully obvious. Don’t miss it. This is terrific filmmaking and an event.
The Asheville Film Society’s Big Screen Budget Series will show
Wings Wed., Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in one of the downstairs theaters at The Carolina Asheville. Admission is $5 for AFS members and $7 for the general public.