It’s hard to believe now, but the idea that movie audiences would buy tickets for an aviation picture was inconceivable when Paramount made Wings in 1927; like the cinema itself, a film of this aviation genre was, in its inception, considered a nonstarter, even if it was set during (a highly bankable) World War I. (Allowing for ticket-price inflation and almost nonexistent revenue tracking, King Vidor’s The Big Parade remains one of the highest-grossing movies ever made.) After Wings made a ton of money and secured the first Best Picture Oscar, big-budget Hollywood cinema would try to recapture its success, again and again: Howard Hughes spent years and millions on Hell’s Angels (a process recounted in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator), but auteurs such as John Ford (Air Mail) and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings) would try their hand at flyboy romance-actioners as well.
Seen today, Wings impresses mostly with its enormous scale—its appearance of having been made with obscene amounts of money. In terms of budget, no expense seems to have been spared on special effects, costumes, art direction, or elaborate tracking shots, while the characters are, to put it nicely, a little on the unmemorable side, and the screenplay is of the “circumstances that reasonably manage to stitch multiple set pieces together” ethos. Its manic and nonstop tonal shifts—winsome nostalgia, gee-willikers romance, thousand-yard-stare fatigue, patriotic chest-thumping, cheeky ethnic humor (a little El Brendel goes a loooong way), and pure, unadulterated technical showboating—are managed somewhat adequately (and sometimes not so adequately) by director William A. Wellman.
A prolific director whose auteur status is (rightly) subordinated to masters such as Hawks, but whose largely prosaic style nevertheless contributed an often-undervalued, cement-truck poetry to the legacy of Hollywood’s classical era, Wellman would enjoy a more prosperous early talkie period with such dambusters (often of the socially-conscious variety) as The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, and Wild Boys of the Road. The success of Wings didn’t earn Wellman an Oscar nomination that year, but it at least indirectly contributed to his favored-shooter status at Warner in the years that would follow. His hand in Wings is seen mostly in the person-to-person scenes that are wedged between the spectacular dogfights and air raids, even if his preference appears to be to clear the stage for Clara Bow’s bright eyes, “Buddy” Rogers’s country-boy nobility, and Richard Arlen’s proto-Method brooding. (Predictably, a brief appearance by Gary Cooper makes a better impression than the three of them combined.)
Seen through the graph of the first Oscars, you can easily make heads or tails of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. In a pattern that would fade to oblivion after Gone with the Wind made the idea of a “sweep” not only possible but mandatory, the Oscars were given out like Cannes prizes, with films rarely taking more than a few statuettes, as if each award bestowed a just measure of validation. Wings won one of two “best movie” prizes, while the other (qualified as “Unique and Artistic Production”) was claimed by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which has, by contrast, aged sublimely. Even though Oscar historians and statistic-heads generally put Wings on top, its prize is the more pedestrian-sounding “Best Picture, Production,” which is exactly right. It’s a producer’s triumph, an undeniably impressive marshaling of logistics, funds, and personnel, all at the service of an evening’s entertainment. More succinctly, it’s a philosophy of moviemaking and award-capturing that has never gone out of style.
With Weinstein money on the table, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist is poised to score a Best Picture win, making it the first silent (read: "silent"—accent on the scare quotes) film to capture the top prize since Wings, so Paramount's high-definition scrub-down of their early triumph is impeccably timed. A bit like Dennis Hopper's saved-alcoholic coach in Hoosiers, Wings cleans up real good, and Paramount's fresh transfer, with a goldenrod tint, brings out stunning details, mostly in the high-altitude footage and f/x expenditure sequences.
You get two choices for audio, both of them serviceable enough. Chances are, if you find one insufferable, the other one will do. On the first is a traditional score by J. S. Zamecnik, orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser, and featuring Frederick Hodges tickling the ivories. On the same track, legendary sound man Ben Burtt provides a wealth of audio effects work. You might question the judgment of such an endeavor, but Burtt's work is, as a thing in and of itself, beyond reproach. On the alternate track (in Dolby 2.0 stereo), Gaylord Carter's pipe organ warbles away ceaselessly. For some, the late Carter's name causes one's heart to seize in terror, and brings up un-fond memories of silent epics on videotape, but others may take comfort in his work, especially if the Zamecnik/Burtt track sounds too modern or in any way ill-advised. Or, you somehow consider Carter a beloved figure. You know who you are.
A thoughtful kit of three featurettes accompanies the Wings Blu-ray. "Wings: Grandeur in the Sky" and "Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings" are fair meat-and-potatoes docs that concern the film directly, while the entertaining (and nicely-shot) "Dogfight!" covers the activities of real-life World War I dogfight reenactors.
A good hand, played well. Given the likelihood of The Artist's forthcoming Oscar ascendancy, Paramount knew what they had, what to do with it, and when to do it.