The Best Picture Project – Wings (1927/1928)

Directed by William Wellman

Written by Hope Loring and Louis Lighton, from a story by John Monk Saunders

Starring Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper

Some movies deserve the scorn heaped upon them.  After all, they’ve been given every chance to succeed, been given all the money to succeed, and failed and deserve to whither on the vine and die.  These would the pretentious, the superficially-important, and the later-career Michael Bay movies — in other words, films that could have — should have — been better, but just weren’t.

Other movies, lacking in technical excellence as they might be, should be free from such scorn, or at least granted a certain level of immunity by virtue of extenuating circumstances — i.e. what madman would seriously criticize the special effects at the end of Beasts Of The Southern Wild be when the entire movie was made for less than what the catering budget was on a Transformers film — obviously, there’s a bit of Michael bay angst running through the post today, but you get the point.

Some movies though deserve no consideration at all because they simply lie outside the bounds of the generally accepted standards of what a movie should be, either by being too revolutionary or too counter to what the norms are.  As an example, when I weighed The Artist for The Best Picture Project I generally found it impossible to classify as good or bad simply because, in terms of modern movies, it exists on such unique, individual and singularly individualistic plain that anything that can be said about it  will always be tempered by the fact that everything you love or hate about it stems explicitly from it’s one-of-a-kindness.

Except, as it turns out, in terms of Best Picture winners The Artist  isn’t so  one-of-a-kind after all, but exists in the company of one other movie, that would be the first Best Picture winner, Wings.

A film poster showing a man and a woman in a passionate embrace.As I said when I weighed up The Artist, Wings is a hard movie to judge, simply because it’s a movie from another time, made to fit different standards of what movies were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do.  Sometimes, when you watch older movies you know they were made at a different time — duh — but you can see some part of it that translates to today.  For instance, the kitchen-sink approach to Marty seems replicated in all manner of indie-dramas today, while the sheer elegance and grandeur and spectacle of Gone With The Wind was clearly the inspiration for more-than-a-few Best Picture winners in the 1980s.  In other words, while you can see bits of lots of films carrying through to today, this seems lost from Wings.

And yet, though it seems beyond classification — a fact I explicitly acknowledge now and which will later lead me to call it ‘unclassifiable’ in this post — the whole point of this series, of The Best Picture Project is to classify and judge films, either against the collective group of Best Picture Winners, or the group of losers from a given year, so that’s what I’ll do, even as I acknowledge the inherent difficulty in doing so.

In case you didn’t know it, Wings is a silent film, which inherently makes it a difficult movie. — as much as I love them, the fact that you cannot hear what the characters say means you can’t look away for more than a moment, for fear of missing something you couldn’t get from the context of the dialog.  This means that a normal 90 minute movie tends to be an exercise in self-punishment, staring at the screen and processing what is happening, and a 150 minute movie like Wings comes across as pure torture.  By the end of the movie I was left so weary by the experience that when I joked with my wife we should turn around and watch it again, just for fun, she didn’t even think about cracking a smile.  And thank goodness that I saw it on DVD with a new score and sound effects — I can only imagine how interminable it would have been if all there was had been that old organ score.  Ugh.

When you think about it, the real problem with silent movies is the very silence — it’s what defines them.  Not only does it change how you are forced to view the movie, but it also changes how the filmmaker makes the movie.  Because there are no words to convey meaning, the actors have to use their faces and bodies to suggest it, but because this is the movies there is little subtlety — everything is big.

In Sunset Boulevard Gloria Swanson derides modern movies because back in the days of the silents they didn’t need dialog: they had faces.  This thought ran through my head all the while I was watching and boy, she wasn’t kidding.  The three leads in Wings never met an outsized facial expression they didn’t like, which strangely has the effect of turning this melodrama — let’s face it, it’s a melodrama — into an unintentional comedy.

Except, this comedy isn’t really all that funny.

Gary CooperThinking about it, it occurs to me that maybe it’s not so much the silence that is the problem with silent movies — it might not be the problem, but it’s a problem — but the acting.  Rather, the overacting.  Maybe, in retrospect, that’s what made Buster Keaton such a popular and engaging lead.  He didn’t mug for the camera and always strive to pull a face.  No, while most everybody around him descended into wave after wave of over-emotion — acting like their very lives depended on it — he was the great stone face, further intensifying just how ridiculous all those people around him were.  It’s also probably why neither of the male leads in Wings were known for their acting careers — at least, generally speaking — and the female lead is known more for her beauty.  Curiously, the most enduring member of the cast is Gary Cooper — never one known to go big with his emotions — who makes a small appearance here as the doomed White.

That Being Said

That being said, tiresome as Wings could be, there were definitely historical things — by ‘things’, I mean ‘technical achievements’ — which jumped out of the movie and demanded recognition.

Usually silent movies suffer from a static camera, in that the director just plops the camera in one spot and has the actors go perform in front of it — this was clearly the way people experienced the live theater and was the same when they saw photographs, so why shouldn’t movies be that way, too?  But even if that’s the way it seems, Wellman didn’t tie his camera down, but actually got it out there and movie.

The first I noticed it was at the beginning, in the scene when Jack goes to see Sylvia and take her for a ride in his jalopy.  When he rolls up on her she’s in a swing with David and instead of just filming them from the side as the swing went back and forth in front of us, the camera was actually on the swing, filming the two of them in motion, while Jack’s car arrives in the background.  Watching it, I was actually reminded of the scene in East of Eden where Kazan tracks James Dean back and forth at a canted angle while he’s on the swing.  Yes, I know it’s not a direct corollary, but it’s what was in my mind, just the same.

Another scene that jumped out at me for the camera work took place in the Folies Bergère and opens with a camera dollying across the tops of several tables, splitting the dining patrons apart one after another as it pushes across, eventually finding Jack at the last table, drunk.  Of all things, when i watched it, the dolly immediately brought to mind — of all things — the dolly under the swing in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Somehow I doubt an intentional connection, though I freely made it.

Plus, as primitive as the dogfight sequences were filmed — either by literally strapping a camera to the wing or front of the plane, giving you mostly headshots, or by filming from the ground, both of which made the scenes interminable — I was reminded that back in 1927 when you wanted a special effect, you couldn’t just CGI it.  You actually had to do it.  This meant when a plane crashed, some poor fool had to get up in it and crash it into the ground.

And the effects that couldn’t be accomplished through practical means, such as two planes crashing in midair — probably something that would work out bad for everybody involved — the scene was staged by following the shadows of the plane on the ground, until they came together.  In terms of the times, it was a quite ingenious solution.

As much as I didn’t really like the film, there were other touches here and there to note:

  1. In general, the film was shot in sepia — not actually black and white — but when it came time for ‘night’ scene, the film was tinted blue and slightly underdevloped, to give the hint of darkness.
  2. While filmed in sepia, there were splashes of color that came in, particularly the flames that shot from all the guns mounted to the airplanes whenever the pilots fired them.  Given this coloring to be done by hand, I can only imagine how laborious a process it must have been.
  3. The split-screen effect early in the film, as the boys arrive in Europe — of course I noticed it, because I love split-screen, especially when it’s done well.  What makes this split-screen interesting is usually you see it used side-by-side, but here it’s an over/under.

Final Analysis

When all is said and done, the truth is that Wings is unclassifiable — I told you I’d come back to that — and cannot be judged alongside modern movies, or even other Best Picture winners.  It, and The Artist, really exist in their own world and can only be taken on their own terms.

Still, the hard reality is that the movie would only appeal to people today who fall into two categories:

  1. Completists.  In this case, I am a completist, because I’m watching all the Best Picture winners.  Other completists might be for war movies, Clara Bow movies, or whatever.
  2. Historical value.  If you care about where the Oscars got started, or what early films looked like, you might want to check it out, but if not, then it’s not for you.

In the end, if you want to sit down and watch a film to pass the time, don’t bother with Wings — you’ll be bored silly.  But if you’ve got some other agenda and have to watch it for that reason, knock yourself out.

Trivia

In truth, there were two Best Picture winners in 1927/28.  Outstanding Picture was won by Wings, while Unique and Artistic Production went to Murnau’s Sunrise.  It was only later the Academy decided that Wings’ award was the true Best Picture.

Wings was the first Best Picture with nudity.  If you look closely in the scene in the hotel room after Jack and Mary leave the Folies, and she takes off her dress, you can catch a snippet of Clara Bow’s goodies.  However, given the snippet is so quick, you might as well not bother trying.  But, if you really have to see it, and I’m saying you don’t, try here.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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