Why William Wellman will always have Paris

The silent movie revival (© 2011) takes many, many different forms. A few months back, in February, I noticed a clip from a silent movie popping up in my Facebook feed a lot. Not a long clip, just a short one – a single tracking shot from a well-known movie. The Facebook page that shared this video so successfully had rendered the name of the film in English and French – “Wings (Les Ailes, 1927) an avant-garde film.” A colleague of mine, one of the brainiest in the building, sent me the link, telling me that he had seen a clip from a really special silent film and he thought I would like it. He was a bit miffed, somehow, when I told him that it was a Hollywood movie, a Top Gun style film, which won the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

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That was a bit harsh of me, I shouldn’t have been so blunt and I think I rained on his parade a little. Lots of people don’t think they like Hollywood films, especially the kind that win Oscars. Although lots more do, surely. And French avant-garde films are much cooler than Top Gun – I probably agree with that. I did wonder how many people thought that they were sharing an obscure example of le septième art rather than slick Hollywood film-making, when they pushed that nightclub tracking shot around Facebook.

Today, I saw the clip was back – transformed into a very smooth gif by the twitter account @silentmoviegifs and going great guns for shares and likes. This time it was more accurately credited. Wow, People really love Wings! Or at least this part of it.

This animated 2015 piece about the cinematography in Wings puts the tracking shot above the flying sequences, and this may be where the gif first took off. My clever colleague had read on Facebook that the smooth camera movement was achieved by splitting the tables in half as the camera moved forward. Now that is quite bizarre, although this shot was quite tricky to achieve. This YouTube video explains how it really worked:

It’s a great shot, the movement is fun, evocative of our hero’s tipsy excitement at being on leave in Paris, and addled on champagne. And the extras have been beautifully directed – some of them appearing to move closer to each other, even through they are actually springing apart to let the camera past. Not to mention that the milieu – all that champagne-swigging decadence, glamorous clothes and a pair of sultry lesbians – screams 1920s chic. It’s the essence of silent movie style. No wonder people love it.

And yet, it is a little odd that among all the other, more obvious attractions of William Wellman’s WWI flying epic, this one tracking shot should be getting people excited, nearly 90 years on. Not the aerial fights, Clara Bow’s nudity, the ‘gay’ kiss, a young Gary Cooper? Isn’t it?

I think it’s quite heartening. Chopping old films into shareable gifs and memes can do them a disservice – reducing them to a throwaway gag or a piece of retro chic. But filleting often overlooked bits of cinematic ingenuity out of films, like this excellent overhead tracking shot, helps us to understand the mechanics of movie-making, and all the less showy things that directors throw into the pot. If we remember this scene but we forget the tracking shot, we still remember that the moment was atmospheric, exciting, seductive. This cutup helps us to linger on why. There’s a process that starts with sharing gifs and ends with skilfully made video essays that so neatly illustrate how cinema works its wonders.

Wings (1927)
Wings (1927)

While surely to goodness no punter ever walked out of Wings in 1927 talking about this scene rather than the flying sequences, this slick treat has aged much better than many other aspects of the film. Although  to be fair to Wellman, the authenticity of the aerial action sequences still holds up, because they were quite authentically shot in the first place. The love-triangle plot, not so much.

I think we can draw from this that “vintage” is much more popular than old. There is a big lesson about spectacular movie-making here too. The painted-on orange flares from those flying scenes, so beautifully restored in the recent Blu-ray release of the film, are a little clunky now, but the delicate bubbles daubed on the film in the Paris sequence still seem charming, if quirky. I hope a few of the people sharing the Wings gif seek out the full film, but at least its popularity shows us that even in a big film, the little things mean a lot.

Wings (1927)
Wings (1927)

 

Even those hoping for the Academy to back an underdog this year will be aware that big films are often judged the best. The first recipient of the best Picture Oscar, or Outstanding Production, as it was deemed at the time, was an out-and-out blockbuster. William Wellman’s Wings (1927) powers through the final year of the Great War as experienced by a pair of small-town buddies turned fighter pilots: posh boy David (Richard Arlen) and puppyish, mechanically minded Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) whose chirpy catchphrase is “OK!”.

David and Jack are united by their friendship, and perfectly matched when it comes to both bravery and patriotism – but divided by a love rivalry. A supposed city sophisticate, the elegant Jobyna Ralston has both lads dangling on a string, although she cares only for David. Meanwhile, Jack is pestered by the sledgehammer flirting strategies of girl-next-door Mary, played by an especially hyperactive Clara Bow.

Needless to say, the romantic problems of boisterous young things in smalltown USA don’t amount to a hill of beans in 1917. A doom-laden intertitle informs us that: “over the world hung a cloud which spread and spread until its shadow fell in some degree on every living person”. It is a benchmark of Wings’ endearing absence of subtlety that this card, hardly cryptic in its wording, is illustrated by black clouds swamping the screen and followed by the word “war” printed in flaming block capitals. Gamely, David and Jack make their goodbyes and enlist, thereby defending freedom, extricating themselves from any awkwardness with the opposite sex, and breaking bread on Wings’s feast of breathtaking aerial combat scenes.

Wings thrives in the air: vistas of sky littered with aircraft, swooping, blasting, and chasing each other will send your jaw plummeting to earth. Motor-cranked cameras perched in the cockpits of the biplanes capture our heroes in flight, as well as the gruesome final seconds of many a sacrificial extra, coughing up blood on their final inglorious nosedive. Wellman and his crew were given a $2m budget and the run of a US airfield in San Antonio, Texas for months at a time. Arlen could operate his own plane – he and Wellman had flown during the war – while the other actors were given flying lessons and stunt pilots and ex-servicemen were drafted in to bolster the spectacle.

On the ground, as long as there is fighting to be done, Wings continues to impress. The film climaxes with the Big Push and the Battle of Saint Mihiel. While David and Jack are sidetracked by their own tragedy, Wellman gives us blood-and-guts on the Western Front – panoramas of brutal hand-to-hand combat, troops falling back into the trenches they sprang from. In one grisly image, a soldier’s corpse is striped by the shadows of his comrades marching past, while an officer grinds the dead man’s cigarette, still lit, into the mud beside him.

Wings (1927)
Wings (1927)

Back in 1927, with talkies in the offing, flagship screenings of Wings were mounted with not just an orchestral score but also synchronised sound effects (whirring engines, crashing shells). There were visual effects too: flashes of orange and red dye to signify flames and gunfire (the same in-house Paramount process used to gild Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1925) for example). On the lash during a furlough in Paris, Jack drunkenly hallucinates champagne bubbles as large as silver dollars, which are painted over the images of his off-duty debauchery: cheeky circles bouncing out of saucer-shaped glasses, wriggling loose from the sequins in Bow’s floozie getup. And all those bells-and-whistles are handsomely presented here. Despite its Oscar glory, this historic movie was once believed missing in action, and the gleaming high-def transfer on this sumptuous Blu-Ray edition is the beneficiary of some hefty restoration work and digital prowess.

There are some low-tech surprises in this all-American classic too: a blistering cameo from Gary Cooper, whose sharp exit knocks a puff of can-do spirit out of our heroes’ chests; a celebrated, tender deathbed kiss between the male leads; and a saucy pre-code flash of nudity from Bow. Bow herself is a bonus, in fact, as Paramount’s hottest property was shoehorned into the movie via a rewrite. Her role, pursuing her sweetheart across the Atlantic, is largely thankless ( “I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie” she lamented), but her irrepressible vibrancy enlivens the non-battle scenes immeasurably. She provides the verve that Rogers and Arlen lack – outshining them in the comic and romantic sequences. It’s a wonder no one thought to give her flying lessons too and see what daredevil skills she could muster up in the air.

Wings (1927)
Wings (1927)

Disc: Wings is presented with two music tracks – a new orchestration of the original JS Zamecnik music with recreated sound effects and an alternative pipe organ score composed and played by Gaylord Carter. Three featurettes: on the making of Wings, the restoration of the film and aviation during the first world war. The generous booklet contains an essay by Gina Telaroli as well as archive articles and pictures.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Why William Wellman will always have Paris”

  1. Is the parting chairs scene in Wings where Welles got the breakaway skylight sign shot & Kane removed from home as a boy shot in Citizen Kane?

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