Event: “Wings” (1927) at UCLA

Promotional poster for "Wings" (1927, d. William Wellman)
Promotional poster for “Wings” (1927, d. William Wellman)

One of the first Academy Award winners for Best Picture, William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927) screens tonight at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater, 7:30 p.m. Wellman’s son, William Wellman Jr., will be in attendance.

Starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen, “Wings” arguably is the best aviation war film of all time, with aerial combat scenes that stand up against the biggest budget action movies of today or any other era. I’ve seen it in theaters three times now, and yet still am considering a fourth go. It’s just that good. Find out more after the jump.

“Wings” isn’t just one of the best war films, it’s one of the most exciting films ever made, and holds up today better than most films from the silent era. You don’t have to be a silent film fan or even like silent films at all to like “Wings.” Even if you hate silent films you stand a good chance of falling in love with “Wings.”

There was no CGI back then, and less compunction about sending movie stars up in planes to participate in the stunts, as this clip shows:

There’s controversy over the sound effects added by Paramount for the 2012 restoration, but as the author of this piece discovers and somewhat acknowledges, technically, though we refer to “the silent era” in retrospect, there was never such a thing as a silent movie. It’s more apt to simply acknowledge that at the end of the 20s “talkies” emerged and eventually became the dominant film medium.

First it’s important to note that films of that era almost always had some sound accompaniment, including music (whether a piano or full-blown orchestra), stage actors providing narration and dialogue, and sound effects, usually live but later  pre-recorded and played back in a fashion very similar to a contemporary film.

Also, so very important to consider: So-called “silents” were not called “silent movies” when they were being made and released. That’s simply what we call them today. Films of that era were simply called “motion pictures.” Since the distinction was only brought about by the invention of the “talkie,” there was no distinction before that invention.

I have no problem with the restoration of “Wings” (1927) to include sound effects. My argument: It’s not an art film; Paramount seems to have tried to do its best to mimic sound effects as they were intended; its makers arguably would have used today’s sound technology if they had it.

A couple of extra points:

The color in the film is original, restored but not enhanced.

Gary Cooper, an unknown at the time, has a walk on role, and you can feel that innate movie star quality he has as soon as he steps on the screen, as strong as any of the leads.

Gary Cooper, right, in a walk-on role as a veteran pilot.
Gary Cooper, right, in a walk-on role as a veteran pilot.

posted by Nicholas Emme

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One thought on “Event: “Wings” (1927) at UCLA

  1. This is great! Too bad I’m hearing about it nearly a year after it happened. I think you should clarify your comment as Wings being “one of” the earliest Best Pictures. It is acknowledged in the Academy’s official history as the FIRST best picture today, although the category did not exist at the time. There were three productions that got highest honors that year:

    Wings, for Outstanding Production.
    Sunrise, for Artistic Production.
    and The Jazz Singer, which got an Honorary Oscar (something that would not return until 1948) for Achievement.

    There are also some arguments for “artistic” being split between “Sunrise” and “The Last Command,” though I don’t know enough to say for sure. If the research holds up, that would make a four-way tie the first year. This explains why the Academy retroactively pared things down to Wings as the ultimate winner, and why they established a out-an-out Best Picture category in the following years.

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