Commentary by Dean Thompson

Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.

Cast: Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Charles "Buddy" Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), Gary Cooper (Cadet White), Arlette Marchal (Celeste), El Brendel (Patrick O'Brien), Gunboat Smith (The Sergeant), Richard Tucker (air commander), Julia Swayne Gordon (Mrs. Armstrong), Henry B. Walthall (Mr. Armstrong), George Irving (Mr. Powell), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Powell), Nigel De Brulier (peasant), Dick Grace and Rod Rogers (aviators).

Dear lovable and crusty William Wellman. Though the legendary director's been gone for nearly thirty years, the many interviews filmed near the end of his life still make us grin with pleasure: cantankerous, sentimental, by turns touching and hilarious, he's REAL.

One might quibble only with his estimation of "Wings," one of his best-remembered pictures.

"A great hit to me is a picture that has lived for years. It's unfair, I guess. Guys say to me, "Gee, you made
'Wings'!" Well, they're too . . . young ever to have seen it, but they tell you that it must have been a
great picture. Well, it was great, but it wasn't anywhere near as great as they think it was. So few people today have seen it, but you still get great enthusiasm which has been handed on, sincerely and honestly, from people that did see it. With luck, this will be a picture that will be remembered. Do you think anyone will ever hear of 'Cat Ballou' years from now?"
- Wellman, in a 1964 interview by Kevin Brownlow for The Parade's Gone By (University of Berkeley Press, 1968)

The jury's still out on "Cat Ballou" (Columbia, 1964); but WINGS, almost eighty years after its release, remains one of the most beloved of all silent pictures - even when it survived only as a single print in the Cinematheque Francais. (Its 40th anniversary was oddly commemorated by a 1967 "Petticoat Junction" episode, in which the film's surviving stars, Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen, attended its "premiere" at the Hooterville Bijou.)

On the eve of the First World War, naive Jack Powell (Rogers) and rich David Armstrong (Arlen) vie for the attention of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), much to the chagrin of Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who for years has carried a torch for Jack. Heeding Uncle Sam's call, Jack and David enlist and become friends as they go through flight training, battle the enemy in the air, receive medals for their valor, take a respite in Paris (where Jack is reunited with Mary, who has joined the Women's Motor Corps) and then return to battle. Only one of the men

Thus summarized, the story may seem too slight to be stretched to nearly two and a half hours. But those critics and viewers who complain about the film's running time miss the point: like Rex Ingram's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (Metro Pictures, 1921) and King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (M-G-M, 1925), Wellman's sprawling and expensive ($2 million in 1927) epic must of necessity take a measured pace in establishing youthful naivete, early and unformed impressions of military life, growing friendships during the rigors of training, and trials by fire before (in its final third) bombarding the viewer with a devastating blitzkrieg of images driving home the brutality of war.

So the viewer must wait some 40 minutes before Jack and David take their first flight; but as they begin to soar, so does "Wings". (We can only begin to imagine the impact of the original showings, which used a large-screen process called Magnascope: as the dawn patrol took off, the frame expanded to several times its normal size.) The air battles, photographed by Harry Perry and his crew of assistants, are among the most astonishing flying sequences ever put on film (as visceral and thrilling as the battles which propelled George Lucas' "Star Wars" half a century later). Unlike the then-touted (and now not "quite" as impressive) special effects in "Star Wars," there isn't even a whiff of back projection; strapped to the planes themselves, Perry's cameras hurtle the viewer through the clouds with almost sickening force. As Brownlow noted, "The audience is given the vicarious thrill of shooting down balloons, engaging the enemy in a dogfight, bombing a village, machine-gunning columns of troops and chasing and destroying a general's staff car." When Jack and David make a beeline to the Folies Bergère later in the film (another inspired sequence of Parisian joie de vivre), they aren't the only ones in need of a stiff drink.

But the worst of WWI is yet to come, for the concluding Battle of St. Mihiel packs even more of a wallop. Like much of the film, this sequence was filmed near San Antonio, Texas. The production was given full cooperation by the War Department, and Wellman had the army bombard the ground with field guns and then had teams of Mexican laborers dig trenches. The result, writes Frank Thompson in William A. Wellman (Filmmakers Series #4, Scarecrow, 1983), "was so eerily effective that several of the fliers who had flown in France confessed to Wellman that just flying over the location made them nervous." The director spent ten days rehearsing the 3,500 troops and 60 planes that would be used in the scene - which, amazingly enough, was filmed in only one day.

In Brownlow's HOLLYWOOD series, Wellman was interviewed on camera and related that the many cameramen on hand filmed the scene in only a few minutes. He had waited anxiously for days for enough sunlight to shoot this sequence. When the moment came, he was ready. Wellman himself triggered the explosions from a detonator keyboard. In the middle of all the chaos, he threatened to kill a visitor who distracted him, only to find out later that said visitor was a major financier for Paramount. In any event, the battle - with bombs bursting all around, bodies flying through the air, and tanks crushing hapless soldiers - is every bit as powerful as the similar climaxes of "The Birth of a Nation"
(David W. Griffith Corp, for Epoch Producing
Corp., 1915) or "The Big Parade."

The Cast that Dipped and Soared in Wings

Granted, "Wings" has some weaknesses. The ubiquitous comic relief of El Brendel is tiresome here, and scenarist Julian Johnson's intertitles sometimes dampen the suspense of the air battles by announcing what's about to happen (shades of the Griffith Biographs!). And the relationship between Rogers and Arlen never quite comes across as it should, for the simple reason that Arlen, clenching his jaw to indicate a range of emotions, remains a handsome, brilliantined stick. He's marginally more animated while flying, titillating lipreaders as he cusses up a storm, but it's a shame that he should be remembered primarily for this film when he gave a far better performance for Wellman the following year in "Beggars of Life" (Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., 1928), with Louise Brooks.

Buddy Rogers is another matter: the small-town boy from Olathe, Kansas, is as fresh and appealing here as he is in "My Best Girl" (United Artists, 1927), made in the same year with his future wife, Mary Pickford. What Pickford biographer Scott Eyman calls Rogers' "cornfed decency" comes across in every scene - his Jack Powell is so without guile that whether he's exuding naïve gee-whizness, crying with remorse, raging at the enemy, or giggling tipsily, he is always believable. Could Rogers have played anything other than the kind, sweet-natured man he apparently was all of his long life? Probably not. But taken on its own terms, and given Rogers' suitability for this character, his performance works.

That leaves top-billed Clara Bow, who is - to put the matter directly - the bee's knees. She was cast as box-office insurance for the untested director, Wellman. "Wings" shows, even more than "It" (1927), what the fuss over Clara was all about. Her big, luminous eyes may be the most expressive on film: watch how Mary's eyes sparkle when she's helping Jack build his "shooting star" flivver, and then see what dark pools of sorrow they become as she realizes that Jack's heart belongs to another girl. Bow's touted vitality fairly leaps off the screen, and she and Rogers play so well together (lipreaders will note that she calls him "Buddy" in one scene) that Jobyna Ralston as Sylvia, charming enough in the comedies that she made with Harold Lloyd, fades out of sight here. (She had the last laugh off the set, however: Richard Arlen married her in 1927.) The contrast between the two actresses is so marked that when Rogers' character early on prefers sweet Sylvia over sexy Mary, you wonder just how fool-in-the-head the scriptwriters meant him to be!

"Wings" is also one of the first films that launched the career of Gary Cooper. As Cadet White, he's present for all of two minutes and sixteen seconds, yet he wipes the floor with Rogers and Arlen. The depth of his presence is almost eerie. Maybe it's the pleasure of seeing that familiar lanky frame and laconic face - but when he's onscreen with the two nominal leads, you sense the difference between acting and being, between standing somewhere within the frame and filling it - in sum, the things that make a screen performer a legend.

For silent-film diehards, there's a special delight: the actors playing Arlen's parents are none other than Henry B. Walthall and Julia Swayne Gordon, who hark back to the early days of Biograph and Vitagraph, respectively. Walthall, Griffith's immortal Little Colonel, has all the authority of yore, and Gordon in particular is wonderful: notice how she moves Rogers to tears in their scene together. Aside from the way this moment tugs at the heartstrings, it provides a touching testimonial to the grand tradition of filmmaking as we see Gordon, who had played the Empress Josephine for Vitagraph in 1909, truly connecting with Rogers, who was with us until only a few years ago.

And the power of "Wings" remains with us too. I showed it to two of my students not long ago. When it was over, they were silent until I had rewound the videotape. One student swabbed her eyes and said, "I feel so drained." "Me too," said the other. Then he looked at me reproachfully: "Why didn't you warn us?" It was a moment that Wellman, a gruff softie if there ever was one, would have enjoyed.

Wings runs 139 minutes. The print quality is good to excellent, and the video release features an effective organ score by the great Gaylord Carter. In 1927, this film was on the New York Times "Top 10 Film List" and won the first Best Picture Academy Award for 1927-28.

Works consulted:
Kevin Brownlow, THE PARADE'S GONE BY... and the HOLLYWOOD (TV documentary) series;
Frank Thompson, WILLIAM A. WELLMAN;

copyright 2004 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved.

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