>> Monday, September 2, 2013
USA/Silent/B&W-144m./Dir: William A. Wellman/Wr: Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton/Cast: Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwimpf), Gary Cooper (Cadet White)
Wings,the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, can barely be considered a “Booze Movie.” It only contains one extended soused sequence in which World War I pilots enjoy a drunken leave in Paris. However, that small, 20-minute slice from the 144-minute film is so bizarre and memorable that I would be remiss not to mention it.
The movie itself is the story of two young men from the same small town, speed demon Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and rich kid David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), that are both in love with the same woman. Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), the girl in question, truly loves David, but through a mix-up that could only happen in the movies, Jack gets the impression that Sylvia shares his affections. To further complicate the melodrama, Jack’s neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), harbors a Godzilla-sized crush on the boy next door, but her not-so-subtle wooing goes unnoticed by the dim-witted Jack.
When war is declared, both Jack and David volunteer for the Air Service to become fighter pilots. Due to their romantic rivalry, they begin as adversaries, but they soon forge a fast friendship. That bond becomes even stronger as they dogfight with German biplanes in the skies above France. The women are marginalized as the story basically morphs into a love story between the two men, punctuated by impressive aerial photography.
The soused sequence appears midway through the running time. Jack and David awarded R & R in Paris for exceptional valor in battle; and coincidentally, Mary Preston is also in the city doing her part for the war effort. When Mary overhears that leaves are being cancelled due to a major offensive, she goes searching for the boy next door. She finds Jack at the Folies Bergere with David and another soldier, guzzling champagne and cavorting with loose women. At this point, the scene goes cuckoo bananas. Jack begins to hallucinate, envisioning cartoon bubbles rising from the champagne. Soon he is seeing bubbles everywhere. The sequence is second only to the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from Dumbo (1941) when it comes to hallucinogenic drunk scenes.
Mary tries to convince Jack to return to the front, but he is so enamored with the bubbles, he doesn’t acknowledge or recognize her. Eventually, Mary resorts to donning a sparkly dress to lure Jack away from scene, boasting that she has better bubbles than the French girls. The scene ends with Jack passing out in a hotel room, while Mary gets caught changing her clothes (an excuse for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene from Clara Bow).
While Wings is the only silent film to receive the top Oscar until 2011’s The Artist, it isn’t a very good example of silent drama. The movie is excessively melodramatic and corny, the performances are often over-the-top, and the comedy relief is generally unfunny. Still, the film is worth seeing for its aerial battle scenes. In this age of CGI action, it is thrilling to see real people in real planes performing death-defying stunts. The flight scenes are even more electrifying when you realize that the actors had to fly the planes themselves during much of the action. The aerial action and bizarre booziness, make the film well worth a view.
Intoxicating Effects--Hallucinations, blurred vision, brawling, destruction of property, harmonizing, staggering, passing out, and memory blackouts
Potent Quotables--JACK (commenting on the champagne): H’ray for bubbles!
Video Availability--Wings is available in a wonderfully sharp transfer on Blu-rayand DVDfrom Paramount.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--A baby elephant has similar alcohol-related hallucinations in Dumbo (1941).
Trivia--While Wings is considered the first “Best Picture” Oscar winner, in reality, two films were awarded top prize at the 1927/1928 Academy Awards. Wings was awarded “Outstanding Picture” and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was awarded “Best Unique and Artistic Production.” The latter category was phased out the following year, while “Outstanding Picture” was later renamed “Best Picture.”