WINGS – Blu-ray review

Paramount Pictures, the oldest continuously operating movie studio in Hollywood, celebrates its one-hundredth birthday this year, having opened its doors for business in 1912.  In honor of the celebration, the good folks at Paramount are giving us the first-ever Academy Award-winning Best Picture, “Wings” from 1927, on high-definition Blu-ray.

OK, technically, “Wings” was a co-winner for Best Picture since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at that time gave two Best Picture awards, with “Wings” winning for Best Production and “Sunrise:  A Song of Two Humans” winning for Best Artistic Quality of Production.  Close enough.  “Wings” also won that year for Best Effects, Engineering Effects.  (Paramount released “Wings” in 1927, and in 1929 the Academy gave its first awards to movies made in 1927-28.)

So, it makes sense that Paramount would kick off their centennial celebration by releasing their first Academy Award winner in high def, but is it worth it to the viewer?  After all, “Wings” is a very old, silent, monochrome movie; it’s not exactly “Transformers” in terms of picture and sound.  Well, its worth depends on how you look at it.  “Wings” is exceedingly long (144 minutes) for its thin story material; its plot and acting are rather clunky by today’s standards; and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll think you’ve read a novel’s worth of intertitles.  Yet it also features some of the most-thrilling aerial dogfight scenes and ground combat you’ll find in any war film, a remarkable achievement done entirely without the aid of modern CGI.  Besides that, monochrome footage can often show up in HD more impressively than color, and Paramount meticulously restored “Wings” frame-by-frame.  What’s more, the studio re-recorded the film’s original musical score and added sound effects authentic to the action, making a good thing even better.

Besides, with the popularity of “The Artist,” a newly made B&W silent film, interest in “Wings” is probably bigger than ever.  Although “Wings” is not among the finest silent films ever made, it is worth a shot, especially for anyone truly interested in film and film history.

Anyway, Charles “Buddy” Rodgers stars in the film as Jack Powell, a fresh-faced young man from a small American town who, when we meet him in 1917 just before America’s entrance into World War I, is infatuated with a visitor in town, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston).  Sylvia, though, is enamoured of another young man about town, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the son of the community’s wealthiest family.  Meanwhile, the movie’s biggest-name star, Clara Bow, plays Mary Preston, a typical girl-next-door who just happens to live next door to Jack and has a huge crush on him.  Jack ignores her, or perhaps just doesn’t even notice her, he’s so lost in his passion for Sylvia.  Or maybe he’s just an idiot.  Who knows.

In any case, it’s interesting to see Ms. Bow, probably the most well-known personification of the “Roaring Twenties,” the “It Girl,” the ultimate sexy flapper of the Jazz Age, playing a sweet and innocent young lady.  If you know anything about the scandalous reputation of Clara Bow from newspaper and magazine accounts of her at the time, you know her portrayal of a pure and unsullied babe in the woods is kind of funny.  Be that as it may, she is fine in the part, even if there is one sequence that’s entirely hard to believe where she joins the ambulance corps, travels to Europe, finds Jack, spends a night with him while he’s too drunk to realize it, and returns home without his even knowing she was there.  What are the odds?

When War beckons, both Jack and David join the American Expeditionary Forces in France, where the two rivals for Sylvia’s affections train to be pilots, the War eventually making them close friends.  After what seems like a lifetime of melodramatics back home and in flight school, the film’s first combat sequences begin a little past the forty-minute mark.  Then, with greater action, the film’s pace quickens considerably and what had been pretty hard slogging gets considerably easier to take.  The film reminded me of “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans” in this respect, where the racing sequences were exciting and absorbing but the story line that incorporated them were often hard to take.

Director William Wellman (“The Public Enemy,” “A Star Is Born,” “Beau Geste,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The High and the Mighty”) was a pilot himself during WWI, so he brings a good deal of intimate knowledge and authenticity to the film.  Had he stuck to the war scenes alone or if he had had an editor willing to scrap about a half an hour or more of extraneous footage, he might have made a film that would have held up better today.

“Wings” was as big as they came in 1927, with a host of extras in the battle scenes and aerial footage that is often stunning.  Sure, the acting is awkward and stagey, but that often came with the territory in silent movies, the actors exaggerating their gestures and expressions to make up for a lack of sound.  Still, viewed for its action, dogfights, and combat, “Wings” is a remarkable achievement.

On a side note, look for Ed Brendel as Herman Schwimpf, the film’s comedy relief and requisite colorful character; and Gary Cooper as Cadet White, a very small part for the soon-to-become superstar.

And who eventually gets which girl?  I’ll never tell.

In a studio press release, Paramount tell us that “because the original negative was lost decades ago, contemporary audiences have only seen ‘Wings’ in a compromised form.  The restoration process utilized a duplicate negative housed in the Paramount archive, but despite this being the best element available, the negative was beset by damage, including entire reels that were strafed with scratches and printed-in nitrate deterioration that was literally eating into the edges of the frames.  Using state-of-the-art digital tools normally used to create special effects, the film was meticulously restored frame-by-frame.  Original tints and effects, such as colors that were embossed onto the film strip to give flames and explosions a fiery look, were also digitally recreated based on a detailed continuity script that still existed and tinting/toning guides from the period.”

Paramount transferred the results of all their work to Blu-ray using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec, rendering the 1.33:1 screen image as good-looking as it probably appeared in its first showing all those years ago.  The film uses sepia tones for the daylight scenes and black-and-white for the nighttimes shots, with the deepness of the blacks showing up especially well during the intertitle cards.  The PQ is exceptionally clean, as we might expect from such a restoration, with nary an age mark in sight.  However, the engineers did leave a natural film grain in place, particularly noticeable during the combat footage.  Object delineation is a tad soft and contrasts are a bit subdued, but that may have been a condition of the original print as well.  In any case, you’ll get no complaints from me.

It’s a silent movie, of course, so we don’t hear any dialogue, which the film presents on intertitle cards.  During its theatrical presentations, movie houses would have used a piano, an organ, or even an orchestral accompaniment.  On the Blu-ray disc we get both a re-recorded score by J.S. Zamecink (orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser with featured pianist Frederick Hodges and sound effects by Ben Burtt) in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a pipe-organ score composed and played by Gaylord Carter in Dolby Digital 2.0.  In 5.1 the orchestral sound is well spread out across the front of the listening area, with a pleasant musical bloom in the rear.  The sound effects offer strong dynamics, a deep bass, and a wide frequency response.

The disc’s primary bonus item is a thirty-six minute, high-def documentary, “Wings:  Grandeur in the Sky,” which goes into detail about the making of the film.  After that, there’s “Dogfight!,” thirteen minutes and also in HD, which discusses the dogfighting scenes with pilots of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrame Air Shows.  Then, there’s “Restoring the Power and Beauty of Wings,” a fourteen-minute, high-definition featurette on how the video engineers cleaned up the movie for the current print.

The Blu-ray’s extras conclude with twenty-two scene selections; bookmarks; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; a flimsy BD Eco-case; and a colorful, embossed slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
People loved “Wings” in 1927, and the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences back then awarded it their highest honor as Best Picture.  Nevertheless, viewed today the film’s story and characters seem hopelessly dated.  So it’s probably in one’s best interest to watch it for what it does best:  recreate spectacular displays of aerial dogfights and ground combat.  For these sequences alone, the film holds up.