Wings was the very first Academy Award winner for Best Picture back in 1929. However, it wasn’t until last year that the silent classic finally became available to home audiences. And when it did it received a first class restoration that appeared on both DVD and Blu-ray. The result is absolutely stunning and will no doubt provide you with one of the most entertaining movie experiences of your life, giving you a whole new appreciation for silent movies. No kidding, it’s that good.
Although the film received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike upon its DVD release, I never got around to seeing it. Even after a close friend proclaimed it to be the best film he’d seen in 2011 (in or out of the theater) I still delayed. It wasn’t out of sheer laziness, but because I knew that Turner Classic Movies had scheduled it to play at the 2012 Classic Film Festival. And am I ever glad I waited. Not only did I get to see this excellent example of early moviemaking for the first time on the big screen, but there were special guests in attendance to help celebrate the 85th anniversary of this impressive cinematic achievement, including legendary Paramount Studio producer, AC Lyles (who saw the film upon its initial release when he was 10), and the director's son, actor William Wellman, Jr.
The whole presentation made Wings the highlight of my 2012 festival experience. Of course, a lot of that is credited to the quality of the film itself. I’ll admit that before seeing Wings I found silent films to be intimidating. However, if there’s one thing that last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Artist taught us it’s that you don’t need a lot of words to make an extremely entertaining picture. And that’s exactly the case here. After just a few minutes of entering into the high-flying WWI melodrama you completely forget you’re watching a silent movie. The film’s stars, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen and Hollywood’s “It Girl” Clara Bow portray such lively and charismatic characters that the absence of sound doesn’t even factor into the experience. It’s only because of the periodic use of title cards that you’re infrequently reminded that the dialogue isn’t audible.
Even the exceptional aerial sequences are so full of action the visual impact completely satisfies the senses without the aid of thunderous battle effects. By no means is it an understatement to say that Wings set the gold standard for Hollywood when it comes to shooting dogfights. They’re simply amazing by any day's standards, let alone for the limited technology available back in the 1920s. Back then you really had to make due and improvise the best you could. This is best demonstrated by the fact that the director, William Wellman (The Public Enemy, Beau Geste) insisted that the actors do the actual flying for their close ups in the cockpits. After being disappointed by the fake look of dailies with mock-up cockpits shot against rear screen projection, Wellman appealed to the actors to take flying lessons so they could shoot the real thing - and they agreed. Can you imagine?! Actors today don’t drive cars and act, and these guys were acting while operating airplanes - in battle scenes! How’s that for authenticity?
You’re not likely to get the opportunity to see Wings on the big screen like I did, but that shouldn’t keep you from experiencing this amazing example of young Hollywood at its finest. I recommend having some friends over and creating your own theater audience. Not only will you be able to share this unique experience, but you’re going to want to talk about it afterwards with people who are just as amazed as you are that silent films can still make an impact on movie fans regardless of age, generation, or years of audio indoctrinations. In fact, you might just find a whole new way to watch movies - with the sound off. That will really put the test to your favorite films. If they play as well without sound then you know you have a classic.