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Wings (1927), is not only the FIRST winner of the Best Picture Academy Award, it may be the BEST film to hold that title, and I say that knowing that Casablanca, Gladiator, and The Last Emperor all hold the statue too. There have been some stinkers dubbed "Best Picture" in the past, (Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan??? The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon?! Spare us all) but this is not one of them.
Even supporters of the film, writing reviews here at IMDb, can't seem to resist taking shots at Wings' plot, but I'm here to tell you it is just fine, even solidly written. Some reviewers don't sound like they have seen this movie in a long time, or if they have, they slept through it. For one thing, the "Love Triangle" is not as convoluted or hard to grasp as others have implied:
Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) has a crush on one Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), the local beauty queen. She finds this cute and indulges it a little bit--actually too much. But she is quite sincerely in love with someone else, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) a well-off local boy who isn't quite able to figure out how to tell Jack to butt-out because it doesn't involve money. The wild card in all of this (literally and figuratively) is Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who lives next door to Jack and has been mooning over him since she was a little girl.
That's the whole dynamic. I have no idea what someone was thinking when they suggested Mary expressed any feelings for David (She never does). Some have said they can't believe Jack would go for Sylvia with Mary next door. I see their point, because the casting of Clara Bow in her role is like having Kirsten Dunst living next door and not noticing. The problem is, Jack isn't SUPPOSED to notice Mary until the end, when he has experienced the war and realizes that everything he wants is right there at home where he belongs. In the beginning he is all about Fast Cars and the Trophy Girls.
So, the plot thickens as the US gets dragged into World War I and both Jack and David sign up as pilots. Naturally each of them heads to Sylvia's house to say good-bye. Sylvia prepared a locket with her picture in it for David, but Jack sees it first. This scene is a great display of awkwardness wrapped in etiquette, especially when Sylvia tries to let go of Jack's hand. Jack takes the locket from her, and, this being more than she can stand, Sylvia almost gets the words out to tell him the truth when David gets there. At this point Jack turns on the macho-factor, and he is so gleeful about rubbing Sylvia's locket in David's face that he doesn't even notice she never kissed him good-bye.
Sylvia makes up for David's loss of the locket with some tender words and some passionate kissing--no mystery where her feelings lie--and the three of them head off for war. Three, because Mary goes too, as a nurse. Another complaint about this film and it's plot has been that Clara Bow wasn't given enough to do, shunted off into a side part even though she got billing as the Leading Lady, but I just don't see it. Her part was as big as any Romantic Interest in most movies out there; a good example for comparison would be Kathleen Quinlan's roll in Apollo 13. Most of her scenes were not shared with Tom Hanks, but she turned in an emotional and Oscar-nominated performance nonetheless.
The air battles in this film have never been topped anywhere. Ever. And that includes anything involving aliens, fighter jets, or a galaxy far, far, away. The information that the actors flew their own planes is misleading. Actors couldn't do what these pilots do. The stunt flying is by the US Army Air Corps in Texas (!) where the movie was filmed (I dare you to have guessed that on your own). What Rogers and Arlen do is all their own close-ups, flying the plane as they careen and dive. When the camera ran out of film (or the planes ran out of gas) a stunt pilot from the Army would pop up and land the plane.
The resolution of the story I won't comment further on, except to say that it is extremely moving and does highlight the madness of war, especially the kind of war WW1 was. I support military action for just causes, but everything has a cost and Wings lays that cost bare. These were issues being struggled over long before Vietnam, just in case you thought Hippies invented protest.
After complaining that she didn't do enough, some people insist that Mary's tactics in Paris were out of character. No they were not. Mary had to get Jack away from that "other woman" and get him his orders before he got court marshaled. She was not becoming a floozie, only dressing the part, and she paid the ultimate price for the risk she took. It also helped to stir up Jack's feelings about her in later scenes, and get him thinking.
Wings! Melodramatic? Sure. Unoriginal? Well... if you make that claim because you can guess what's coming or you've seen it all before, just ask yourself how old these movies are that you are comparing Wings to, and check Wings' release date again. Maybe the plot-heist occurred in the other direction.
This film deserves a DVD release. Barring that, see if you can track down the old Paramount Laserdisc, LV 2851-2, which is what I had. I have been enamored with, and watching, this film since I was 13 (30 now). It shattered my little-boy prejudices against both black and white and silent films in one great blast of anti-aircraft fire, and I have been spreading its gospel ever since. You will not ever see a better World War 1 film.
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