One couldn’t overestimate the importance of “Wings,” a silent movie made in 1927 by Paramount and director William A. Welman. The massively successful motion picture broke visual barriers in filming aerial combat while successfully telling the story of two pilots from the same town and their perky friend, played by Clara Bow. It influenced filmmakers for years to come and it won the Academy Award for Best Production in 1927-1928. The film, with a restored print, opened the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film festival today and played at the historic Castro Theater.
Silent films often have sequences of unrelenting drama followed by a totally unexpected bit of comedy. Of course, one expects comedy to happen whenever Clara Bow comes on screen, but this film contains lots of comedy, especially in the first hour of the film. From there, the movie explores much darker themes as World War 1 begins and the pilots must put aside their personal rivalries for success in battle. When the battles with the enemy begin, the film plays them big and full of action both in the air and on the ground. Overall, Wings manages a perfect balance of drama, thrills, comedy and romance.
The story begins as Jack Powell, a reckless type played by Charles Rogers, works on his souped-up car. Clara Bow, who plays Mary Preston, the girl next door, comes by and offers to help after parts of the car fall off. Welman films the opening with some unusual camera angles, perhaps as a precursor to the wild camera stunts coming later in the skies. With cameras mounted on the airplanes, he later takes us into a new visual realm.
Welman shot some great scenes of Mary driving around France after she joins the ambulance service. Mary discovers Jack Powell in a Paris nightclub and shirks her medic uniform for a sexy evening gown. Until then, the movie treats her as a plane Jane, but she immediately heats up the screen in Paris while she woos the highly inebriated Jack.
Both Powell and his buddy David Armstrong, played by Richard Arlen, bring a talisman into the battlefields with them. Powell takes a locket that contains a picture of his girlfriend, while Armstrong takes a miniature teddy bear. But these good luck charms just emphasize the role each man’s personal philosophy plays in their fate. In a war, the good luck charms may return home but the men may not.