Saturday 18 August 2012

Make Some Noise about ‘Wings’ (1927)

This is my contribution to the Eternity of a Dream’s Speechless Blogathon. My piece (as you can probably tell) is on the classic silent epic and first Academy Award winner, ‘Wings’ (1927).
As it is a 2 hour long marathon it is difficult condense the plot down, but I will do my best:
‘Wings’ (1927) covers the entirety of World War 1 – before, during and after. In 1917, Jack Powell (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) is a normal young man with dreams of becoming a pilot, his best friend is his neighbour the playful, boyish and reliable Mary (Clara Bow). Poor Mary is secretly in love with Jack but he is smitten by the belle of the region the delicate and beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) who is, unfortunately, in a ‘sort-of’ relationship with David Armstrong (Richard Arlene). Soon, the war is upon the happy community and both David and Jack enlist in the aviation corp. They begin as enemies – both rivals for the love of Sylvia – but later bond over the training and develop mutual respect for each other. They are rapidly graduated flyers and begin patrolling the area. On their first flight they are attacked by German fighters and both narrowly survive although many of the others die.
Next we meet Mary now a veteran driver for the women’s volunteer army and a favourite of all the men. On one of her trips taking medical supplies to a camp, she is almost hit by enemy bombs and is ultimately saved by the bravery of Jack and David.  They are decorated for valour and are granted leave. But it doesn’t last, they are called back due to the impending increase in warfare. Before Jack leaves, he is reunited with Mary in a bar, but he is too drunk to recognise her. Mary, thinking Jack has left her for another woman, is upset. While she is in the ladies room an older French lady tells her how to win Jack – by using sugar not vinegar - and dresses Mary in one of her seductive dancer’s outfits. Jack and Mary go back to his hotel room, but Jack is too drunk and transfixed by some invisible bubbles to kiss the lady, whom he has not yet identified as Mary.

Those strange invisible bubbles

Eventually he passes out and she chooses to change back into her uniform. She is topless, two men burst in. They think she and Jack have slept together and she is discharged from the army.
The famous shot of Clara, almost topless
Later, Jack and David are back at the front. Strangely, David has a premonition of his own death and warns Jack to organise his belongings. Jack reads about Mary’s ‘quitting’ the female army in the newspaper. He stands up for her honour but still thinks he loves Sylvia and that she returns it.  The next fight looms, the pair fights bravely but David’s plane crashes and he is almost shot by enemy troopers. Magically, he survives and is hiding in enemy territory. Jack is worried and has little hope that David is still alive.
It is not long before, Jack is on another mission and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, David, steals an enemy plane and takes flight. The allies have won the battle, Jack is heading back when he sees the enemy plane David is driving – but he does not see him and shoots it down. He crashes into a church and Jack follows wanting to get a souvenir of his victory. He sees the dying solder and recognises him.  He is distraught that he killed his friend, but David forgives him and they part as friends. Later when he is sorting David’s possessions he finds a letter from Sylvia stating that she loves him and not Jack. Soon, he is granted leave and returns home, a hero, with David’s belongings to take to his parents. While there he sees Mary again and he tells her about an encounter he had with a girl in Paris, that he didn’t know who she was and it was a mistake. She forgives him knowing that she was that girl. Under a shooting star, he finally kisses her.

This movie is definitely worthy of the word, epic, and I would consider it in the same league as North and South or Gone with the Wind. It has romance, long fight scenes, mateship, and a significant historical event to cloud the lives of the character, just not sound. On that subject, I have to admit I don’t usually like silent movies and have only seen two before: ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ with a young John Barrymore and ‘Pandora’s Box’ starring the stunning Louise Brooks. Also, I loved the ‘Artist’ but I did go into it thinking that there was a 75% chance I would hate it. But, either due to the direction or the script or my fascination with Clara, I was completely drawn in by this classic film. The storyline was modern and moving, I found myself almost in tears when Jack had to tell David’s parents about his death and rooting for him and Mary to get together in the end.

The film is even better when you look at it historically. The director, mostly known for dramatic realistic Precodes, William Wellman, uses brilliant camera angles and is amazing at creating believable fight scenes, mostly in the air, with the minimal technology available in the late 20’s. It is also interesting to watch this talent as this skill was lost only a few years later in Precodes due to the necessity of fitting in with the microphones and sound directors. I especially loved the use of suggestion, such as, the shadow to symbolise a plane which is just a powerful as the real thing.  For more information on the production, I inserted a video from the documentary ‘Moguls and Movie-stars’ talking about it both from a historical perspective and from the viewpoint of directing newcomer Wellman.

A note on one of the most important components, the actors. I did like Charles in the role of Jack, he has this boyish face that translates well in the dull black and white print and is really handsome.  Richard on the other hand was good but not great; there was something about him that did not film well. Perhaps it is because I am looking from a modern viewpoint, but his extremely light blue eyes and thin face was made to look ghostly and frightening at times in my copy. Clara was simply magnificent; she is amazingly energetic and vibrant, having only seen her slightly overweight and exhausted in her Precodes, I was delighted to watch her always running, climbing over things and excited. Her style of acting shines in silents and she always made me smile.

Beautiful Clara

Also, this film is fascinating for one other reason being one of the first screen appearances of Gary Cooper. He plays the more senior laid back and nonchalant aviator, White, who the two men instantly respect and idolise. Gary’s appearance is too short as he is killed minutes after their meeting in a training exercise. But you can certainly tell he was going to be a big star.
Gary Cooper on the right of Charles and Richard
I was mesmerised by this film and found it more entertaining than I expected it to be. Although, like most silents it probably won’t be as popular with today’s audiences, it is modern in its themes and at times seemed like a contemporary romantic-drama movie. It is a film definitely worthy of its status as the first film to win the Best Movie category of the Academy Awards.       


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