One of the greatest of all silent films– and one of the great World War I films of all time– is being re-released in what is reportedly a spectacular restoration. William Wellman’s Wings, generally recognized as the winner of the first “Best Picture” Oscar (it wasn’t called that in 1929, and the Academy Awards weren’t called “Oscars,” either) is a thrilling movie, a huge, big-budget blockbuster, following the exploits of a couple of American flyboys in France during the Great War. It stars Richard Arlen (a St. Paul native, by the way), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (who married Mary Pickford and lived to the age of 95), and Clara Bow, the biggest Hollywood star of the day. A very young Gary Cooper shows up in just one scene, then his character heads out and promptly dies in a plane crash. (There are lots of plane crashes in the movie.)
Wings is well worth checking out, especially for the breathtaking flying sequences, all done with real planes and real people–with even the actors themselves doing a lot of the flying. As New York Times critic David Kehr writes: “The modern Oscar winner that Wings most closely resembles is James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic: a grand entertainment in the something-for-everyone tradition that has been lost in the more recent era of niche marketing.” Kehr notes that Wings was not the first movie epic about the War, since The Big Parade and What Price Glory had been released a few years earlier, but it was the first about the war in the air. Kehr sees Wings as “perhaps inspired by the national wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight.” The movie’s immense popularity in 1927-28 was probably stoked by the public frenzy over Lindbergh’s flight and his subsequent “Goodwill Tour” in the Spirit of St. Louis (more that another time), but the movie itself was planned and filmed before Lindbergh’s flight. In fact, it appears that its first showing was on May 19, 1927–the day before Lindbergh took off from New York for Paris. The premiere (if that’s what it really was) was in San Antonio TX– probably a special showing for the military at Fort Sam Houston, where the movie’s outdoor and flying scenes were filmed.
Check out this terrific “trailer” (made by a recent fan of the movie, not the original trailer).