Sunday, May 25, 2008

Silly love songs

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?

That would be a good way to introduce Wings, if we were talking about the musical group led by Paul McCartney, and not the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Actually, though, there is a silly love story in the movie, which is airing on TCM at 6:00 AM ET on Memorial Day, May 26.

Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen star as a pair of young men in a small American town in the days leading up to America's entry into World War I. The only thing is, both of them are in love with the same woman, played by Jobyna Ralston (whom you might remember as Harold Lloyd's girl in The Freshman). It's too bad that they both want Ralson, since either of them could have had the lovely Clara Bow as well. Indeed, after the two of them head off to France to fight in the air corps, Bow follows them as a member of an ambulance crew.

So much for the love story; Wings is really about the flying that the men do in the war. Director William Wellman had himself fought in World War I as part of the Lafayette Escadrille, and knew what dogfight scenes should look like. The only problem for him is that this was 1927. There was no way the fight scenes could have been done using CGI, as Eniac was still almost 20 years from being invented. I suppose he could have done it with punchcards, but that would have taken computing power several times the size of the Empire State Building. (Wait a minute -- the Empire State Building hadn't been built in 1927 either.) Not being able to resort to modern techniques, Wellman had to do things the old fashioned way -- real people flying real planes with camera bolted to them, all the way up in the air. And the two male leads, Rogers and Arlen, flew their own stunt flights. When you see them on screen, they're really several thousand feet up in the air. Indeed, Wellman got a lot of help from the Army Air Corps, but even then, Wings was still a difficult picture to make, as some of the pilots crashed and died during the filming.

That dying during flight training is something to watch for: there's a bit part for a man who is more of a flight veteran than the two leads but who gets killed during a training exercise. That bit part is played by none other than a young Gary Cooper, who steals the scene he's in. Other stalwarts appearing in the cast are vaudvillean El Brendel as a German-American who wants to fight for his adopted country, but, unable to make the grade, has to find other ways to support the cause; Roscoe Karns, whom you might best recall as the annoying Mr. Shapely who bothers Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert on the bus in It Happened One Night, and a bit part for Hedda Hopper as Buddy Rogers' mother.

Wings isn't readily available on DVD, and is one of those movies that really should be given a good DVD release here in the US. It's an important piece of cinematic history, and even without the Oscar trivia, is a fine movie.


Aquatic Escape said...

Thanks for throwing up a post on Wings, I found it very insightful. I recorded Wings but have yet to watch it. I haven't watched many silent films, so I'm trying to brace myself for sitting and watching a silent film for over 2 hours. Is it at all hard to do? =/

Also, I'm new to blogging and all, so if you don't mind me asking, can you explain to me how you are able to post more than one picture in your blog? I've been posting only one so far, choosing from the 3 choices that are given (left,right, above).

Thanks again, I look forward to reading your future posts!

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

It's no harder to sit through two hours of a silent movie than it is to sit through two hours of a foreign film, or through all of an "epic". If it's a great movie like The Best Years of Our Lives, you won't notice when a movie runs nearly three hours.

As for posting multiple photos, I type up all my posts in an HTML editor, typing the formatting tags by hand. For the photos, I copied the code that Blogger inserted when I wanted to left- or right-align a photo, and saved those snippets to a separate file. For the center-aligned photos that appear at the top of a few posts, I modified the block-align code slightly to include a margin-left setting by which I can adjust how far the image is indented to make it look like it's center-aligned. (If you've got user CSS that overrides the Blogger page design, it will screw up the alignment of the photos.) Whenever I want to add a photo, I just copy and paste the code.