Ronald has graciously let me post my movie reviews here, as I go through all the films nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
It was suggested to me to start with the first Oscar year, 1927-28, and so I will. I will go through the years, film by film, and at the end of each year, post my thoughts on the year as a whole.
Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Charles Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Jobyna Rolston
Oscars won: 2
To start, I picked the FIRST Best Picture, Wings. It is no coincidence that I start with Wings. I have studied Wings in depth, as well as it’s director, William A. Wellman. (Incidentally, if you would like to learn more about “Wild Bill”, I suggest reading The Man and His Wings: William Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture” by William A. Wellman, Jr. It is a fascinating read about a man who grew up as a hellion in Massachusetts; became a fighter ace flying for the Lafayette Flying Corp. in WW1 and made several very important motion pictures and technical innovations in his nearly 40 year Hollywood career.
Films like A Star is Born, Beau Geste, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground and The High and the Mighty are some of his more memorable films, but none more so than 1927’s $2,000,000 epic of the sky, Wings.
Wings was a monster hit for Paramount when it debuted, but it was almost never even made. The production surrounding the film was intense; William Wellman alienated himself in many ways, but eventually got the film that HE wanted.
Wings stars Clara Bow, the so-called “It Girl.” She was Paramount’s biggest star, and probably the biggest star in the world at the time. Clara plays Mary Preston, the annoying girl-next-door to Jack, played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers.
Jack is in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Rolston), who, in turn, is in love with David (Richard Arlen).
Both David and Jack sign up to be flyers in World War 1. They pass basic training, and are sent to France. Almost immediately after arriving, they realize the dangers – and horrors – of flying as a friend they just met, Cadet White, is killed in a plane crash.
Cadet White is played, in a sort of “cameo” role, by Gary Cooper. The one scene “Coop” was in made him an overnight star; Buddy Rogers, who had been groomed for stardom in the Paramount Acting School, although good looking on screen, never achieved the fame or level of stardom that Gary Cooper did.
“Gary Cooper didn’t stay long with us,” recalled Buddy Rogers, “He just had one scene in Wings. But boy, that one scene was so great, he did it so magnificently, he just took that whole picture away from all of us!”
Jack and David’s rivalry mellows and they become good friends. They fight the enemy, bravely and gallantly, and are rewarded accordingly. In the end, the horrors of war rear their ugly head, and only one man marches home safely.
Wings was made on an enormous budget. It was Paramount’s roadshow picture of the year, and would have everything you could want from a film. William Wellman didn’t scrimp on special effects, camera work, props or extras.
The government was convinced to loan some $16,000,000 worth of troops and equipment to the production, and Wellman used every bit effectively.
He hired the best cameramen, and the best effects man (Roy Pomeroy). He even got the best stunt man available: Dick Grace. (At one point, Dick Grace broke his neck in a plane stunt gone awry, but recovered enough six weeks later to go dancing. Doctors told him to wear the neck cast for one year.)
To capture the amazing flying scenes and dog flights, Wellman had the actors, Arlen and Rogers, take flying lessons. They flew the planes themselves.
“I was now the cameraman, director, and the photographer – I’m everything. For 500 feet, that is.” Buddy Rogers once said. And how true it was. Cameras were mounted to the front and back of the planes, and the actors had to operate them. Not hand crank cameras, but cameras powered with a battery.
At the end of it all, the flying sequences came out looking like nothing that had ever been seen before. One reason for this was that Wellman demanded clouds in the background. Clouds, Wellman said, created the allusion of speed and made everything look more dramatic.
Wellman’s good sense made the film a miraculous achievement. Audiences were in awe; even today, one has to wonder how they got the shots they did with very simplistic cameras and equipment.
The cinematography and visual effects are stunning, to say the least. Not only did Wellman and his crew help invent camera dollying, but they also experimented with an early version of wide-screen called “Magnascope.”
Besides the visuals, the story is solid, based on a book of the same name written by John Monk Saunders. The actors playing the parts, from Wellman’s wife and daughter, assistant director Charlie Barton, Wellman himself and famous Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in cameo roles, to the main cast, everyone gave decent performances. The acting isn’t stellar, but very good for a silent film.
The Blu Ray release of Wings was a long time in the making. All prints and videos of Wings before this release came from a dupe negative in the Cinematheque Francaise film archive in Paris, some time in the 1950s. It seems the film was once classified lost, but it really wasn’t. Comparing the copy we’ve seen many times to this new high-def release, the restoration is astounding.
The VHS and import copies used the 1950’s dupe negative, which was cropped on one side. (This may have been due to the addition of sound effects for the re-release in 1929.) This new Blu Ray beautifully restores the full frame and color tinting.
The color tinting was a novelty in 1927. Several films experimented with tinting; one such film is The Birth of a Nation. Tinting adds to the feel of the picture without overpowering. The colored flames and machine gun fire also add much to the film.
The picture is perfect, the way a silent film should look, with edge flicker that most silent films have. There are no specks, blurs or blotches. The film has been cleaned up, but not to the point where it looks too clean.
The recreated original score is a vast improvement over Gaylord Carter’s Wurlitzer pipe organ score. The original score propels you into the action whereas the pipe organ score does not.
In addition, they have recreated sound effects that they had added in a re-release of Wings in 1929. Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt supervised creating new sound effects. While they add much to the film (especially in one scene where a soldier is shot while smoking), they do not distract from the viewing experience. They enhance it substantially.
Wings holds a special place in my heart. I have studied it, and the director, and created my own making of documentary, “William Wellman: Making the First Best Picture”, which you can view in four parts on You Tube:
Wings is one of my ten favorite films, and always will be. It is an innovative masterpiece; a winner of two academy awards that everyone must see at least once in their lives. Overall, the look and feel of the Blu Ray is amazing when compared to the old VHS. The sound is incomparable. And as for restoration, the film looks like it should have in 1927. Wild Bill would have said, “That’s the way I wanted that ***[darned] picture to look!”