WINGS (1928)

WINGSTo pick our first Best Picture winner to watch, we drew from a hat. Improbably enough, the movie we drew for our first viewing, out of 83 possibilities, was the first-ever Oscar winner: 1928’s Wings. And with that auspicious selection, our project begins.

Looking at a list of Best Picture winners is like looking at one of those lists of American presidents. It starts with that guy I always see on TV, then other guys I kinda remember, through the guys I’ve never heard of and finally, at the end of the list, men who seem more like mythological characters to appear in paintings than real people. Wings is the George Washingon of Oscar winners. It takes us to the zenith of Hollywood’s silent era, the pre-Golden Age golden age, a nearly mythical time when whole epic features were made, shown to millions and then lost altogether. Wings itself was considered a lost film, until someone found a print in France.

The first movie we chose to write about coincidentally happened to be the first feature film to win an Oscar. Wings is a 1927 silent film about two World War I fighter pilots. The story begins in their hometown, and we see that they both have fallen for the same girl, Sylvia. One of the boys, Jack, fails to pay proper attention to the girl next door, Mary, who is head over heels for him. He does leave his car – The Shooting Star – for her to drive when he gets deployed. This results in her learning to drive and enlisting herself as an ambulance driver.

Wings is a bit long, but has extraordinary cinematography for its time. I found myself asking out loud how they might have filmed the battle scenes. The friendship between the two boys is quintessential – despite a rivalry over the affection of Sylvia, Jack and David become close during their basic training. I work at an organization that advocates for service members, veterans and their families, so I paid special attention to the depiction of military throughout. The special features section of the DVD showed that a lot of production work was actually done in San Antonio, Texas – home of Lackland Air Force Base, the site of all Air Force basic training.

After David and Jack receive medals of honor, they get time off in Paris and commence to drinking and cavorting with women. Mary hasn’t made her presence known to the young men yet, but learns that their leave is cut short and tries to help them get the message. This results in one of the most memorable scenes from the film. Jack has a young woman on his arm but is more fascinated with the bubbles he sees spouting out everywhere. He doesn’t recognize Mary, who eventually decides to doll herself up to distract him from the woman he is with. She is successful – he notes that of the two, Mary has “bubbles in her eyes.” Even though her character’s role isn’t critical to the plot and feels tacked on, it’s hard not to fall in love with Mary and appreciate that Clara Bow has a presence in the film.

When you watch a movie this old, apart from enjoying it as the producers intended, it’s a little like peeking out the windows of a time machine and you get to see the world that hasn’t existed since my grandmother was in grade school. This was a world where the Great War, so largely forgotten today, was the defining event of an era, a catastrophic conflict that consumed whole nations and millions of lives. Could they have imagined there would even be other wars after? This was the year the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war for good. I’ve heard of anti-German-American sentiment during World War I. The way I’ve heard the story told, the German-American community did such a good job presenting themselves as more American than German (Schwimpf’s flag tattoo!) that by the time the Second World War came around, it was a non-issue. Now we’re mostly just left with names like Dascher and Otto. Sources on the internet hint that the movie was rewritten to include one of the studio’s most popular stars, Clara Bow. Had all of her scenes ended on the cutting room floor, I can’t think of a way the plot would have changed at all. Of course the studio bosses had no way of knowing that in a few years, Bow, like so many of her contemporaries, would be left behind by the shift to talkies.

Next film: TOM JONES (1963)

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