I’m far from a movie buff, but I’d love to become one. So my strategy, for better or worse, is to watch every Best Picture winner. A daunting task for someone who hasn't even seen Jaws. To save you a ton of time, I’ll document my adventure here, and we can become movie buffs together.
Our journey through the history of Best Picture Oscar winners starts at the very beginning: 1927’s Wings. Good Lord. 1927? I wasn't entirely sure I could make it through a movie from 1927. What were people into back then? What drew thousands to the movies almost 100 years ago? Naturally, I checked Wikipedia to get some basic details. It only took six words to deflate my curiosity.
“Wings is a 1927 silent film … ”
A silent film?! Oh, come on. I was expecting black and white, but this? And almost two and a half hours long?!! It sounds excruciatingly boring, pun mega-intended. Turns out Wings was the only true Silent Era film to win Best Picture. What luck. Nevertheless, I hit play. Here goes … something.
Wings is about two American fighter pilots in World War I. Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are from the same small town and in love with the same girl, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralson). But there’s another young lady in town who’s in love with Jack, the adorable girl-next-door Mary Preston (Clara Bow). Well, isn't this a sticky pickle.
One great thing about old movies is you finally see people whose names or faces are vaguely familiar. In this case, it’s the inimitable Clara Bow. During silent film’s heyday, Clara Bow was the actress, and her movies were instant gold at the box office. She became known as the “it” girl, at first because she played a quintessential 20s flapper in a movie called It, but more broadly, she simply had “it.” She also became the first E! True Hollywood Story, as bizarre sex scandals crushed her career before she even hit 30. After doing a little research, I can’t believe they haven’t made a biopic. Bow’s star shines in Wings, and her scenes as a medic are particularly revealing of her character both onscreen and off — playful, innocent, sexy.
The first scene establishes Jack and Mary as childhood friends. I say “establishes” because this is done with absolutely no dialog (eye roll). David and Sylvia, however, are caught in tender embrace. It’s clear these kids want to get it on. When Jack and David enlist in this primitive, 1916-version of an Air Force, each goes to Sylvia for a memento to take with them as they battle the Germans. Sylvia lets both men leave for war thinking she’s “the girl back home,” giving Jack her only photo and David a note confessing her love. Meanwhile, Mary is decidedly friend-zoned by Jack. Apparently, in those days guys friend-zoned girls.
I must admit, this whole silent film thing isn't so bad. While the overacting seems hacky at first, it does a great deal to tell the story. It’s also a testament to that whole “communication is 90% visual” theory. Two hours and 20 minutes of story are carried by little more than shrugs and smiles. And it works. Lip reading is minimal. The title cards only come in every 5-10 minutes. Still, I was never confused by the plot.
The pilots go through training where we meet Herman Schimpf (former vaudeville star — yes, vaudeville — El Brendel), who is essentially comic relief through the whole movie. It’s like a 1920’s Cosmo Kramer, physical humor punctuated by big, exaggerated movements. During training, Jack and David turn from small-town rivals into 21st century bros. The two also prove to be particularly ferocious fighter pilots.
It’s worth noting that the war scenes are impressive considering they couldn't even line up sound with a picture yet. It has the feel of a big budget blockbuster, like Pearl Harbor or Saving Private Ryan. The air battles are intricately choreographed (although they last long enough to be their own movies. Land the planes already.), and even the crashes are convincing. Every time I want to underestimate these silent film folks, they remind me that people in the 20s were rich.
The story drags a little as military scenes dominate the middle of the film. A warning to those who want to watch it, spoilers are coming up.
After a few daring missions against Manfred von Richhofen’s Flying Circus, the men take a leave in Paris. Meanwhile, our friendly girl-next-door Mary has taken a job with the Women’s Army Transport Corps, and she’s stationed nearby in France! What luck! She also goes to Paris the night of the leave, and finds her “friend” Jack getting hammered on bubbly. I’m talking blackout drunk. She helps him to his room but gets in trouble with the military police and is sent back to America. Poor thing. Jack doesn't remember her ever being there.
In their next battle, David’s plane crashes and Jack assumes he’s a goner. However, David survives, and that resilient son-of-a-gun steals a German plane to fly back into friendly territory. In a cruel twist of fate, Jack, trying to avenge David’s supposed death, shoots down what he thinks is another German plane but is actually David. Barely hanging on after the crash (this guy technically survives two crashes), David spends his final moments reassuring Jack that it’s not his fault. It’s the war!
Jack returns home a celebrated war hero, but is still racked with guilt over shooting down David. He visits David’s parents to find that oh-so-elusive closure, and David’s parents absolve him of blame. He then reunites with Mary and finally realizes he was rejecting Clara-freaking-Bow. They kiss and fall in love. The end.
86 years later, does it hold up? It’s tough to say yes or no, so I’ll do a little of both.
The plot still holds. It’s surprisingly similar to blockbusters today. An epic war-romance movie with big stars, big production value, and a monster budget. I was struck early on by how relatable the story is, and it being silent actually may have helped that because you’re left with pure human emotion. No accents. No dated colloquialisms. Just love, death, heartbreak, and happiness. The plot was easy to follow, but still carried heavy, emotional twists and turns. If nothing else, it introduced me to the fascinating, if tragic story of 20s icon Clara Bow, who I’m now obviously obsessed with.
As far as the silent film part goes, I really can’t see today's crowd getting into it. The charm of silent film doesn't really hold past the 90-minute mark for even the most patient viewer. The performances are great, and frankly enlightening, but it’s a very different style of acting that many viewers would find irritating.
Ultimately, I’d recommend this to anyone who’s curious about silent films. But, if you’re an average movie fan, just YouTube a couple Wings scenes, google Clara Bow, and stick with the talkies.