A ways back I mentioned that on March 31, at the Paramount Theatre, the long-requested feature Wings would be screened, accompanied by organist Dennis James, for the outstanding bargain price of seventy-five cents.
We attended last night, and both the film and the experience are worth writing about. To cut to the chase, I characterized the film as “disappointing” in the earlier post – while I suspect this is true in the context of watching the film at home on the tube, I need to firmly correct that opinion insofar as the experience of seeing it on the big screen goes.
One of the challenges the film faces on the small screen are the aerial dogfight sequences frequently offer two planes in the frame at long distances from the camera – well over 600 feet, if my scale training in plane spotting from various games is at all accurate. This means that the planes themselves occupy much less than 1/32 – possibly less than 1/64 – of the total screen space. I’ll see if I can find a screen cap of a dogfight from the film (no luck). Therefore, the tension-filled heart of the movie is effectively partially obscured when viewed on a television.
That said, let me tell you about the filmgoing experience itself. Upon approaching the theater, it was clear that 75 cents is viewed by the movie going public as a more sensible price for a silent movie with live organ accompaniment than the usual 10 to 14 dollar pricing that the series sees in regular gigs. There was a huge crowd. We made our way to the front of the stage, after stocking up on the free goodies provided by Trader Joe’s (amusingly characterized as “It’s like Whole Foods, but you can afford it!”), who sponsored this showing as well as some showings last spring.
Once seated, Viv and I ate our sandwiches and caught up on each other’s day. An unfamiliar organist stepped out and played an overture, engendering confused muttering from the crowd.
Just then, an obviously drunk – as in street-alky reeking of formaldehyde – young man and an older man came in and, of course, sat next to Viv. He immediately started chattering like an excited kid about how thrilled he had been (while “stumbling by all drunk”) to learn that the show was 75 cents, and how the last time he’d been in the Paramount was in the seventies at an Alice Cooper show, and this, and that, and SHUT THE FSCK UP AND LEAVE MY WIFE ALONE I wanted to yell.
Turning, I noticed the obvious cuts and bruises of someone who regularly and recently has gotten into curb-stomping drunken brawls. Prominent among these was the choking-derived full-bloom capillary rupture of the blood vessels in his left eye, turning the white blood red. I re-evaluated my position, and concluded as irritating as he was, he seemed genuinely happy and excited to be at the show.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t SHUT UP, even after essentially everyone around him complained or shushed him.
About the time I decided that cowardice was the better part of valor, a representative of the Seattle Theater Group came out, thanked Trader Joe’s, and began to rhapsodize about the contributions to Seattle-area film culture Dennis James has been making over the past few years, concluding with the wildly-applauded announcement that Dennis is moving to Seattle!
Of course I put two and two together – that would be the announcement one would expect James himself to make in front of his new hometown crowd – and realized he wasn’t going to be able to play the show. It’s a pity, because the STG guy alluded to some extensive scholarly work James may have put into the score for the film – it’s entirely possible that James crafted a full-scale restoration of the score.
Nonetheless, the fact of James’ moving here bodes well for my silent movie enthusiasm. As does the turnout for Wings, for that matter.
Then Warren Etheredge, of Seattle website and (I think) cable access show (make that radio, apparently, but not on stations I listen to) The Warren Report stepped out in to the spotlight and gave a brief – and very amusing- backgrounder on the film. Irritatingly, the site’s archive of past events is wildly out of date, so I can’t link to his notes for the film.
In any event, DrunkMan chattered throughout the whole pre-film talk despite multiple shushings, and it was very distracting. I still managed to learn that the two male leads for the film – Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Richard Arlen – were both U. S. Army Air Corps (or is that “Service”) vets, something I did not know, and that the substitute organist, Teddy Mumble (sorry, man, I missed your last name) would be providing an improvised score on two hours notice.
My understanding is inaccurate, however, as this April ’99 obit for Buddy Rogers makes clear. He actually appears to have learned to fly for the film, and went on to be a flight instructor for the Navy during WW2. It should also be noted that in the film he looks just like Robert Downey, Jr.
Etheredge closed his remarks by noting (validly) the homoerotic subtext of the film, in which two young men grow close during wartime, only for one to meet a tragic end in the arms of another in what’s without question an affecting scene. Unfortunately, some of audience as well as the accompanist took this as a green light to appreciate the film in an ironic, mocking manner, laughing at unfamiliar tropes (“Haw haw! Look! They’re so old-fashioned! Thank GAWD we’re the enlightened products of a superior culture”) and so forth, definitely not the best way to look at silents in general.
DrunkMan waited until the lights had gone down to noisily open his bottle of Ripple. He consumed it in about fifteen minutes, and then – THANK GOD – he left. When the lights came up at intermission, the floor under his seat was a huge mess of discarded candy wrappers, dropped candy, and – of course – his empty bottle. He also left behind a nice hat.
Now that I’ve moved his distracting, stinky specter off stage I can write about the movie itself.
The film is relatively long – about two hours – and not the most original plot ever seen on the silver screen. Scene after scene is allowed to run on and on.
Despite this, the film was absolutely gripping. Two of the three most egregiously extended scenes – the second male lead’s lengthy, portentous farewell to his aged mother and wheelchair-bound father; his equally drawn out death sequence; but not a scene set in Paris on leave in which lead Buddy Rogers is very, very drunk – have shifted in meaning to a contemporary audience. The date on which the meanings changed? March 17, 2003.
Throughout the film, the wartime experience of watching a war movie shot and originally released during a time of high anti-war sentiment was disconcerting at least, and occasionally downright confusing, and throughout, it altered the experience of seeing the film.
It was utterly impossible to watch the thrilling aerial battles without thinking about Americans, British, Australians, and Iraqis that were fighting and dying in Iraq as we watched the flickering ghosts of other warriors before us.
Of note was the spontaneous applause that erupted at the sight of the French flag during a military honors ceremony in which our young heroes are awarded a Palme d’Or by a French air commander. I was disappointed to not be able to identify the other aviators – one French, one British – honored in the ceremony. The Frenchman stood with the aid of two canes, and I feel certain that if these individuals were not actual cameos by genuine prominent WWI aviators, they represented genuine, specific individuals. I seem to recall there was at least one French ace that continued to fly after a spinal injury paralyzed him from the waist down – perhaps I’m simply recalling the great French ace Charles Nungesser, who continued to fly while unable to walk due to various broken bones sustained in crashes. Interestingly, Nungesser came to the U. S. and worked as a stunt flyer before disappearing out of France on an attempted transatlantic flight in 1927.
More applause was heard at various points during the air battles and extended ground battle sequence – interestingly, the applause reflected the audience’s confused state as they watched the bombs drop and the planes fall burning from the sky onscreen.
One person would applaud only when American planes were hit. Loud, sustained applause rose and then suddenly cut off as what appeared to be genuine bomber-cam footage of actual bombing runs over a small French village was shown – one precision strike reducing the village church to rubble. Hooray for the heroic bombers – oh, wait, they’re the dastardly Jerries, I mean, down with the evildoers!
(I should clarify that the bombing that was shot appeared to have been staged for the movie with real explosives falling from a real airplane onto a real full-scale town set. This survey of the history of aviation cinematogaphy confirms the use of real bombs.)
Others applauded as German planes fell or infantrymen were crushed by tanks. Some hissed the applause. During intermission, one woman a few feet behind us complained bitterly that people were applauding at all, apparently upset that the applauders were not considering the possibility that persons in the audience could have lost friends or family either in Baghdad or elsewhere in the conflicts in the middle east. These interactions seemed to be prompted by the misguided notion that all silent movies are melodrama and call for audience catcalls at the appearance of the villain and cheering when Dudley Do-Right steps onscreen.
Moving from the external to the internal, the reason for the film’s leisurely pace at the moments of greatest sad emotion became clear. When the film was released in 1927, a large segment of the film’s viewing audience, both in the U. S. and in Europe, would be about as far from the loss of a family member or beloved friend as I am now from my sister’s death.
One purpose of tragedy is catharsis, and the film’s sentimental, genuinely affecting depiction of wartime losses would have provided its’ contemporary audience with many opportunities to do experience that.
A peculiar aspect of the film, for me, was the sense that my perception of acting styles and performances has shifted as a result of watching so many silents over the last couple of years – I have certainly seen more silents than contemporary films over that period of time. Whatever the reason, I was struck by the relative naturalism of the actor’s performances – and, honestly, in the death scene in particular, the actors’ performances were, to me, genuinely affecting. My appreciation of this was much marred by the sniggering that filled the auditorium thanks to Mr. Etheredge’s unfortunate remarks at the beginning of the event.
Naturally, nothing from me on this film should neglect a look at the airplanes themselves.
The film depicts the last period of the war, in very general terms, and as such, our heroes are implied to be among the first batch of American pilots who arrived in France under American military authority. These pilots largely began the war with French-made Spad XIIIs, up against the newer, faster, and tougher Fokker D.VII.
(Later pilots would use newer planes, such as the speedy Nieuport 28).
Both planes appear in the film, but the bulk of the flying is done in redressed planes that belonged to the U.S. Army Air Corps at the time, the film being made with the entire cooperation of the Army.
Boeing MB-3A aircraft were used used as fill-in planes in Wings. At least one Spad (labeled as a Spad XIII) and one genuine Fokker D.VII were employed in the film, but the Boeing planes – identifiable by their odd nose cowling and tapered wing shape – are used as the primary aircraft throughout the film.
Also employed were three very large dual-engined craft depict German Gotha bombers – I have not been able to track down whether these aircraft were redressed models from a different manufacturer or the originals. I think it’s likely that these actually were Sikorsky S-29s (albeit modded to offer an open cabin).
One challenge to internet research on the film is the generic title of the movie. Literally every aviation-history document available on the internet uses the word “wings” somewhere, and thus the aspirant Googler (c)-R-TM will have great difficulty locating documents such as this one that discuss the film and provide pointers to source material. One hopes, as has been the case with my Shenadoah documents, the comments will help the page’s Google (c)-R-TM juice.
A key scene of “balloon busting”, wherein the U. S. pilot downs two hydrogen filled German tethered blimps is depicted in realistic detail including what I believe to be actual in-plane footage of such a balloon being shot down. The camera is shooting from behind the pilot and clearly captures the tracers igniting the balloon. It’s a remarkable sequence that may have been more entertaining to me as a WW1 aviation enthusiast than to others in the audience.
This site has a rundown of the aircraft used in the film, which I reproduce here:
WWI- Richard Arlen (ex RFC, future USAAF); American WWI buddies go to France. One of the greatest aviation epics.
Used over 300 pilots, mostly US Army. Many (220+) USAAC planes, with at least one of their pilots being killed. Shot at Kelly and Brooks Fields, and Camp Stanley, Texas in 1926.
Types used include Spad VII (2 w/o in staged crashes), Fokker D.VII (2 w/o in staged crashes) 2 MB-3’s were also deliberately crashed.
Units included the DH.4’s of 90 BS. SE.5’s, Thomas Morse MB.3 Scouts of 43 PS, DH.4 and MB.2’s of 11 BS, Curtiss P-1 Hawk of 17 PS, 27 PS, 94 PS, 95 PS, of the 1 PG, and Vought VE-7’s from Langley.
Thomas-Morse MB.3 and DH.4 camera planes from Crissy Field, Curtiss NBS-1 camera plane. USAAC balloons.
Written by F.J Saunders (ex-WWI pilot), directed by William Wellman (ex SPAD pilot) Actor Buddy Rogers became a USN test pilot in WWII.
In summation, Wings is better on a large screen than I had expected. It’s hard to find certain kinds of trivia information about the film. Seeing a movie about war in wartime is a very weird experience. Especially if it’s in Seattle. That’s where Dennis James will now be based, which is good news for me!
I’d urge you to avail yourselves of the opportunity to see the film in a theater if it comes up. It’s really a different film than on the tube.