All of my reviews probably won't be this elaborate/lengthy/illustrated but I figured, let's get this started off right.Wings
(1927-best picture 1929)Wings
is a pretty amazing achievement that holds up remarkably well 80 years later. Although Clara Bow gets the biggest billing on the poster, she is third in importance as a character, behind the two male leads. Charles "Buddy" Rogers plays Jack, amiable middle class guy. Clara Bow's Mary is literally the girl next door, making goo-goo eyes at him from the first minute of the picture, but he's oblivious to it. He thinks he's in love with Sylvia, the cool classy blonde in contrast to Bow's bubbly redhead. But Sylvia only has eyes for David Armstrong, played by Richard Arlen. Armstrong is the scion of the rich family in town, and unlike Jack, who seems to wear every thought on his face, David is often guarded and seemingly aware of deeper things.
Naturally when war comes, both David and Jack volunteer for the Army air service to become fighter pilots. And their rivalry comes to a head as both bid farewell to Sylvia. Jack, through a mixup, believes that Sylvia is in love with him, but she professes her love for David as they depart. Mary gets a handshake and the keys to Jack's jalopy.
They head off to training and dislike and rivalry are transmuted into close friendship; they continue to be in the same squadron as they head off to France to fight in the war. The majority of the rest of the movie is set in and around the battle front. Here the filmmaking really shines--the aerial dogfights are amazing for the time, as are the epically staged shots of the ground fighting. I've seen a few other movies that feature World War I but this did the best job of integrating both the violence and slaughter of the close-in fighting with the scale of the trenches and fields that the battles crossed and re-crossed.
My biggest complaint was a giant sag in the middle of the movie where Mary reappears as a volunteer in the Motor Brigade, driving trucks full of supplies here and there behind the lines. She figures in a spectacular scene of an aerial bombing of a village, followed by the bomber being stalked and attacked by none other than Jack. Then Jack is off to Paris on leave and Mary turns up there too. There follows an interminable sequence of Mary trying to get Jack's drunken attention at the Folies Bergere while he has eyes only for champagne bubbles. The bubbles jokes go on forever (animated bubbles popping out of everything from the champagne bottle to a bedpost, to Jack's fascination), as does a silent rivalry between Mary and some French girl on Jack's arm. She finally gets him alone only to have him pass out in the hotel room. She had a secondary mission too--all leaves were cancelled as the "big push" is about to happen. But she never is able to get that message across to drunk-ass Jack, and the MPs bust into the room to reclaim Jack while Mary is, of course, topless (supposedly there's a quick glimpse of Clara Bow's breasts in this scene but if there is it was too quick for me). Mary is mistaken as an American volunteer who is prostituting on the side and goes home.
There was really no point to that whole sequence except to shoehorn Clara Bow into more of the picture. I would have preferred it if they had just showed her having her own war experience--the scenes of her in her truck, with soldiers swooning over her and then being caught in the village bombing were pretty exciting. But the entire Paris sequence did nothing more than make Jack look like an idiot and provide a reason to write Mary back out of the overseas stuff.
Things pick up again with the "big push". This is where the fantastic battlefield sequences come in, intercut with David and Jack's aerial fighting as David takes on 4 Fokkers on his own and Jack goes after two German observation balloons that were giving away American positions. Tragedy ensues as David is shot down and Jack, believing he is dead, goes on a rampage the next day to shoot down all the Germans he can find. He does lots of helpful battlefield strafing (including offing a German general!) and toward the end of the day sees a lone German plane and gives chase. But--it's David! He survived his crash and stole a German plane to try to make it back to Allied lines. Blinded by his rage and grief, Jack doesn't see him signaling (and not fighting back at all) and shoots him down, fatally wounding him. Jack makes it to David's side during his final moments and David forgives him before expiring. Another boring section of denouement follows showing Jack's triumphant return home including a hometown victory parade, before the last important bits of story wrap up--Jack's visit with David's parents, who forgive him too, and his realization that he has loved Mary all along.
Wings contains everything that is annoying and hokey in silent movies--the melodramatic plots and overdone acting, "comic relief" that isn't funny to modern sensibilities--but in this case those drawbacks are overwhelmed by the strength of the two main actors in their relating to each other (more about this in a moment) and the excellent filmmaking that is particularly showcased in aerial and battle scenes. These were truly suspenseful and the shifts from panoramic action views to closeups showing the wounded and dying (of both sides) captured both the glory and the pathos of the moment. (The battle scenes were also at times quite a bit gorier than I expected in such an old movie).
The aerial combat scenes were particularly impressive, even more so when I read that, to get the closeups of the actors in their planes, the director bolted a camera to the body of the plane pointing at their faces, and the actors were not only flying their own planes but would have to turn on the cameras and act while doing so. It did help that one of them, Richard Arlen, had joined the R.A.F. as a Canadian during the actual war. I was amazed at the nerve of both WWI pilots AND the people that made the movie, trusting body and soul to incredibly flimsy looking machines--it's not like airplane technology was THAT much more advanced a mere decade after the war's end.
[Here's one question though--both observation balloon crews are seen bailing out of their balloons using parachutes--but none of the pilots ever were, even when only the plane was damaged and heading downward (though most of the time you see a plane going down, it follows a closeup showing the pilot getting wounded or killed). No parachutes for the flyboys?]
One more thing that really struck me--and honestly, I'll try not to view every movie through rainbow-colored glasses--but seriously, there was a lot in this movie that struck me as, um, awfully gay. I first noticed it as the "comic relief" character is introduced: El Brendel as Herman Schwimpf. Initially there is a running gag as army recruiters learn his Germanic name and react with suspicion until Schwimpf cheerily reveals his US flag tattoo that he makes wave by flexing his biceps. From the start Brendel's actions are prissy and effeminate; not surprisingly he doesn't make it to pilot, and has to settle for being a mechanic.
But even more eyebrow-raising was the emotional relationship between Jack and David. There were more soulful looks between them than with either of their two female loves:
(They are supposed to be mad at each other in this scene. No, seriously.)
(Clara knows the truth: she doesn't have a chance with either of these guys.)
And then there is this, the big death scene:
That, by the way, is supposedly the first time a guy kisses another guy in a movie. Okay, not on the lips but still. I have a feeling poor old Mary found Jack looking at his wartime scrapbook and getting awfully moody every now and then.
Okay maybe I'm overplaying this a bit and it has a lot more to do with the melodramatic acting style of the time. Whether or not you agree that there's something of a lavender subtext there, Wings
is still a movie worth watching, both for the technical feats in the film-making and the moments of genuine emotion. I admit it got a little dusty in the room during Jack's visit to David's parents in the last reel. Wings
was actually believed to have been lost for many years, until a print was found and transferred to safety stock in the 1960s. It is currently not available on DVD, and it really should be. Until then look for it in 14 parts on YouTube (search for "wings 1927" or "notondvd").
Grade: B (would have been an A without the Paris section and a few other bits that just went on too long)
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