Wings

1927, Movie, NR, 139 mins

Review

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The only silent film to win an Oscar for Best Picture of the year, WINGS was a spectacular tribute to WWI combat pilots. A big hit upon release in 1927, the movie drew praise primarily for the excitement and authenticity of its aerial sequences.

In small-town America in 1917, young Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) is in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), not realizing that she loves David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who returns her affections. To complicate matters further, Jack is adored by his next-door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow).

Jack and David enlist in the Great War. During aviator training, their mutual hostility turns into friendship. Overseas in Europe, they become ace pilots and are decorated for their valor. While the boys are celebrating in Paris, orders go out canceling their leaves--a major campaign is about to be launched. Mary, who has enlisted in the Women's Motor Transport Corps, searches for Jack to tell him the news. When she finds him in a nightclub, he is too drunk to recognize her. Posing as a French flirt, Mary sees to it that Jack gets back to camp, but she herself is sent back to the States.

During an air skirmish, David's derring-do saves Jack from being shot down; as a result, David is himself shot down and erroneously presumed dead. The next day, Jack, determined to avenge his friend, makes a daring solo raid on the enemy forces. By day's end, the Germans have been routed. Meanwhile, David has taken off in a German plane he has stolen. Flying back to the base, Jack encounters David's plane, mistakes him for the enemy, shoots him down, and lands. David dies in his friend's arms, and Jack finds a love letter Sylvia has written David.

After receiving a hero's welcome back home, Jack visits David's mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) and father (Henry B. Walthall) to ask their forgiveness for his tragic mistake. They grant it. Afterwards, Jack runs into Mary and realizes that she is the girl for him.

William Wellman was a 29-year-old with only two pictures to his credit (one of them a flop), but because he was the only director in town with combat flying experience, he was entrusted with WINGS, one of the biggest and most expensive movies Hollywood had ever undertaken. Wellman received the full cooperation of the US War Department on the condition that each of the thousands of Army men it lent the project would be insured for $10,000. Portions of the movie were initially projected in Magnascope, a process through which the screen would periodically expand to showcase the aerial sequences. WINGS went on to become the first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. (The Academy schizophrenically cited also the F.W. Murnau classic, SUNRISE, for "Artistic Quality of Production.")

Not really a film of any lasting importance, WINGS does deliver a full portion of action played out "on the high sea of heaven," as one of the intertitles puts it. No big deal today, the movie's pioneering flying sequences dazzled and enthralled 1927 viewers, particularly those lucky enough to live near theaters equipped with Magnascope.

Gary Cooper, on the way to stardom, makes a very brief but charismatic appearance as a veteran flyer who is about to run out of luck. The four young principals are attractive, although the endearing Jobyna Ralston and the immortal Clara Bow are underused and misused, respectively.

Bow, as always, is relentlessly game. She makes her first appearance by a clothesline, emerging from under a pair of dangling bloomers to primp and flirt like mad with her beloved Jack, who is more interested in his auto than in his saucy next-door neighbor. In no time flat, she has joined him underneath his car, her legs kicking with the irrepressible abandon for which she was already becoming famous. Aside from the Paris sequence, which is blessed with a few frames of Clara unclad, Bow subsequently is forced to take a back seat to the air show. Any Clara Bow movie that does not revolve around Bow herself seems in retrospect a waste of her time and enormous talents.

Rather predictable but still quite watchable, WINGS is to be commended for shunning at least one hoary cliche: when a French officer decorates the two small-town American boys for heroism, the traditional cheek kissing is not played for comedy. (Violence, substance abuse.) leave a comment

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