Thursday 19 October 2017

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison discovers revival screenings of William Wellman's epic WINGS (USA, 1927)

Sometimes you get lucky.

In a bogus anniversary season, they are running William Wellman's Wings (USA, 1927) for a week at the Chauvel and I'm told other locations. They are promoting it as the last great silent movie and while that's speculative, you can assert it as the last great success of the silent film.

I have a history with this movie. Langlois' Palais de Chaillot Paris Cinematheque opened the week I hit Paris for the first time. I got off the train at four and by six I was watching Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942) there. When the lights came up. everyone I knew in Continental Europe was in the row in front - loud greetings.

They played Wings a few days later probably for the first time there since WW2 and a near capacity crowd was awe struck (it's that kind of film) watching George Eastman House's 35mm black and white in total silence for near three hours. One character thought old movies were funny and was laughing his head off.

In the foyer afterwards a guy called him out ("Nous sommes dans une Musée du Cinéma!") and it looked like it was going to come to blows. I was prepared to hold the coat of the Musée du Cinéma guy. I felt that this was what I fled Australia for.

I remember Bertrand Tavernier saying, with nostalgia, that people didn't punch it out over TV the way they used to for movies.

Clara Bow, Wings
A few years ago when the digital copy turned up I tried to get it run at the Chauvel's doomed Cinemathèque, after noticing it surface in the first of the "classic" one off screenings in George Street (and no place else). No luck there.

From the YouTube trailer, the 2012 restoration appears to be super beaut, tinted and sharper than the 16mms and dodgy DVDs which did surface at wide spaced intervals here. A new recording has been made of the original score - which I have never heard.

William Wellman's career as director was several years ended when I ran into him but he still enjoyed talking about Wings, throwing the executives off the riser when they came up while he was in charge of the sixty plane fly over, getting drunk and expecting to be fired that night, only to have them show up at his hotel room and tell him "We think you're a hell of a man." He ended his presentation by reading a maudlin poem about mother love with the presenters studying their toes intently until he got to the final line. "... but there's one love that can be compared to no other/the love of one drunken bum for another." The house broke up.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen,  Gary Cooper, Wings
Gary Cooper had been in movies for a few years and had a substantial role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (Henry King, USA, 1926) but that memorable walk on in Wings does seem to have triggered his star career.

One of the things that makes Wings so impressive is its sheer scale - three and a half thousand infantry, real planes in the air with the actors actually filming in them, and a full size aircraft piling into a full size house (down an off screen ramp). The film was made at alarming expense years before digital effects work but just got under the wire for the optical printer and it will be interesting to see how the new team have dealt with the obvious duping in the "bubbles" sequence. They have managed to enhance the painted-on-negative flames in the flying material. 

Overriding its qualities as spectacle and as entertainment however is Wings' capture of the mix of pride and revulsion that had overtaken American and the world's take on World War One. The final scene between the leads (note the cut away of the French woman taking the curse off the kiss) was and is extraordinarily effective.

This one is clearly the peak achievement of the WW1 aviation cycle - Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes, USA, 1930), Lilac Time (George Fitzmaurice, USA, 1928), L'Equipage (Maurice Tourneur, France, 1928, & Anatole Litvak, France, 1935) and those other John Monk Saunders subjects Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, USA, 1930), Ace of Aces (J. Walter Ruben, USA, 1933) and the superior The Eagle and the Hawk, (Stuart Walker, USA, 1933) the best work of one of the all-time most talented directors and must reasonably be considered among the best films ever made.

I may go back twice.

William Wellman shooting Wings

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