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by Jay Seaver

"Parts look silly now, but the action still holds up."
5 stars

"Wings", as the reader may or may not know, was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or "Best Production", as it was called at the time), and is extremely likely to stand as the only silent to win that honor. Were it remade today with roughly the same script and equivalent special effects, it likely would not be considered a contender for such honors, although it would probably still be a huge popular hit.

After all, the public went for Pearl Harbor (at least, more than the critics did), and that film borrows somewhat from this predecessor: Two young men, working-class Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the son of the richest family in town, sign up to train as pilots during World War I. Both fancy themselves rivals for the affection of classy Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), though in truth she only has feelings for David. Jack, meanwhile, is mostly oblivious to the interest of tomboyish girl-next-door Mary Preston (Clara Bow), though she will also make her way to Europe, joining the army as a driver.

The romantic entanglements are, honestly, rather low-key; most of the chemistry in this movie comes from the growing manly camaraderie between Jack and David, even as David fights his impulses to tell Jack what the real deal with Sylvia is. No subtext here, it's just that we really don't get to see the guys and their girls together all that much - they're off to the service fairly quickly. As such, it's not exactly clear why Jack moons over Sylvia so - she's pretty, but Mary lives next door! She likes to work on automobile engines! She goes out and helps the war effort instead of sitting on a porch swing, looking waifish! She's a dead ringer for Clara Bow! Wings probably isn't the earliest example of "why are you obsessing over the second-most-attractive girl in the film?" syndrome, but that is totally going on.

I say this as someone who liked Jobyna Ralston a lot in the various Harold Lloyd comedies she co-starred in, but she's sadly underused here. She doesn't have a chance to do much more than appear delicate and sad that Jack is deluding himself so; when the men go off to war, she more or less disappears for the rest of the movie. The guys fare rather better; they're playing basic types, but enjoyable ones: Rogers's Jack is a gregarious, enthusiastic young man who is sobered by combat, while Arlen's Armstrong is the sort of upper-class fellow who unexpectedly blossoms once placed in a situation where his privilege is no sort of advantage. They work well with each other; it's not hard to believe that they develop a genuine friendship despite Jack's forthright claim that he will steal David's girl away and David's knowledge otherwise.

Though Jack and David are the film's main characters, top billing is given to Clara Bow, and despite her having less screen-time than the men, it's not hard to see why. 1927 was not only the year Wings was released, but also when she starred in It, and there's no denying that she's a movie star. Her energy and charm threatens to push the mere actors off the screen, and elevates a silly comic subplot (she has to round up pilots out drinking at a Paris hotel up for a mission) to the point where it feels just as important to the audience as the big action scenes.

And those big action scenes are something. The technology of the time only allowed for a certain amount of trickery, so when you see a close-up of Buddy Rogers flying a plane, then the odds are that that's Buddy Rogers flying a plane. A plane plowing into a house? Some stunt pilot probably did something that pilots are generally to avoid doing whenever possible. During this time period, flying is often portrayed as more a great adventure than actually dangerous, and Wings does occasionally fall victim to that stereotype - there is a German pilot who shies away from engagements he feels are dishonorable - it resists that urge when it counts. There are enough close-in shots of bombs hitting the ground to keep what's going on in the air from being a complete abstraction, and a pilot down behind enemy lines is going to be in deep, deep trouble. Director William Wellman loads the back end of the film with plenty of action, pacing it well enough that it's never numbing. It holds up as suspenseful, intense action filmmaking.

Great popcorn movies are still occasionally recognized at awards time as well as the box office, and when that happens, it's for films that are more polished in every aspect than "Wings". Popcorn filmmaking has evolved, but the basics have stayed the same, and "Wings" has a healthy enough grasp of those basics.

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originally posted: 01/12/06 04:46:29
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User Comments

2/09/12 David Hollingsworth Overlong, but compelling 4 stars
1/29/12 chasb Ordered DVD prior to Jan 2012 release. Outstanding! 5 stars
4/11/07 fools♫gold Magic. 5 stars
6/27/06 Carol Baker Pretty good film with good aerial battles but not quite as good as some but had good plot 4 stars
9/10/04 Ray Superb 5 stars
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  05-Jan-1929 (PG-13)


  12-Aug-1927 (PG)

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