Friday, April 5, 2013

Polishing our Wings

By all accounts, Wings was a huge success when it opened in 1927.  The silent film set during WWI wowed audiences and critics alike, and went on to garner the first Academy Award for Best Picture, the only silent film to win until 2012’s The Artist.

*The Artist is a silent film, despite that one scene at the end, and no matter what purists and nitpickers have to say about it.  

With that kind of success, you would think more people would be familiar with it, and that it would have some sort of lasting legacy.  But something happened to Wings over the last eight decades.  It’s gotten lost.  These days, it rarely shows up on anyone’s list of great movies, and doesn’t seem to rate much discussion even amongst hardcore fans of silent films (now there’s a group you don’t want to run into in a dark alley).   

I used to pore over the lists of Oscar-winning movies, looking at the titles and imagining what they were about.  As a thirteen-year-old kid, I set a goal to learn about and see every movie that won the Best Picture Oscar, a goal that would officially be declared dead only in 1998, when The Great Atrocity occurred, and the Academy awarded Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love over both Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful.  But Wings was always an enigma.  The books about the movie industry and filmmaking that I got from the library offered little enlightenment, other than mentioning its historic role as winner of the first Oscar for Best Picture.  Duh.  In college I took some film analysis classes, but Wings was not one of the movies we dissected, or even obliquely discussed.  It was as though the film was no more than vapor, a see-through ghost, a spirit that everyone seemed to know was there but that no one seemed particularly inspired to acknowledge.   

A pretty sad thing to be, if you’re a movie that was once loved, I would think. 

Fortunately, Paramount Pictures released a fully restored version of the film in commemoration of its 100th year as a film studio last year.  And TCM, serendipitously for me, included it in their annual “31 Days of Oscar” movie cavalcade in February, finally affording me the opportunity to see this elusive film. 

Thank you, TCM.  My life-debt to you is increased yet again.  I know I’m late on my payments.  Please don’t refer me to the life-debt collection agency, and please don’t send someone to repossess me.  My wife would be so disappointed to come home one day and discover I’ve been repossessed.

Anyway, here’s the thumbnail sketch of the movie:

It starts with two young men who are rivals for the affections of the same girl.  Jack (Buddy Rogers) is clever, daring and poor, while Dave (Richard Arlen) is reserved, smoldering and rich.  I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide whom Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) prefers.   Meanwhile, Mary (Clara Bow) is totally enamored with Jack.  Beyond their petty little problems, however, World War I is raging, and although these youthful dreamers don’t know it yet, America is just about to send four million lover-boys into no-man’s land.

Jack’s always dreamed of being a pilot, and war brings him the opportunity to become a flyer of something more than a stripped-down and souped-up Ford.  Dave similarly enlists as a pilot, and the two enter training together.  They have it out one day in a sparring match that becomes an all-out brawl in front of the entire company.  Inevitably, once the testosterone and adrenaline subside, they become inseparably fast friends. 
Jack, Mary and Dave/Buddy, Clara and Richard
Boy, these three really hated taking publicity
photos, didn't they?
They are deployed to France, and together they are introduced to life as fighter pilots, or more accurately perhaps, propeller-driven box-kite pilots, because that’s what these aircraft resemble more than they do a modern F-22, or even a P-51 for that matter.  Whatever the craft, they are both good pilots, and brave soldiers who do honor to their country. 

Criterion Theatre in Manhattan -1927.
According to Leonard Maltin, it played for
two years straight, all in first run.  It was the
'Star Wars' of its day...
WWI, though, has a way of making cannon-fodder out of good soldiers who do honor to their country, a point which is clearly made shortly after their arrival (see #5, Gary Cooper, below).  As Jack and Dave discover, there is more tragic foreboding hanging over the bombed-out villages of France than all the lucky charms and lockets in the world have the power to ward off, however indefinitely, and both the good and the lucky have reason to dread the dawn of each new day.  By the end, one will die and the other will return home to the ones who love him, but which is the luckier is not as obvious as it sounds.

Have you heard enough?  Have I enticed you into making some time to watch this film?

Hmm.  Well, you’re a tough nut to crack, aren’t you?

Okay, let me give you some additional reasons to see this film, in more-or-less random order. 

1          The camera
Okay, this is a silent, black-and-white movie made in 1927.  It’s really, really old.  It was made with a camera that weighed roughly the same as your father’s Oldsmobile.
Some cameras were even heavier.  This one weighs
as much as a plane.
You intuitively expect the camerawork in such a movie to be your basic plop the camera down in one fixed spot, start shooting, stop shooting, then pick up the camera and move it for the next shot.  But in this film, you can sense the absolute yearning for a camera that breaks free of its tripod and flies free as a bird.  It feels like the camera is moving fluidly in Wings; yes, sometimes it’s just a standard pan where the camera simply swivels on its stand, but there are other shots too, beautiful, creative, amazing shots.  Take a signature shot early in the film when Dave and Sylvia are together on a porch swing.  The swing is moving and the camera moves with it, as though it were attached to the swing (which I’m guessing it probably was).  You see Jack’s car come speeding up in the background, then he’s lost as the swing goes up; then Jack pulls to stop and jumps out, then the swing goes up, then Jack is running towards them, and puts his hands on the swing and stops it.  That’s not camera trickery; that’s a camera that is moving in perfect synchronization with the swing, and it’s a striking example of camera freedom for such an early movie.  There’s an even more amazing shot later in the film, when Jack and Dave are enjoying their leave in Paris at the Folies Bergere, and the camera sails through the club, skimming across the tables, parting the pairs of people like it’s cutting between moving canyon walls, until it finally comes to a stop at the table where Jack and Dave are celebrating with one of their comrades and some fine Parisian femmes.  We’re used to these kinds of shots in modern films, but this was 1927, man!  There are also some flawless tracking shots, as well as scads of aerial combat scenes where cameras are mounted to flying planes, or taken from a plane.  Almost all of them are masterfully done.  I still wonder how they got some of those shots, and I think you will, too.          

2          Clara Bow

Clara Bow was the original “It Girl.”  She was tremendously popular in the twenties, the prototype of every woman since that’s caught the public’s imagination in our ever-increasingly pop-culture-crazed society.  You’ve seen Betty Boop, right?  Then you’ve seen a hybridized version of Clara Bow in cartoon character form.  In this film, you can see much of what made her so appealing:  the wide, bright expressive eyes that could out-moon the moon or glimmer with tears or beam with laughter; the pouty, heart-shaped pucker; her palpable sense of longing, her vivacious, plucky personality and youthful, kinetic exuberance.  They’re all amply on display in Wings.  Clara, unfortunately, had a troubled life before becoming famous, and did not survive the transition to talking films, and had a difficult life after as well.  But here, in this film and the moments it captures, she is timeless.

3          World War I
You could argue that the war itself is the main character in this movie, driving both the story and the action, but also deeply embedded in its themes, and at the very heart of the film’s message.  Wings was made only nine years after the conclusion of The Great War, and the director William A. Wellman, writer John Monk Saunders, and actor Richard Arlen were all veterans and aviators in it.  Wings is remarkable for its expansiveness (it looks like an epic film) and its attention to detail, both of which suggest a great deal of passion on the part of the director to accurately portray both the unprecedented size and scale of the war, as well as its small, component workings.  It’s not an easy feat, to capture largeness and smallness at the same time, but that is the definition of an epic film, whether it’s Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, or Lord of the Rings.  Wings appears (I say appears only because I’m no expert on WWI) to do an effective job of presenting the audience with a faithful rendition of what it was like to be in that war, to be in those skies, and to be pinned down and slogging it out on a trenched-and-barbed-wired plain of desolation.    

And then there’s an abundance of interesting historical details, like showing how the military trained those early wartime aviators, how the MP’s functioned in places like Paris during the war, how the Germans used zeppelins to identify artillery targets, and how terrifying it must have been if your plane was shot down in a dogfight (being so light, those early planes took a long time to hit the ground, with your enemies flying by to take potshot passes at you the whole way down.  Wings is packed with historical goodies like that; if I were a history teacher doing a unit on WWI, I think my students would learn a lot more about the war in two-and-a-half hours from Wings than any book or any lecture. 

Along that same line, it occurs to me that WWI gets short shrift in films, simply because it was eclipsed by WWII, which immediately grabbed our cinematic imginations and attentions, a stranglehold it hasn’t relinquished to this day.  Perhaps for this reason more than any other, there just aren’t many great films that tell stories about WWI, even the center-stage action that went on in the battlefields of France and Germany.   Wings may not show us in gruesome detail everything that happened there, but what it shows is surprisingly effective.  I recently watched War Horse, the Spielberg film which tells a story set in that same time and place.  For those interested in learning more about WWI, I would recommend Wings over that film in a heartbeat. 

4          H’ray for bubbles!
Jack's last bubble, and it's about to burst...
There is a strange scene that begins the second half of the film where Jack goes to Paris on leave, gets drunk and proceeds to hallucinate about bubbles.  He sees bubbles rising out his glass, out of the band’s musical instruments, out of bottles, and babes and bedposts. And we, the audience, see them too, glassy bubbles of various sizes rising up and out of the frame.  It’s an odd, but shallow, dive into surrealism for a film that is otherwise strictly intended to be realistic.  I think it strikes our modern eyes as especially strange because we’ve been raised knowing that a film can be realistic, or surrealistic, but not both.  But, remember, this was the early age of movies, and it’s interesting to watch a film where that rule isn’t being obeyed because it isn’t a rule yet.  Overall, the scene seems unnecessarily long, and indulges in a few too many trips to the bubble-well, but I can forgive the movie this flaw because it is so fascinating to see an early example of the strange coexistence of a surrealistic scene in the middle of an otherwise realist film.

5          Gary Cooper
One of the few facts that sometimes is mentioned about Wings (and remember, very few things are mentioned at all) is that the film marks the debut of iconic actor Gary Cooper.  Well, I don’t particularly care that this is Cooper’s first movie.   Big whoopin’ deal.  The reason I’m mentioning Gary Cooper is because of what he does with the three minutes or so that he gets onscreen.  Cooper plays a veteran pilot named White whose barrack Jack and Dave are assigned to when they first arrive in France.  White introduces himself to the two men, offers them some chocolate, and then notices the tiny teddy bear that Dave carries for luck.  Dave looks abashed at first, but Cooper reassures them that many fighter pilots carry good luck charms with them when they fly.  He then adds that he, however, does not.  As he leaves the tent to do a “bunch of figure-eights before chow,” he turns back to inform them that, “Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it!”  Then, in this astounding moment, Cooper flashes this wide, bright, almost viciously happy smile.  At first it’s a little unsettling, and you think that maybe he’s picking on these two freshly rolled-out doughboys, but then you realize he’s smiling like that because he’s being sincere, and that not only does he believe what he’s saying, he actually embraces it wholeheartedly.  He’s made his peace with this deterministic view of the world, whether it means dying in the next ten minutes, or later on today, or tomorrow, or forty years later.  That’s what makes it so amazing.  Then he walks away, and a few minutes later, he’s dead.  If you don’t remember anything else about the movie, you will remember Gary Cooper’s smile.
Gary Cooper, pre-smiling.  You'll have to watch
the movie to see the rest...

6          It's Not What You Think  
So the thing that I think kills people’s interest in silent movies more than anything else is that when we think of silent films, we automatically think that watching one will be hard work.  Silent films often seem stilted, and of course exaggerated (often comically so to our sensibilities), and they can be difficult to comprehend.  Without the dialogue we’re accustomed to it’s harder to follow the story, and without hearing the intonations we lose the layers of meaning carried by the actors’ voices.  This makes it difficult for us to divine the feelings and motivations of characters or the meaningful subtleties of situations.  We end up having to do a lot more guessing, and second-guessing, than we’re used to, and it feels suspiciously like work.  We don’t want the experience of watching a movie to feel like we’ve been asked to translate a stone wall filled with Egyptian hieroglyphics; we want our films to unfold like the Lazy-boy we watch them in.  And that’s one of Wings' key qualities; it’s one of the most accessible silent films I’ve ever watched, or tried to watch.  In fact, Wings struck me as being a prototypical version of every great mainstream epic that has followed it.  It’s got everything we modern movie-goers have come to expect in an epic film: times of great events and great desperation, breathless action, romance, tragedy, humor, individuals who struggle and eventually rise, or fail to rise, above themselves as they are confronted by circumstances beyond their control.  It’s a story told on a grand scale, and a small, intimate one simultaneously.  The storytelling is arrow-straight, purposeful, and intuitively logical.  This film still aligns, shockingly well in my opinion, especially after 80 years, with our visual sense of narrative.  There is little that happens that is confusing, or difficult to follow.  It is obvious that the man calling the shots here (director William A. Wellman) knew how to harness and command cinema’s defining quality, the only thing that separates it from any other art form:  the moving image.
William A. Wellman
Not that Wings is a perfect movie by any stretch.  You will feel yourself actively employing the suspension of disbelief at times.  And still present are the annoying aspects of silent films generally, for instance movements that look sped up, causing people and things to sometimes appear to skitter across the screen, as well as the clichéd silent film trait of over-the-top acting which tends to drive me (and I would imagine most modern movie-goers) a little crazy.  But some leniency is in order, isn’t it, when we pause to remember that for these performers, their faces and body language were all they had to work with?  And despite that, there is some surprisingly subtle acting going on in this film as well; I dare you not to be affected by the image of Dave’s or Jack’s father (I won’t tell you which one) grieving over his son’s death.  What you see in that moment is a man whose heartbreak is pounding on the wall of his resolve, both holding and giving at the same time.  No words are necessary, no pantomime required, just his bare, anguish-stifled expression, and it is powerful.
So I say give Wings a chance.  The next time you see it on TCM, DVR it (and if you’re not keeping tabs on what TCM is showing on a continual basis, why are you even reading this?).  Then make some time, make some popcorn, kick back in your Lazy-Boy, and turn it loose.  I promise you you’ll have a good time, or my name isn’t Orville Redenbacher.

If only they could do this in real life...
P.S.  Here's an informative article on the restoration of the film by Paramount Studios in 2012 and its subsequent DVD release, written by Leonard Maltin.

1 comment:

  1. I have always found it unique when people go old school (old movies or TV), but everyone has their own tastes. I, however, am at a loss as to the facination with low quality visuals and drama and humor that is silent films or 50's TV or hatred of the DH. I can enjoy a vintage wine or a historical documentary, but I find that besides the merits born from the fact they were working with lesser technology, the scripts and acting are lacking.