“Do you know what you can do when you see a shooting star?” asks Mary. Jack responds, “No, what?” Mary answers, “You can kiss the girl you love.”
Prior to his career as an actor and director, Academy Award winner William Wellman actually served as a fighter pilot during World War I. His experiences during the war would ultimately serve him well when he was making Wings, one of the most famous silent films ever made and the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture. I got a chance to see an 85th anniversary screening of Wings on the big screen three years ago at Film Forum in New York City in a brand new restoration as part of a William Wellman retrospective. Not only was the film very enjoyable, but it was followed by a surprise post-screening Q&A by William Wellman Jr., the director’s son who had recently published The Man and His Wings: William Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture (I not only got to buy a copy of the book but I was able to get it signed as well!). This review of Wings is my entry in the William Wellman Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging.
1927’s Wings follows two young small-town men, one rich and one middle class who happen to be in love with the same woman, as they enlist as U.S. fighter pilots in World War I. The film follows their tribulations as flying aces who fight against German pilots while dealing with the love triangle they’re entangled in. Wellman assembled a terrific cast that includes Clara Bow (as Mary Preston), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (as Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (as David Armstrong), Gary Cooper (as Cadet White), Jobyna Ralston (as Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (as Herman Schwimpf), Richard Tucker (as Air Commander), and Gunboat Smith (as the Sergeant). The performances come off as melodramatic and a little over-the-top (as was common in the silent era) but in a good way. Bow is terrific as Mary, who’s persistent in her love for Jack even though he doesn’t realize that she loves him. Rogers and Arlen are also terrific as rivals-turned-friends Jack and David (their developing friendship becomes one of the biggest highlights of the film). Cooper shines in his brief but memorable scene as a charismatic pilot who’s idolized by Jack and David.
Wellman brings his aerial experience to the film, staging exciting aerial combat sequences (all of the aerial dogfights, which have been matched but never bettered in other films, were achieved using real planes with cameras mounted on them) and keeping his camera moving in several non-combat sequences. The screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton explores the journey and growth of two men as they are affected by World War I while superbly balancing a mix of romance, comedy, and melodrama (it is still very much a man’s film despite that description). Harry Perry’s cinematography is amazing, especially the aerial combat footage, and E. Lloyd Sheldon’s editing moves the film at a great pace. A creative new surround sound mix was created by Ben Burtt for the new restoration, and it brings new intensity to the on screen action. J.S. Zamecnik delivers an impressive score that matches the romance, comedy, and melodrama of the film. William Wellman’s Wings is a thrilling action film that is among the best that the silent era has to offer. It’s Academy Award win for Best Picture was much deserved (as was Best Engineering Effects), and it is so entertaining that it has managed to hold up almost 90 years later.