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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #1: Wings (1927)

Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow

Clara Bow had such an enormously appealing screen presence. In Wings, the very first film to win Best Picture (and the only silent film to do so), she lights up every scene, even those in which she’s playing moments of sadness, fear or desperation. Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow had the same quality. Wings makes the most of it, allowing her a much bigger role than any woman in just about any other war movie I can think of.

Wings tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), two young men from the same small town. Both are in love with the same woman, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), though she only returns the affections of David. Jack, meanwhile, is the object of desire of his childhood friend and neighbour Mary (Bow), to whom he can’t be bothered to spare a second glance (our first indication that there is something seriously wrong with him). When the United States enters into World War I, both Jack and David enlist in the air force and, after a vicious boot camp boxing match, finally become friends. They head off overseas and Mary, who has enlisted in the war effort as an ambulance driver, is not far behind.

During a period of leave in Paris, Jack and David’s path crosses with that of Mary but both are so drunk that they don’t recognize her. This is anguishing for Mary, in part because she knows that MPs are scouring the city, rounding up soldiers to take them back to the front; and in part because Jack is with another woman, someone he’s picked up at the Folies Bergère. Mary borrows a dress in order to pose as a showgirl and lure Jack away then puts him to bed (or, rather, gets him in the vicinity of a bed as he’s on the verge of passing out). Since no good deed goes unpunished, two MPs barge into the room as Mary is changing back into her uniform and, seeing Jack passed out on the bed, jump to the wrong conclusion which results in her losing her job and being sent back to the States. Meanwhile, Jack doesn’t remember a thing about the night, has no idea that Mary has been let go for having been found in a compromising position, and returns to the front, where he and David have a falling out. Later, a misunderstanding leads to tragedy, forever changing Jack and forcing him to make that final transition from boyhood and manhood.

There is a lot of plot to Wings but it juggles its various storylines very well, moving easily between them and keeping the story moving forward at all times. The romantic storyline is a bit rote and perhaps not of much interest to a modern audience (though, as I said, Bow is a captivating screen presence) but the battle scenes are really fantastic. Most of the action scenes take place in the air, where director William A. Wellman stages some really exciting and visually impressive sequences. I doubt I will ever be able to be impressed by stories of actors performing their own stunts in front of blue screens after learning that the actors in Wings not only had to fly their planes themselves, but also had to turn on the attached camera while they were in mid-air, and land the planes all without breaking character. And, of course, in some scenes they had to crash their planes instead of landing them. This was before the advent of the Screen Actors Guild, obviously.

There are also battle scenes that take place on the ground and those are also extremely well staged, making for a really great climax. There is a lot going on in each shot during the battle sequences but Wellman exerts such great control over these scenes that it doesn’t end up looking too fussy and instead just adds to the sense of urgency.

The actors fare very well here. Bow is really endearing and engaging and Rogers is good as the somewhat immature Jack. Arlen, I think, delivers the best performance, conveying a sense of depth to David, largely by underplaying. He knows that Jack has it bad for Sylvia but also knows that he doesn’t have a chance with her (because she loves David), but he goes to great lengths to protect Jack from discovering this so that it doesn’t affect his morale. He’s a very self-sacrificing character and the way that Arlen plays him makes it believable that he’d be so noble.

I went into Wings without being entirely sure what to expect from it and thoroughly enjoyed it. The film is not currently available on DVD but, since it is in the public domain, it is available through youtube, as long as you don’t mind watching it in 10 minute segments. I highly recommend it.

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