Judge Jim Thomas' paper airplane maneuvers were once the subject of a silent film.
An Epic of the Air
As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, Paramount decided to go into the vaults and dust off one of the studio's treasures: Wings—winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only silent film to ever win). Paramount had wanted to restore Wings for some time, but given the condition of the film—no original negatives, only some prints copied from deteriorating nitrate stock—it was only in the last few years that restoration techniques advanced to the point where restoring the 1927 classic was practical. Does the restored Wings (1927) (Blu-ray) soar, or does it crash and burn?
Facts of the Case
Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) is your basic All-American guy: while he customizes his car, he pines after local beauty Sylvia Lewis (Jobna Ralston). There's only one problem—she's in love with local blue-blood David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who returns her affections. Left out in the cold is Jack's next-door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow, It), who adores Jack, but can't get him to notice her.
When war breaks out, Jack and David both sign up to become aviators; Sylvia tries to let down Jack easily before he leaves, but a misunderstanding leads to Jack claiming a love token intended for David. The pair's romantic rivalry is set aside during training, and they become fast friends. Assigned to the same flying squadron in France, they battle the Kaiser's forces, gaining particular distinction when they shoot down a massive Gotha bomber. For her part, rather than mope around at home, Mary volunteers to go overseas as an ambulance driver. She happens upon Jack as he's partying down in Paris, but a misunderstanding results in Mary having to return home. As the war rages around them, David and Jack are each certain that Sylvia loves him; the personal conflict comes to a head right before the massive Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Can the two set aside their personal issues long enough to survive the Big Push?
It's a bit unusual to begin the review of a silent film with the technical aspects, but it seems appropriate in this case. In an era when anything that can be imagined can be created with a computer, too many people think of silent films as quaint relics that are more important as historical artifacts than entertainment. Well, Wings blows such expectations out of the sky. The movie's effortless depiction of individual drama set against the backdrop of an epic conflict gives you an inkling of what Pearl Harbor could have been if Michael Bay had any, you know, talent.
Like Pearl Harbor, Wings was intended to be a blockbuster from day one; specifically, it was a "roadshow" feature—meaning that a lot more than just a print was distributed. In major locations—and in some smaller locations as well—a live orchestra accompanied the film, as well as a sound effects performer. Tickets for these performances were a whopping $2—which would be about $25 today (that $15 ticket for Avatar doesn't seem quite so bad now, does it?). The restoration team found a copy of the roadshow score, and recorded it, along with period sound effects, in full DTS-HD 5.1 surround. Not only is the music wonderful, but the sound effects bring (literally) an added dimension to the film—as a plane zooms across the screen, guns blazing, the gunfire zooms across the room as well. The surround track really comes into its own during the climactic Battle of Saint-Mihiel; the explosions come from all around you. If your town didn't get the full roadshow treatment, you usually had an organist accompanying the film. When Wings got its first (non-digital) restoration back in 1987, organist Gaylord Carter, who started his career playing the organ in movie houses back in the 1920s, composed and recorded an organ score for Wings; that score is included as a Dolby Digital Stereo audio track.
As impressive as the audio is, the restoration job done on the visuals is even more impressive. Keep in mind that we're talking about a movie made eighty-five years ago, and that the existing version of the film was mastered off a deteriorated nitrate copy. The image is surprisingly clear and detailed, with restored color tintings and restored/recreated color effects—mainly muzzle flashes from machine guns and flames streaming from damaged aircraft. The restoration team could have made the picture look even better, but they didn't want it to not look like a silent film anymore. There is still some flickering and banding, and backgrounds are a little muddy, but details are surprisingly sharp.
Stepping back from the restoration job, the accomplishments of Wellman and his team of cameramen cannot be denied. There's no rear projection, no trick photography; they just strapped cameras to the planes and went up. They literally invented techniques for aerial photography as they went. Arlen was cast largely because he knew how to fly, while Rogers learned how to fly for the part; in sharp contrast to how flying scenes are usually filmed—scenes from stunt pilots cut with shots of the actor in the cockpit, filmed while the plane is still on the ground—Wellman had cameras mounted in the planes; the actors would get up in the air, activate the camera, and then perform their lines while maneuvering the plane as necessary. The resulting realism, coupled with spectacular aerial footage, gives the air combat sequences both epic scope and intimacy. The sequences are surprisingly effective today; one can only imagine how audiences in 1927 responded. Paramount spent a whopping $2 million on the production, approximately $25 million at today's prices. However, on top of that, the U.S. Army donated the equivalent of $15 million in support, everything from aircraft to extras to film locations. The bulk of the production was even filmed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, which was at the time the Army's main flight school.
Even the non-aerial sequences have a certain flair; Wellman uses the camera to emphasize the scope of the picture. There are some impressive tracking shots, backdrops for the subtitles that add some nuance to the stark text, and when we first see the Gotha bomber, every shot is composed in such a way to make it look as massive as possible—even though we're talking about a two-engine biplane. I suppose the bottom line is that I enjoyed the movie much more than I had expected. At 144 minutes, it's probably a good twenty minutes too long, but that's about it.
While the performances are, like most silent performances, a bit exaggerated, they are not so over the top as to distract or annoy. Bow is simply enchanting—it doesn't take long to understand why she was the "It" girl. Rogers and Arlen do well enough; Rogers' inexperience, in particular, shows, but at the same time, his drunk scene in the Parisian bar is a delight. While Gary Cooper is featured prominently on the disc's packaging, his role amounts to only 90 seconds. Wellman was looking for someone who would make an indelible impression on the audience, and Cooper's undeniable screen presence fit the bill, even though this was only his third or fourth screen role. The cameo was memorable enough to launch him from bit player to featured player in Hollywood, with stardom coming just a few years later with The Virginian.
There are three solid featurettes; "Grandeur in the Sky" recounts the film's production, "Dogfight!" discusses the early history of aerial combat, and a final featurette offers a brief look at the restoration process. All three are good, but you can't help but wish that there were more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As noted earlier, the film is probably a good fifteen or twenty minutes too long. Some of the plotlines are more than a little hoary, and, to be honest, they were rather hoary when the film was made.
Films from The Blue Max to The Battle of Britain to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope are indebted to Wings, the first film to bring the high-adrenalin rush of dogfighting to the screen. Paramount is hereby commended not only for the film, but for the love and care evident in the restoration.
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