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Feature


Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are physical rivals, vying for the attentions of the town’s sweetheart, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack fails to realize that Mary Preston (Clara Bow), literally the girl next door, is desperately in love with him. Both men both enlist to become combat pilots in the Air Service during WWI. They leave for training camp and are billeted together. Their tent mate is Cadet White (Gary Cooper), but their acquaintance is all too brief – Cadet White is killed in a crash the same day. Undaunted, Jack and David endure a rigorous training period, and turn from rivals to best friends. Upon graduating, they are shipped off to France to fight the Germans. Meanwhile, Mary joins the war effort by becoming an ambulance driver in hopes of finding Jack.

Wings
My knowledge base concerning films from the silent era is almost exclusively limited to horror films and slapstick comedy. I admit, I may lack the maturity to deal with film antiquities, but I’m trying to correct this behavior. Paramount has decided to help me out by releasing the once lost original Academy Award winner Wings on meticulously restored Blu-ray disc. Now it’s my job to watch a silent era film. Amusingly, Wings isn’t just known as the first Oscar winner for best picture, it’s also notorious for being the first best picture winner that didn’t deserve the award. I may have not known anything about the film outside its title (it was listed as ‘lost’ for years) had I not been a curious reader of all things ‘alternative Oscar’. Chief among these tomes is Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars, a must read for curmudgeonly cineaste list lovers the world over. Peary’s pick for best picture of 1927 is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is a pretty popular pick. Other popular alternatives to Wings include Chaplin’s The Circus, King Vidor’s The Crowd (originally the awards included films over a two year period, so some 1928 releases count), and Buster Keaton’s The General, none of which were even nominated (no one ever seems to pick The Jazz Singer, which says something about how generally not good that film actually is outside of its advances in sound technology). I see the most obvious choice for best film of the year being Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but I tend to skew towards the familiar, and I seriously doubt the Academy would celebrate a German film in 1927. The point I’m trying to make is that I entered this particular review with incredibly low expectations, and frankly, a touch of trepidation based on the films 144 minute run time, which could signify a long night with a bad film.

Perhaps this was the correct mindset, because rather than being disappointed by the lack of amazing in this first best picture winner, I’m pleasantly surprised that I largely enjoyed a film with a rough modern critical reception. There’s no mistaking the grand scale of the production, which ran an estimated $2 million in 1927 dollars, which is something like $25 million in 2012 dollars, a hefty sum for an era when studio systems didn’t risk bankruptcy on every major product (and rumours state that the US Army put something like $15 million into the film, which is something like $194 million in 2012 dollars). We have to put this film in the proper context immediately – it’s an era blockbuster, not an art film. It was made to awe and entertain the broadest possible market, not to move them into thinking about subtext and social metaphors – though director William A. Wellman does get pretty poetic with his imagery during the melancholy fallout following the climatic battle. I very much enjoyed the sequences that deal in the mechanics of WWI era flight, including a brief look at archaic training exercises, and the occasionally breathtaking flying sequences. It’s easy to marvel at the terrifying lengths Wellman (who was hired because he was an actual WWI aviator), along with his cast and crew, went to create something close to actual winged combat photography. Given the film’s budget and prestige at the time, these technical achievements are surprising. I’m much more impressed with the more dynamic camera placement and movement (the shot where the camera moves over a series of tables during a campaign-fueled celebration is quite stylish), the evocative use of shadows, and the startlingly rhythmic editing. Eisenstein had really just recently ushered in montage editing at the time, so even brief use of it is standout, and the basic tempo of the film feels relatively modern at times.

Wings
The slapstick overstays its welcome on several occasions, and several other bits end up a whole lot more amusing than they’re meant to be (there’s a heavy sense of googly-eyed homoeroticism between Jack and David, and the enemy craft are referred to as ‘Fokkers’, thus fulfilling my juvenile giggle quotient for the evening), but I assume most modern audiences will have more trouble dealing with the sudden and constant shifts in tone. The plot meanders from one Saturday morning serial of a set piece or situation comedy gag to another with so little in the way of proper plot it’s difficult to get swept up in the overlying drama. But this is really no different from a majority of output for the era, for better or worse. Clara Bow’s potent, occasionally cartoonish screen presence does a lot to sell the romance and quirk. The sequence where she seduces a drunken Jack away from a sultrier minx is brimming with extreme absurdity even Buster Keaton wouldn’t have touched at the time. I also have to admit that the final act works despite the heavy-handed melodrama. I was never at risk of shedding tears, but the land battle is rousing, and Jack and David’s final interaction is genuinely touching (largely thanks to Richard Arlen, who keeps the ham at a minimum). Having been released mere months before the official Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America codes of conduct went into effect, so there’s a fair degree of war violence, and even a quick glimpse of Bow’s breasts.

Video


As I stated above, Wings was considered a lost film for some time, but someone found a print in the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris some time in the 1990s. As far as I can tell Wings was never released on standard definition DVD in the US, and this ‘miraculous’ restoration marks the first digital release of the film. This means I have no real point of reference for this transfer outside of what the behind the scenes featurette on this disc tell me. For the most part, this is an incredible restoration of 85-year-old materials. The image is surprisingly crisp, though detail levels can’t compete with the more technically adept cameras that would become the norm within a decade or so of Wings being produced. For type, however, wide shots tend to feature relatively complex backgrounds, and the more extreme close-ups feature quite a bit of fine texture. The image is consistently sepia or violet hued (depending on the sequence), and this was achieved with heavy digital tampering during the restoration process. The final effect quite pretty, so I’m willing to take the restorers at their word that the colour choices are all part of the original plan. Black levels are stronger in darker scenes, and there’s rarely any true white, but generally speaking contrast levels are sharp enough to make up for the lack of gradation suffered by era film stock. The increase in sharpness allows the painted fire effects during the dogfights to really pop against the monochromatic backdrops as well, though disappointingly, these were digitally added based on Wellman’s notes. Basic wear and tear appears throughout the film in the form of strobing edges and a handful of obvious print damage artefacts. Grain levels seem accurate and are generally lower than expected. The frame rate hops around a bit throughout the film, but is generally pretty consistent, which I understand is better than we can expect from most silent era releases, which would fluctuate somewhere between 14 to 24 FPS (seriously, any reader that knows more about this should feel free to comment below or email me, I’m curious).

Wings

Audio


Wings comes to Blu-ray with two audio choices. The first, and one I chose to listen to in its entirety, features a re-recorded score, originally composed by J.S. Zamecnik (orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser), and new sound effects designed by Ben Burtt. Yes, the Star Wars guy. In terms of clarity and warmth this track sounds pretty good, and even gives the stereo and surround channels a decent workout. The LFE support is plenty rich here too. My problem is that none of it sounds right for the material to me. The orchestrations sound synthetically produced (they are not), and sound sort of like video game music throughout the film. The disc’s producers were on the right track with this, as the original road show rollout of Wings did include an orchestra playing this music, but something consistently sounded ‘off’ to my ears. Burtt’s sound design is crisp and punchy, especially during the battle sequences, where plane engines are roaring and flying bullets are tearing through the channels. But this track never sounds like something I expect to hear from a silent production. Again, this is largely my problem, since the film’s original road show included sound effects as well. The alternative to just turning the sound off altogether is a Dolby Digital 2.0 track containing an original pipe organ score, composed and performed by Gaylord Carter. This track is rich and warm enough, and is mostly successful at recreating the sound of a pipe organ in your living room.

Extras


The extras here begin with Wings: Grandeur in the Sky (36:00, HD), a playful featurette covering the making of the film featuring interviews with film historians/critics James V. D’Arc, Frank Thompson, Paramount Archives VP Andrea Kalas, son of the director/actor/author/producer William Wellman Jr., Air Force Personnel Center Historian Rudy Purificato, Paramount producer A. C. Wyales, author Katherine Orrison, film preservationists Brian Meacham and Michael Pogorzelski, Ben Burtt and a handful of unnamed subjects. This starts with discussion of the state of film in the mid ‘20s, where spectacle was key, the genesis of the project, the expense issue, US Army participation, hiring Wellman as director, filming in San Antonio, casting, sets, the trials and tribulations of filming the spectacular flying sequences, including training the actors to fly the planes (!?), the conceptualizing of the climatic battle sequence, and the film’s massive box office success. Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings (14:20, HD) is a relatively in-depth exploration of the complex digital restoration process, featuring interviews with Technicolor executive direct Tom Burton, film preservationists Brian Meacham and Michael Pogorzelski, pianist Frederick Hodges, orchestrator Dominik Hauser, and Ben Burtt again. The final extra is Dogfight! (12:50, HD), a visit to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Air Show, where turn of the century and WWI airplanes are rebuilt/restored to working order. Here, the show’s pilots give us a lesson in aviation history.

Wings

Overall


Wings isn’t necessarily a must see, and I understand the 85-year-old critical backlash, but I was highly impressed with its technical achievements, enough to highly recommend a viewing. This 1080p digital restoration is pretty remarkable, especially considering the film’s age and former status as ‘lost’, and the soundtrack is a solid attempt at recreating the original road show music and effects, even if it’s a bit too modern to my ear. The extras don’t take up a whole lot of time, but cover quite a bit of the film’s history and are genuinely entertaining.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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