Oct. 7, 2020

Old School October: Wings

Old School October: Wings

Let me ask you something. If you were to make a movie month based around October, what would it be about? Horror is the obvious choice; you have Halloween, and man, there are so many horror movies that you could review. What a fun time that would be, right?

Yeah, I'm not doing that.

I totally respect people who review horror movies during October. But for me? I wanted to be...different. I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a few weeks now when an idea came to me. I had seen this video on Facebook more than a few times showing the late, great Buster Keaton doing what he did best, and that was practical stunts in movies during the Silent Era of film making. 

You see, I have something of a fascination with both pictures and footage from this time because it was the era. After all, I feel that was when we started to capture the "pure" unfiltered side of life; many photos before this were staged due to exposure times and all but with the advent of film, well, you started to capture what day to day real life was like.

 For example, this film of San Fransisco in 1906 (obviously improved with color and sound) fascinates me because I wonder what the people's lives were like who were captured for a few seconds here and there.

With all that said, I wanted to take a look at some old-time movies that a modern generation would never think about watching. The ground rules for Old School October are this: most of these movies will be silent or have minimal sound, and will have been filmed and released in the late 1920s to early 1930s. I also wanted to answer a few questions regarding each of the films I watch.

1. What is the film about? 

2. Is it worth watching today?

3. Could or should this film be remade today?

With the rules in place, let me introduce you to the 1927 film Wings.

This particular film holds several distinctions, one of which is the first to show nudity, two men kissing, and the first and only silent film to win Best Picture in the first Academy Awards. Wings stars Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, and of course, Clara Bow. There is also a brief appearance from Gary Cooper in one of his first roles. The movie was directed by William Wellman, who directed films from 1919 to 1958.  

In doing my research, let me tell you guys, Wellman is pretty much someone you do not mess with. A veteran pilot of World War I, Wellman is credited with three confirmed kills and five probable ones. Shot down in 1918, he had a limp for the rest of his life, and films about aviation became his passion projects. When he was making Wings, a studio exec was sent to where he was filming in San Antonio and complained about the film's cost, Wellman reportedly told him he had two options, "a trip home or a trip to the hospital." 

It was a different time, guys.

What is the film about?

Wings tells the story of three characters set during the latter stages of the First World War. They are Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers), David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), and Mary Preston (Clara Bow). Jack comes from a poor family and dreams of being a pilot in the war. David comes from a wealthy family and also dreams of going off to war. Mary, on the other hand, is in love with Jack, and...that's it. This was the 20s, character motivations were not a strong suit of many movies of this era. Generally speaking, you had to stick with some pretty basic characterizations.

Jack also pines for Sylvia's love, who is actually in love with David though, for some reason, Sylvia never seems to have the balls (metaphorically) to tell Jack this. Meanwhile, Jack is working on a car, which he names the Shooting Star, with his best gal pal, Mary, who does everything but hit the moron over the head with a wrench in professing her affections for him.

With the United States' entry into World War One, which the movie just refers to as "The War," both Jack and David enlist in the military to try and become pilots. Before both go off to war, Jack visits Sylvia and sees a keepsake locket with her photo. He mistakenly believes that Slyvia doesn't tell him because of how happy Jack looks thinking she loves him when in actuality, the locket is for David. Mary, meanwhile, as a good luck charm, gives Jack a photo of her.

Mary looks like she is going to stab someone in this

Both go off to training and genuinely dislike each other at first until a boxing match occurs where they beat the living shit out of each other and become friends as a result of it. Both get selected to become pilots and are sent to train. While there, they have a fellow pilot die in a mid-air collision, which honestly doesn't surprise me. In those days, airplanes were death machines.

A couple of these things were just going to fall out of the sky for no reason. Probably.

Eventually, both are shipped off to France to join up with the American Expeditionary Force and cut their teeth on some air to air combat. In the meantime, Mary wants to be closer to Jack, so she becomes an ambulance driver in France, and here is where I will admit something. 

Clara Bow was a bonafide star at this point in her career, having appeared in films like Wine and The Plastic Age. However, Bow became a sensation with her role in the film It (no, not THAT one), which came out in early 1927, months before Wings did. The movie solidified Clara Bow as "The It Girl," meaning that no one knew what she had, she just had "it." When I first saw Bow on screen as Mary, I thought she was cute in a 1920s kind of way, but when she makes her appearance in France, I finally understood what was meant by something about her just grabbing you.

I have no idea how she is working the pedals guys

To make a long story short, Jack gets drunk during a night on leave in Paris and doesn't recognize Mary when she manages to locate him. Mary is changing back into her uniform (after unsuccessfully trying to get the attention of a very drunk Jack with a dancer's gown), which also gives us our first glimpse of female nudity in a major motion picture. When she and Jack are caught, and it's assumed she was trying to sleep with him, Mary is sent home, and that's...the last we see of Clara Bow until the end of the movie.

Meanwhile, Jack and David are part of a massive push against the German lines that culminate in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. David is assumed shot down when Jack stupidly focuses on some aerial balloons, and David is forced to take on 4 German planes by himself. In the ensuing battle, David is shot down and presumed dead, and Jack is beside himself. Unknown to him David survived the crash and manages to steal a German plane to fly back to Allied lines, but of course, the gods of fate are cruel, and Jack sees the German plane. Thinking only of avenging his friend, Jack shoots it down and lands nearby to find his mortally wounded best friend.

The two share a tender moment, and David dies in Jack's arms but not before Jack plants what is reported to be the first man on man kiss in cinema history.


Jack realizes that Sylvia never loved him and that he has loved Mary. He returns home a hero and professes his love for her, and the two kiss, The End.

Is it worth watching today?

I want to get this out of the way, Wings isn't a historically accurate movie. The planes used weren't the same used in WWI, and the uniforms were from the 1920s and not the WWI era. However, there is a ton of technical skill on display here. The aerial shots and sequences are very well done when you realize the technical limitations of the time.  

Months upon months were spent just for the sole purpose of getting the flying sequences just right. However, the movie has some significant pacing issues. For example, the character of Herman Schwimpf played by Elmer "El" Brendel, joins the military around the same time as Jack and David. His name makes people question his patriotism, and he shows them a tattoo of the American flag that says "Star and Stripes Forever" below it. His scenes are quite comedic, which is odd in a movie about three people going off to war. Not to mention the Schwimpf character is pretty much disregarded after a handful of scenes. 

Bow herself wasn't too fond of the movie as she had to be written into it to capitalize on her fame, remarking, "Wings is...a man's picture, and I'm just the whipped cream on top of the pie."

She's not wrong. The Mary character just pines after Jack with pretty much no other motivation given to her. Honestly, Mary should have gone after someone who bothered to notice she existed. My recommendation? I would say watch the movie if you're interested in seeing a technically well-executed film from the late 1920s. Don't watch it for the character drama because it gets maddening with what an idiot Jack is. Ironically enough, I was more sympathetic to David for pretty much the entire movie.

Poor kid ruins Rich kid's life

 Could or should this film be remade today?

Absolutely. I want to stress this while watching this movie, there was a bunch of stuff I could have cut and redone were I making this movie. Some aerial scenes go on a little too long, and character motivations could be fleshed out more in response. Mary could go to a much more strong-willed character who tries to make her feelings known, but Jack ignores her, says "screw it," and enlists in the Ambulance Corps and is brought back to him by fate and/or chance.  

Jack and David could have more tension as they both love Slyvia, but Jack is too blinded by his emotions to see she doesn't reciprocate his feelings. The two can't be separated in their unit because they make up a formidable pairing on missions recognized by their high command. Jack meets up with Mary in Paris and realizes that he was a fool to think Sylvia loved him, and after realizing the locket was meant for David, he finally gives it to him. The realization that they are good friends is cut short by David getting shot down, and you know the rest. That is a basic rewrite that I did with not much detail or fluff in the middle. 

While the aerial scenes would undoubtedly be CGI, I think that a better-crafted story is lying within Wings that a modern director could bring out. Look at what Sam Mendes did in 1917, and you realize that the First World War is full of stories that could be told.  

All in all, I was glad to finally watch Wings. There are many technical aspects I was impressed by, and honestly, I was surprised by how well I started to read lips in some scenes where they didn't have title cards. While not a perfect movie, I think that if the right person watches it, they might get some entertainment.

“Hey, you worried about this Hitler fellow?” “Nah!”

3.5 out of 5 stars.