Beginning the long tradition of excellence in film, this high flying story of friendship, love and war Wings was the very first winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Directed by William A. Wellman, Wings is about two young men, middle class Jack (Charles Rogers) and rich boy David (Richard Arlen). Jack has eyes for David’s girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who doesn’t have the heart to plainly shoot the boy down. The girl next door, Mary (twenties It-girl Clara Bow), is good friends with Jack, helping him work on a car they dub The Shooting Star. Mary drops huge hints about her affection for Jack, but he doesn’t catch on at all. Many times throughout the film, Jack is too focused on one thing to see the big picture.
When war breaks out, the boys are off to flight school. We’re shown some fun footage of antique flight simulators and men stumbling dizzily away from them. But soon we’re shown the real dangers of flight. You may notice a very young Gary Cooper in a quick scene, but it seems that too soon he’s been in a crash. He’s just a small role to give a face to the dangers of flight.
Soon, the boys are on dangerous missions and epic dogfights fill the screen. We’re shown from far away, tiny planes performing death defying stunts among the clouds and up-close images of the actor-pilots flying and acting simultaneously. It’s quite a feat really, considering each pilot actor had to fly and then turn on the camera mounted on the front of the plane, then continue to play out the scene while flying. Today, our actors just sit in a fake cockpit next to a green screen.
In the dogfight scenes, the title cards become especially important. Without them, it would just be planes flying around aimlessly, the narrating cards explain the situation and turn it into a story. And they’re timed very well, they never seem to hinder the action, but further it. I especially love how they are written with elegant prose, at times it’s downright poetic. Some of my favorite clips of text I wanted to share from the dogfight scenes are: “there was chivalry in the knights in the air,” “zooming into the belly of the monster” and “earthward, twisting and doubling though the clouds.” It’s all quite beautiful and fitting for this film of flight and war, I sure wouldn’t describe Top Gun that way.
There are more effects than capturing flight on film. In a scene where Jack is on leave in Paris, he gets drunk on champagne and starts to see little bubbles around him. It’s really such a fun little bit of old movie magic that is done so well, but the gag runs for quite a while. Soon there’s bubbles fluttering out of flutes, tubas and a bedpost. With Jack intoxicated, there can also be a great bit with his vision extremely blurred. This is also pulled off very well.
If you’re reading this, enjoy classic film and need a brush-up on the silent era, there’s no excuse for you to not watch Wings. Right now, you can watch Wings for free on YouTube and no copyright laws are being broken. The picture quality is of surprisingly good quality for both being over eighty years old and on YouTube. It’s the very first Best Picture winner, quite an enjoyable film and broken up into fourteen ten minute videos. Guilt free, you can take breaks and grab a snacks and check your social networks between the buffering. I bet Wellman never imagined that to happen to his film.
“Jack, don’t you know me?”