Thursday, February 09, 2012

Paramount's restoration of "Wings" becomes a major event

Paramount Pictures may have several motives (besides profit) to release the DVD of the 1927-1929 silent  WWI  epic, and indeed last great silent film, William Wellman’s “Wings”, to win the first Best Picture Oscar ever. One reason is, of course Oscar season. Another obvious draw is the popularity of “The Artist”, and so this seems like a good time to get people to want to see it.

There are other reasons, which become apparent.  This film, to a modern viewer, provides an amazing experience.  The air fight and trench battle scenes are amazing for the time, and the photography creates an almost fantastical atmosphere. The black and white is lightly colorized, with the orange flame from the planes, some dark green occasionally, and some night time scenes where the black and white takes on a bluish cast. The indoor hotel “bubbles” scenes (half way through the 144 minutes) are as crisp and neutral BW as anything in “The Artist”.  The film is also known for introducing Gary Cooper as “Cadet White”.

But the story is amazing, too.  It’s downright operatic. It’s a three-way love triangle between two airmen and one woman, almost anticipating Tom Tykwer’s “Three”.  And that’s politically relevant now.

As the film opens, Jack (Charles Buddy Rogers), who tinkers with new Ford cars around 1917, tries to get the attention of neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who loves "rich boy" David Armstrong (Richard Arlen).  The young men are romantic rivals, but join the Army at the same time.  In the background is Woodrow Wilson’s draft (I guess it didn't defer the rich, unlike Vietnam); both men think look forward to the adventure and machismo of flying, and hopefully avoiding the trenches.  The film gets into their training, which in 1917 was more sophisticated than we think.  They both get shipped over, and Mary goes to work as a WAC because she can drive a Ford.  She still wants to be around David but realizes she likes Jack, too.  The men’s rivalry starts to get replaced by friendship, in a way that the modern military says is part of “unit cohesion”.  The men get a luxury experience in Paris hotels with some loose women, before the military police find them and bring them back to war.   Soon, Jack gets a message that David (who has asked Jack to look after his affairs, as he is apprehensive he may not survive the war) was shot down and either killed or captured by the “Iron Cross” (the Germans).  He goes looking for his buddy, not knowing whether he is really alive.  David steals a German plane and tries to escape, but gets shot down in a house in a harrowing scene.  Jack finds him, and the men share affection as Dave dies, almost as if they had been lovers themselves.  The film ends with an epilogue where Jack visits Dave’s parents. 

This sounds like a shocking concept for 1927 (it manages to stay in today’s PG-13 territory, barely).  One wonders if this film had been rehabilitated in 1993 if it could have affected the debate on gays in the military then.  There is certainly a broad world view here, that sexuality and love have different aspects and different purposes and can all exist in the same people, whatever society’s (and the military’s) official legal and social mores.

The music score, composed and “consolidated” by J. S. Zamecnik, incorporates a lot of interesting classical snips, most obviously Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, as well as Lalo’s “Le Roi d'Ys” overture, and Liszt's "Les Preludes", with some Massenet, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi.  There is an original theme that sounds a lot like a motive from the scherzo of Furtwangler’s Second Symphony, which follows the film by 20 years, so one thinks Furtwangler knew this film. There’s another familiar  2/4 tune in F Major with a simple drop-roll that becomes a leitmotif, and that is original with Zamecnik.

The DVD has a five minute intermission at the 70 minute mark, and continues to play the orchestral score. (The DVD also offers an alternative organ soundtrack.)  As the film opens, Paramount shows every corporate trademark it has ever used.  It may be deciding to use a musical theme from “Wings” as its new corporate mark. The DVD played in 1.85:1 aspect.  The original film is said to have been a major theatrical experience, state of the art for the time.

The DVD includes a 34 minute short “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”, directed by Tim King, explaining how Paramount shot the film on Army property near San Antonio, TX and had the help of the War Department.  It cost $2 million then.  The filming crew had to wait for dry weather with billowy clouds to shoot the airplane scenes. The short displays some of the music score. 

There's even a dog, to anticipate "Uggie". 

If you're in the mood to see a restored old film and have limited time, this may be a better experience than just seeing a 3-D "Titanic" or "Star Wars".  This old film is truly new for modern viewers. 

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