05 August 2008

Wings (1927)

d. William A. Wellman / USA / 141 mins.

Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture, setting the precedent for giving that award to less deserving films. Okay, okay, to be fair, the award it won was technically called "Best Picture, Production" and the more deserving candidate – F.W. Murnau's Sunrise – won "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production," an award that no longer exists unless you count Best Original Screenplay, so often given to those popular and quasi-indie little-unique-films-that-could. (Because giving those films any other award would simply soil the Academy's collar.) After 1927 the award would simply be consolidated into Best Picture, so today Wings is remembered at the first winner.

I mention the whole Best Picture element because it's ironic. Most action and adventure films today fail to yield much, if any, of a response on the ballot, and Wings is in essence a forerunner to the summer blockbuster: there's action, romance, drama, deaths, and spectacular effects. In fact, you could make an argument that the best part of the film is its surprisingly skillful cinematography, particularly during the amazing World War I aerial battle sequences. That sort of compliment doesn't bode well for the rest of the film though, including its stiff cast and free-falling script. The plot concerns two men – rich boy Jack (Buddy Rogers) and middle-class boy David (Richard Arlen) – in a bitter rivalry for the affection of the girl-next-door named Mary ("It Girl" Clara Bow). They enlist for the war and are stationed together, grating against each other until they become brothers in arms. Mary ships out to assist the war effort, and the ribbons of their relationships begin to unspool as the war ravages on. (A young Gary Cooper also appears in one scene in what is considered to be a career-launching role, although he'd been appearing in movies for years.)

The director is William A. Wellman, a steady and reliable filmmaker whose later work would include James Cagney's breakthrough in The Public Enemy (1931) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a wonderful western morality play starring Henry Fonda. Wellman's direction is good but sometimes unfocused; there's an odd and distracting gag that appears in the middle of the movie, where alcohol causes partying military personnel to see bubbles. If it had been brief, it might have been too cutesy but at least over quickly; as it appears, it drags on for an reasonable amount of time. (More than a few portions run on for too long; I imagine forty-five minutes to an hour could have been easily trimmed.) Wings is a relatively solid silent drama at a time when the best silent films were the comedies, and not an altogether uncomfortable experience. If you enjoy war films and have the wherewithal to stay seated for two and a half hours, then Wings might just be for you. Otherwise you'd be better off devoting your time to Sunrise.


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