Best Picture: WINGS (1927/1928)
By Witney Seibold on February 19, 2014
What can be learned from watching every single film to have won an Oscar for Best Picture? Witney Seibold is determined to find out, and he’s going to be writing about each winner right here, one at a time.
Let’s start at the very beginning with the 1927 film, William Wellman’s Wings.
First a bit of trivia: For the first six years of the Academy Awards’ history, films considered for awards spanned two one-year periods. The first Academy Awards considered films released between August 1st, 1927 to July 31st 1929. It wouldn’t be until 1935 that the year of consideration would be readjusted to include a proper calendar year. This is why Wings is called the Best Picture of 1927/1928. But to the review:
Most people – at least most non-film people – only know William Wellman’s Wings for the space it occupies in the world of film trivia. It was the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and that’s about where knowledge of it stops. Some might be able to point to it as a stellar example of on-screen aerial dogfights, but few people I’ve talked to have actually seen it. Indeed, until it came time for me to write this review, I hadn’t seen it either. Having now seen it, I feel that Wings is a film that needs to be rescued from its relative obscurity, and perhaps vaunted as a legitimately great film. I was surprised at how dynamic, how moving, and how entertaining Wings was.
Wings is a silent movie, which may alienate some younger viewers unused to the form. Silent movies, however, mark an era of heightened melodrama, when filmmaking hadn’t yet fancied itself subtle. There were subtle films, to be sure, but mainstream Hollywood entertainments like Wings tended to skew gigantic. As such, stories involved deeper passions, more tears, more betrayals, and carefully constructed climaxes wherein young heroes have to confront the parents of their downed companions, whom they accidentally shot down themselves during a heroic dogfight, all while clutching the dear teddy bear that the dear companion used to hold for good luck. Yes, that happens in Wings.
The story involves two young hotshot soldiers, and their respective loves. Jack (Charles Rogers) is the younger, more flighty of the two men, and who is beloved by the spunky Mary (the amazing Clara Bow). David (Richard Arlen) is more staid and adult, and plans to marry his beloved Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Jack loves Sylvia, too, much to Mary’s chagrin. When the men are called off to fight in WWI, there’s a bit of a mix-up, and Jack accidentally receives a picture from Sylvia, thinking that Sylvia loves him, even though Sylvia has no feelings for Jack, and David and Sylvia know that Mary loves Jack… It sounds complex, but it’s all clear in the movie.
In short, it’s the story of the two men, their fights for survival as hotshot buzzboys, and their ever-growing unspoken romantic conflicts over Sylvia. Mary, meanwhile, also enlists in the war effort, and tries to find Jack and win his heart back. In the movie’s best scene, Mary finds Jack at a Parisian nightclub, and tries to seduce him while he’s drunk.
There is something refreshing about the heightened melodrama of Wings, especially to a modern viewer like me, hooked on all the recent commercial junk that tries constantly to cover up its own melodrama with a “realistic” style. Wings comes from an era when it was okay to be heartbreakingly emotional at all times. The beats are more obvious, and the acting is more over-the-top, but it doesn’t necessarily feel artificial.
Much credit should be given to Clara Bow, one of cinema’s greatest sex symbols. When compared to other starlets of her time, you can see why Bow made such a splash. Some people may prefer the steely sultriness of Louise Brooks, or the cute innocence of Lillian Gish, or even the earthy sexuality of Theda Bara, but Bow had a “hot classmate” appeal that is certainly undeniable. She was the girl you had a crush on in the 7th grade, and never had the courage to speak to. She had a sexy energy that was irrepressible, a playful best-friend quality that had you instantly attracted to her, and also instantly sympathetic with her.
Also notable about Wings is its dynamic camera work. The camera is lightweight and free in this film like in few others. It floats. An early scene shows a pair of lovers on a swing, the camera swinging with them. The aforementioned nightclub scene contains a single-take shot that zooms merrily over the tabletops of various couples, pushing past them, and eventually landing on a single glass of champagne being held by our hero. You can see where Martin Scorsese got a lot of his tricks by watching Wings. What’s more, the bulk of Wings is devoted to impressive aerial dogfights between American and German biplanes, all achieved with actual planes doing actual stunts with actual cameras mounted on them. It’s the kind of stuff Howard Hughes famously imitated for Hell’s Angels, incidentally copied by Scorsese in his The Aviator. This is action photography at its best.
On the famous gay kiss: Near the end of the film, Jack and David share an intimate emotional moment, opening their hearts to one another. The scene culminates in a kiss on the mouth. Were Jack and David secretly attracted to one another? Were they lovers? I say that there is no coded gay subtext in a film like Wings. It’s actually just a scene of two straight men with intense feelings for each other. In 1927, homosexuality was such a rare subject for discussion that most mainstream audiences weren’t thinking of it. As such, two men could kiss one another, and no one would think it was gay because no one really knew what “gay” was. In other word, the closet was so tightly locked, most people didn’t even know there was a closet at all.
I recommend Wings highly. It may be a good film to start you down your path to other silent classics (although I might start you with Nosferatu). It’s a moving, exciting, and gratifying film experience.