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At last year's The Reel Thing restoration and film resources convention, a Paramount representative gave a depressing presentation about the company's assets being systematically transferred for future marketing as downloads. She breezed through clips from the hard-to-see Don Siegel picture Private Hell 36 as if it were a rare discovery of little interest to present-day audiences. Luckily, Paramount can be roused to impressive restoration action for certain of its crown jewels. I saw an astonishingly good 4K restoration and projection last year of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Paramount's new restoration of the De Mille The Ten Commandments is phenomenal. The studio has now premiered its latest digital refurbishing job, 1927's Wings directed by the great William A. Wellman. Besides winning the very first Best Picture Oscar, the movie is the first epic of aerial warfare and the logical ancestor of everything from The Dawn Patrol to Top Gun. It also inaugurated the notion of military cooperation in the production of spectacles with pro-military themes. This was four years before All Quiet on the Western Front and WW1 hadn't yet been pictured in pacifist or isolationist terms, at least not in most American movies. Author John Monk Saunders wrote extensively about the moral effects of the war (see the impressive The Last Flight). Wings has its tragedies but keeps things on a positive basis, at least for its bright young hero, Jack Powell. My father was seven years old when Wings was released and probably saw it in his Iowa hometown. I wonder if the film had a role in inspiring his career in military aviation?
A real Hollywood epic in 1927 was something that MGM or Universal might do once every two years. Even with millions' worth of Army assistance the price tag on Wings was staggering. Paramount threw its top star Clara Bow, the delightful "It" girl, into the lead role. Bow made sex seem like the most exciting, fun human activity possible. Director Wellman drew his young cast from the Paramount contract rolls, and filmed them aloft in plane cockpits, sometimes actually piloting the planes. An WW1 flyer himself, Wellman staffed a genuine flying circus with daredevil pilots willing to do nearly any insane flying stunt imaginable. Thus began a tradition of aerial wonders, carried on by people like Howard Hughes in the amazing Hell's Angels. Between the two films, Hollywood had enough WW1 combat stock footage to last a decade.
Wings is a "buddy" story about two American pals, Jack Powell and David Armstrong (newcomers Charles "Buddy" Rogers & Richard Arlen). Two "swell guys" from top to toe, Jack and David have only one problem -- the effusive Jack is convinced that the local beauty Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) is in love with him, when she has actually set her cap for David. Neither Sylvia nor David has the heart to disabuse Jack of this notion: he's just too nice a guy to burst his bubble. Meanwhile, Jack's neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow) can't get Jack to notice her, and must settle for defeat when both boys take off to become flyers in the European war.
Training is a character building experience, a cross between the good-sportsmanship of a football team and constant fun in the barracks. Fellow flying cadet (and comedy relief) Herman Schwimpf ("dumb Swede" comic El Brendel) is demoted to mechanic and becomes a squire to the knights of the air. Both boys survive their first weeks in combat with a combination of The Right Stuff and plain good luck. Meanwhile, Mary has volunteered to drive a truck at the front line (?) and is delighted to learn that Jack, known as the "Shooting Star" is having success in combat. She finally finds him in Paris, but he's stone drunk and doesn't recognize Mary when she wrests him from a saucy French pickup. MP's jump to the wrong conclusion when they catch her in Jack's room. With The Big Push coming up, the entire Allied Front prepares for a decisive battle. Depressed that Jack is still hung up on Sylvia, David decides that he's "in the way" and develops a dangerously fatalistic attitude. When they go into combat, one will be shot down. The other will go on a mad vengeance spree.
Welcome to quality Hollywood filmmaking circa 1927. Wings has plenty of inter-titles, for dialogue, scene-setting, and play-by-play reportage during the impressive aerial dogfight action. Clever inter-title artwork uses an animated, undulating female silhouette to illustrate the appeal of a leave in Paris. The acting is good, if a little "enthusiastic". Clara Bow is irresistible as a bubbly sweetheart in search of a kiss. Buddy Rogers' charm makes the somewhat thickheaded Jack more than likeable. Richard Arlen plays his part a little more soberly, as he has to carry the burden of the romantic mix-up throughout the whole picture. This is the kind of story where a simple statement of fact would clear up the whole problem, and probably leave everybody happy. But that would break the romantic tension, and then where would we be?
Wings was a big picture for the relative newcomer Gary Cooper, who gets a plum role I won't describe further. After noting his top billing on the cover of this Blu-ray, you'll fall off your chair when you see how his appearance is handled. I realize that almost every other write-up of Wings spills the beans on this particular spoiler, but this is a matter of principle. 1 Also present in small roles are Roscoe Karnes, doing well even when robbed of his distinctive voice, gossip witch Hedda Hopper and Henry B. Walthall. Julia Swayne Gordon, who is particularly effective playing David's mother. We're told that future director Charles Barton (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) is the clownish doughboy who gets "first aid" from Clara Bow. At least I think that's him.
The airplane stuff in Wings still takes our breath away, although it doesn't quite reach the reckless/insane extreme of Hell's Angels. The planes turn and dodge in beautiful patterns, but our understanding of continuity and who's shooting at who comes mostly from the inter-titles. Vintage special effects augment the smoke of burning planes with hand-animated and stencil-colored yellow-orange flames. The effect is both impressive and distracting.
Paramount wouldn't call Wings a pro-War movie, but that's what it is. The aerial combat is presented as strategically decisive in the overall fighting, and the Allies' Big Push results in a decisive victory that casual viewers will take as the end of the war. For an opposing viewpoint on the endless slaughter without honor, glory or human values, see Richard Attenborough's adaptation of the musical Oh! What a Lovely War. Paramount released that one too, but don't hold your breath for a Blu-ray.
Wings succeeds marvelously as a grand entertainment. It's a highly accessible silent movie that non-cinema freaks can warm up to. Just to discover Clara Bow will be quite a treat -- the direction even gives her a daring peek-a-boo moment of suggested nudity. The movies enjoyed that kind of innocent freedom until 1934.
Paramount proudly presents its Blu-ray of Wings in a beautiful HD encoding. The restoration experts have used good taste and judgment, especially in handling grain. The movie does equally well making the aerial footage look attractive, and delivering to-die-for images of Ms. Bow. Even details like the sheen on her lipstick make an impression.
The presentation comes with two soundtracks, a pipe organ score composed by the great Gaylord Carter and a new orchestral recording of the original score, accompanied by terrific sound effects overseen by Ben Burtt. Also included are three substantial featurette-documentaries. Grandeur in the Sky gives us the whole making-of story, with plenty of rare photographs and the participation of William Wellman, Jr. Dogfight! visits a flying museum for vintage aircraft and augments its impressive new video shots of the planes in flight with explanations of how real WW1 dogfights really played out. Lastly, a restoration featurette shows us the involved digital processes used to maximize the visual impact of the surviving film elements, with sidebar trips explaining the rerecording of the original score, the accurate tinting of various scenes and the creation of the new sound effect track.
Paramount has delivered a truly worthy restoration of a significant historical epic, the winner of the first Best Picture Oscar. Let's hope it does well, and encourages the mounting of more studio restorations on this grand scale.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Wings Blu-ray rates:
Audio: Two separate soundtracks, orchestral and pipe organ
Supplements: Three featurette-docus, see above
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 22, 2012
1. I've also used up my quota of spoilers for this week ....
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T'was Ever Thus.