Friday, February 26, 2016

Film Review: Wings

"Wings"  *** (out of ****)

"Wings" (1927) takes flight!

"Wings" has earned a significant place in the history of cinema for being the first motion picture to win the best picture Academy Award at the first award ceremony.

Film historians have pointed out at the first Academy Award ceremony there were two best picture awards given out. One was worded as "Best Picture, Production", which is the award "Wings" won, and the other was called "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production" which was awarded to F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927). This distinction in the awards have lead some historians to believe was a prime example of the film community attempting to separate "mainstream, audience movies" and "artistic movies". The first award ceremony was the only one to have these two awards.

If this theory is true it provides audiences with an interesting way to interpret "Wings". "Wings" is a commercial, mainstream Hollywood picture but it is not an "important" movie. Important meaning the movie doesn't say anything. It makes no social commentary. It says nothing about the nature of war. A few years prior to the release of "Wings" there was a World War I movie directed by King Vidor called "The Big Parade" (1925). It was a powerful anti-war movie taking a strong stance arguing against war. Two years after "Wings" another World War I movie won the best picture Academy Award, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930) it too was a strong anti-war movie with very gritty battle scenes.

"Wings" on the other hand makes no attempt to offer such a commentary. An anti-war stance is not the point of "Wings". "Wings" follows two young men who are eager to enlist in the war to fight and join the air service so they can become pilots. The men and war in itself are presented as heroic. The movie also takes the plot convention of telling its story through the eyes of a romance. The two men both love the same woman but she only loves one of them. Meanwhile another woman loves one of the men but he doesn't notice her.

"Wings" is only interested in two things; romance and aviation scenes. You could almost hear a trailer for "Wings" saying it is "filled with romance and thrills". "Wings" is Hollywood fluff. It is a fun, exciting and at times entertaining movie but has a slim plot and goes on a bit too long. "Wings" is over two hours but the majority of the movie shows the audience air combat sequences, which are admittedly well done and fun to watch but do little to further advance the plot of the movie.

The romance in "Wings" isn't given the proper attention to justify its presence in the movie. It does nothing for the movie and only provides an excuse to show audiences silent film superstar Clara Bow, the "it" girl of the 1920s. The romance is meant to humanize the two male leads and supply a backstory for them and give the movie the opportunity to "milk" human drama and sentimentality for all its worth. But, as it stands now, "Wings" can never properly bridge the romance sequences with the cliff hanging aviation scenes and make it all come together.

Younger movie fans and readers may not know who Clara Bow was and won't understand the "it" girl reference. Ms. Bow epitomized the 1920s "flapper era". Prior to the release of "Wings" Ms. Bow starred in a romantic-comedy called "It" (1927) - the most popular movie Ms. Bow starred in and the one best remembered today. The movie was about the "it factor" - "it" meaning an indescribable quality a person has which makes others attracted to them. The "it" girl label stuck to Ms. Bow and became her nickname throughout her career.

In "Wings" Ms. Bow goes against type not playing a wild flapper or a woman who even acknowledges her beauty. As the character Mary Preston, Ms. Bow plays the sweet, innocent girl next door in love with a boy who doesn't notice her. As if!

The boy Mary is in love with is Jack Powell (Charles Rogers). Perhaps because the two are neighbors and Mary is always around Jack doesn't see Mary as a "girl" but rather a "friend". Jack is in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston, best known to us old-timers for starring opposite comedian Harold Lloyd in several comedies). Sylvia however is in love with David (Richard Arlen), whose family in the wealthiest in town. Nothing is ever mentioned if that is why Sylvia loves David, but his wealth is referenced as an "advantage", I'm sure Bernie Sanders would agree.

Because Jack views David as a rival for Sylvia the two men do not like each other. The war however brings the two of them together and a friendship ensues. David never tells Jack that Sylvia doesn't love him and tries to protect Jack from this fact. Jack, for his part, rarely mentions Sylvia's name, as to not rub in the "fact" Sylvia chose him over David.

Little is done with this scenario as "Wings" then becomes preoccupied with air combat sequences, credited by some as the most impressive ever done in Hollywood at the time. Some believe Howard Hughes tried to "one up" this movie when he made "Hell's Angels" (1930), which also featured impressive air combat sequences.

The air combat sequences are meant to display the heroic nature of war and the bravery of the men. Here they are putting the lives on the line, fully aware of the danger involved. Outside of trying to excite the audience these sequences don't do much. If "Wings" had a point of view and wanted to make some sort of commentary then these battles sequences would become more meaningful. And, to clarify a "commentary" doesn't mean anti-war. The movie could have been a movie honoring the bravery of these men and not say anything anti-war. But it doesn't do that either.

Still one has to admit the performances do what they are supposed to do. Boy, they sure had expressive faces back then, didn't they! Of course because "Wings" is a silent movie the actors must express everything with their body language and facial expressions. Mr. Rogers is able to capture the innocence of a young boy in war. There is a naive quality he possesses. Mr. Arlen appears to embody a more "mature" quality. Both characters are young boy but Mr. Arlen's character seems more aware of his surroundings and understands the danger involved in what they are doing. Both men are contrasted, for a brief moment, with a more experienced pilot, Cadet White (Gary Cooper, strangely given a high billing though he only appears in one scene), who has a "doom and gloom" mentality and believes there is no such thing as luck. When your number is up, its up.

Outside of the aerial sequences the most visually striking scene takes place in a Paris nightclub. The sequence involves interesting tracking shots, moments of humor and hints (maybe more than hints) of sexuality. The title card states the soldiers go to the nightclub to forget about war. With all the beautiful women at the club it is not difficult to guess what is making the soldiers forget about war and what it now on their minds.

Although "Wings" is not a great movie it is entertaining. The romance sequences and the war scenes don't gel together properly and compete for screen-time which prevents the movie from becoming something greater. Ms. Bow seems wasted in the movie and makes one think she was an after thought. The star of the movie is the aerial sequences. This is what "Wings" cares most about. And it is fun to watch. There is also the historical significance of "Wings" which makes it deserving of attention.

"Wings" could have been a great movie. Some of the ingredients are here but the movie  and the director, William A. Wellman, aren't interested in characters or plot, they are only interested in the technical aspects of the movie. Because the aerial sequences and the Paris nightclub scene are so well done viewers can't deny Mr. Wellman had a good eye. He had the talent to make a really good movie he just needed to be interested in making one. For me, the best movies Mr. Wellman directed were are "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943) as well as the James Cagney gangster picture "The Public Enemy" (1931).

So, if "Wings" is not a great movie, why did it win an Academy Award for best picture? First of all, we need to rid ourselves of the notion only great movies win Academy Awards. The Academy Awards are nothing more than popularity contest, even going back to the first award ceremony. This leads us to understand why "Wings" won the Oscar. Up against "Wings" for best picture was the entertaining gangster movie "The Racket" (1928) and the dramatic weeper "7th Heaven" (1927). "Wings" by comparison was the most visually arresting and exciting. What is interesting to note is all three movies are silent as were the movies nominated in the "artistic" category.

If "talkies" were the future of movies, which was still debatable at this juncture, the "old guard" was going to hold out as long as it could and honor silent movies and what better silent movie to let win than "Wings". Only "Wings" could compete with the excitement of seeing a "talkie" like "The Jazz Singer" (1927), which was not nominated in any category. Warner Brothers was instead given an honorary award for the movie. That alone could serve as justification for "Wings" winning the best picture award.

Movie lovers with an interest in the history of cinema should see "Wings", especially those with an interesting in seeing all the best picture Academy Award winners.