Wings1927, 139 min.
Directed by William A. Wellman
"D'you know what you can do when you see a shooting star? You can kiss the girl you love."
- Mary Preston (Clara Bow)
As a rookie to the Summer Film Series, I am constantly discovering the magnitude of the special events as they come. I'm also continuously finding myself amazed at what this theatre has to offer. Every expectation has been surpassed by the actual event and screening. Take for instance, the screening of Wings on June 23rd. I knew the film was released in 1927, won the first Oscar for Best Picture, was set in World War I, and it starred Clara Bow. That was about it. Oh, tonight was a "live score" too? That sounds kinda neat. I'll have to check that out...
As I walked under this marquee and into the theatre that night, I had NO idea what I was in for. First of all, a much larger crowd was present than I'm accustomed to. The level of excitement was recognizable, buzzing like a feeling of electricity in the air before a severe thunderstorm. There were patrons everywhere. They were in line at the bar, milling about discussing film with others, and perusing the goods at the merchandise cart. In addition to the usual items, there were autographed Wings event posters by tonight's composer, Graham Reynolds. A separate table was even set up offering collections of his music. Many people were just as enthused by Graham's body of music as the film itself. I must confess being unfamiliar with his work. What made him qualified to write a brand new score to the very first Best Picture winner? Well...
Graham Reynolds is an Austin based jack of all trades. A composer and musician, he performs with his band, the Golden Arm Trio. They have toured the country and Europe, and Reynolds has also become an accomplished film composer. His score for A Scanner Darkly, the 2006 film by Austin's own Richard Linklater, was recently named the best score of the decade by Cinema Retro magazine. Clearly, his works merit the challenging task of composing a brand new score.
As we took our seats and prepared for this event, the composer and his six-person crew took their positions at the orchestra area in front of the stage. Reynolds took some time to talk to us before the show, sharing his thoughts. He mentioned why he included familiar military anthems and how he created the melody that was the backbone of his score. His demeanor was humble and inviting, and he was obviously very honored in being assigned a daunting task such as this. Proactive in addressing the obvious questions, my favorite was when he addressed how many times it takes to watch a silent film before he could compose a full score. Reynolds' answer? "A lot."
My anticipation had reached a fever pitch by the time the lights went down and the film began. Despite my enthusiasm for seeing such a highly regarded movie, I wasn't expecting much from it. My experiences with silent film would be classified as more visceral than narratively engrossing. At a young age I saw F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Late night viewings of parts of Alexander Nevsky and some old Chaplain and Buster Keaton on Turner Classic Movies over the years taught me that the pictures (and the acting in them) are more expressive and emotionally impactful rather than nuanced. Naturally, if one has title cards in lieu of spoken dialogue, you need other tools to help tell the story. The physical performance of actors is of prime importance, but the music is critical in conveying the power of the film. Wings began and Reynolds' score quickly and loudly enveloped the audience.
The film is a story of two young men who are initially established as rivals in their hometown. David (Richard Arlen) and Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) both vie for the affections of Sylvia, who happens to be in love with David. Mary (Clara Bow) is quite literally "the girl next door" who harbors a crush on the clueless Jack. The boys enlist in the U.S. Army Air Service (there was no Air Force branch of the military, back then) to serve as pilots in World War I. The film follows them as they train in grueling fashion, and finally become best friends as they graduate. It's as if Maverick and Iceman let bygones be bygones in Top Gun, but here it works. They are shipped out to France to battle German forces, and the movie shows their missions in amazing levels of detail. In an effort to pursue Jack romantically, Mary also enlists and becomes a driver for medics. While I won't spoil anything for you, dear reader, suffice it to say Mary's military career does not end well.
I was completely engrossed with the story of the boys. The emotions and reactions felt very real, due in no small part to the acting and the emotional score. Jack is so naive and clueless about, well, everything. But his charm holds the audience, even as he angers us with his youthful boorishness. David is not as warm a character, but still agreeable. He's the more mature and steady of the two, and takes a bit of a "big brother" role. The friendship never feels forced. It's surprisingly organic and ultimately touching and poignant. I feel this is what Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor could have been like if, you know, it hadn't been completely freaking awful. Wings as a war picture nailed it 74 years earlier, without the tainted likes of Ben Affleck or Josh Hartnett.
Because the boys' story was so strong, I couldn't help but feel Clara Bow's role was shoehorned into the screenplay due to her star power. Mary as a character could have easily existed as a mere light romantic interest, perhaps only appearing in bookends to the film. I could easily imagine producers and studio heads saying, "this is one expensive film; we want some security and a bigger role for the big name star involved." Honestly, I can't say I blame those bosses. She is rather beautiful, after all. When she's onscreen, Bow is luminous. Her face, and particularly her eyes, are amongst the most expressive I've ever seen on an actress. She made the audience love her, all without saying a single word.
The spectacle of Wings can not be overstated. It is truly epic in scope, and is even more impressive now because of the passage of time. I can't imagine what this film actually cost to make. The battle scenes and dogfights are ranked among the best my eyes have ever seen on film. Bear in mind, this is long before CGI, before green screen, before the wide use of miniatures and models. It truly looks like they recreated war itself... on a grand scale and with a blank checkbook. Scary and enthralling, it's marvelous to behold.
Visually, the movie is stunning, and not just because of the depiction of war. The director has a great deal of style, and many small touches are just as inventive and slick today as they must have been in 1927. The title cards themselves sometimes broke out of the mold of simple white text on black backgrounds. At a few choice moments, the text is superimposed over unique moving images. Early, the approach of war is depicted with looming dark storm clouds moving into the title card's frame. Another card with an ominous whirlpool underlines the maelstrom that war brings. Not the most subtle of touches, but very effective. Some innovative camera shots and angles are also sprinkled throughout. An early camera shot set on a swing set made me grin, as did one specific tracking shot later on. Moving along the dance floor through tables and revelers at a Paris nightclub, it was most impressive. As I watched, eyes transfixed to the screen, one thought surfaced over and over in my mind: This is not a boring movie. It hit with a one-two punch of visual impact and the sonic adventure of the live score.
One could arguably say that silent film overcompensates its lack of sound by being visually melodramatic. I won't argue against that stance. What Reynolds' score did was not dial back from this inherent melodrama. In fact, he went in the opposite direction. The results were absolutely incredible. He ratcheted up the dial a few notches on the proverbial scale from one to ten. The fictional band Spinal Tap would be pleased, because Reynolds took the emotion of Wings to an eleven. While anchoring the film's sentiment to a piano melody, the rise of the percussion during battle was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Boom! Clash! Crash! Each note rained upon the audience in droves, creating a brutal sense of beauty. Reynolds led the score that night like a general directing a battalion. I, for one, could not stop smiling at the onslaught of musical brilliance. The experience was glorious.
As the film ended, the last notes died down and the house lights came back up. The audience rose to its feet and returned the favor to Graham Reynolds, cascading him and the Golden Arm Trio with thunderous applause. The joy hung in the air like a mist, and the buzz continued as people slowly began to file out of the auditorium. Unable to resist, I hurried downstairs to thank Reynolds personally. Shaking his hand, I told him how sensational I thought the evening went. Ever humble, he replied that he was honored and pleased that I enjoyed the show. Still grinning ear to ear as I finally broke the handshake, I practically skipped out of the theatre and into the night.
Never would I have imagined how significant Wings was as a motion picture. Exhilarating and touching, it is worthy of any accolade it has received or will continue to earn. Breathtaking in its ambition, it's every bit as groundbreaking as Star Wars or Avatar. But never will I ever be able to view it again without hearing this amazing score in my head. Leaving The Paramount, I felt I could fly. It was one of the most impressive nights at the cinema I have ever witnessed in all my years. The evening's experience may well be the crown jewel of this year's Summer Series, but I could be wrong. After all, The Paramount does have a way of surpassing my expectations. Always.