Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 September 2012

Things I Didn't Know about Wings

I finally saw William A. Wellman's Wings from 1927, the silent film that won the very first Best Picture Oscar. (I have seen lots of movies from that first year of Oscar – my favorites have always been Murnau's Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans, Borzage's 7th Heaven, and Vidor's The Crowd; recently I also fell in love with Josef von Sternberg's Underworld – but I had never been able actually to get my hands on a copy of Wings. Until today. I came home (to my new digs in New Hampshire) and what was sitting on my stoop, but the Wings DVD from Netflix (thanks, Netflix).

And so:

Ten things I didn't quite expect from Wings:

1. Butts! Click on this image and you will see what I mean. When the two male leads go to sign up to be in the Air Force or whatever it was called in WWI, what does the camera find, but a room full of naked men behind door number one! I was shocked, to say the least! It is a film that was made before the Hayes code, of course, but that doesn't mean William Wellman needed to include a shot of naked men. In fact, the nude rear ends are in the center of the shot. The eye is unavoidably drawn to the door at the center of the shot, and then when the door opens: butts! It is an odd thing, indeed.

2. Gary Cooper! Coop isn't in Wings for very long, and I hadn't even noticed his name in the opening credits, but there he is in the film's first act. His appearance was so unexpected to me that I didn't quite believe it was even him until I realized that he was nearly a foot taller than his castmates, and then I was sure.

3. This movie loves Buddy Rogers who plays the lead, Jack. And I have to admit, I've never even seen any of his other films. I guess he married Mary Pickford and then started making music or something, because his film career didn't quite live up to his appearance in Wings, but Wellman loves this guy, and you can see why. He is a handsome devil.

4. There was a moment when I truly feared I was going to have to sit through the original Spielberg duck joke – this is a WWI film, after all. Thankfully, however, I was spared. This is the lone shot of ducks (or geese or other waterfowl) in the picture.

 5. Let's talk about Fokkers. I had never heard the term, but evidently it was in such common usage in the 1920s that it needed no explanation for Wings' first audience in 1927.


6. And while we're looking at title cards, let's speak briefly about typography. Wings' title cards all have that gorgeous elaboration behind their first letter (you can see it in the P above. And then look at this amazing typeface being used to indicate intermission. It's just so elegant! I want this for my résumé.

7. More butts. Wings is also interested in the female anatomy. It-girl Clara Bow appears nearly nude somewhere in act two, and during an extended sequence at the Folies-Bergères there are lots of lovely shots of butts and breasts. The camera, for example, has no reason to focus on the derrières above left, and yet it lingers there. Ditto the breasts above right. The woman in the shot fastens that pin, and the camera never looks away the entire time she does that.

8. Also: lesbians. This is no joke. Look very carefully at this image. It is extraordinary. As far as I can tell those are two women, dressed more or less as men, caressing each other and holding hands. Am I right?

9. The next image is the other amazing thing about Wings. The photography is excellent. You can see in the following image that the female couple is not in the foreground as the camera has moved through them to the couple behind them. There was a couple in front of the lesbians that the camera treated similarly.
Again and again, Wellman and his photographer, the great Harry Perry, show an artistic, unique flair with angles and tracking shots and perspective. Not only in the air during the spectacular flight sequences, but in the Folies-Bergères, at training camp, in No Man's Land. It is lovely work.

10. Wings is so homoerotic. I thought I had remembered a sequence in The Celluloid Closet in which we are shown the image of the two men whose friendship means more than anything else in Wings. But I hadn't quite remembered what it looked like. Well, it looks like this:

But what I wasn't prepared for was this:
Oh my goodness. It is lovely. These two men love each other so much, and while they are clearly not gay – it was 1927, after all – the whole thing is just so sweet! As I said earlier, much of Wings is erotic, and much of that is heterosexual, but the homoerotic is unmistakeably present in this film, and I found it just delightful.