Classic Film Guide

Wings (1927) - full length review!

This very first (and only) winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Production (a category that has since become known as Best Picture) is the only silent film to win the award and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Effects, Engineering Effects (for Roy Pomeroy). That same year, another silent Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) aka Sunrise (1927) won the only Academy Award for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. This film – added to the National Film Registry in 1997 – is a World War I action drama that features spectacular aerial sequences of vintage dog fighting and a romantic angle featuring its top billed star Clara Bow. It was directed by William Wellman and written by John Monk Saunders, who would win an Oscar (on his only nomination, Original Story) at the Academy’s fourth banquet for a similar WW I drama The Dawn Patrol (1930). Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, and Roscoe Karns fill the other primary roles. Future two time Academy Award Best Actor Gary Cooper appears briefly as a fated cadet.

Jack Powell (Rogers) is an all American boy and Mary Preston (Bow) is the girl next door that admires him. After Jack gets his new hotrod assembled, Mary dubs it the “Shooting Star” and Jack drives off without her to take his would-be sweetheart Sylvia Lewis (Ralston) for a ride. But Sylvia loves David Armstrong (Arlen), the richest boy in town, and so it goes. When war breaks out and it’s time for the United States to enter the fray, both Jack and David enlist. Sylvia prepares a locket for David with her picture inside, but Jack mistakenly assumes it’s for him. Seeing how excited he is to receive it before going off to war she lets Jack keep it and then she explains the decision to David, to whom she proclaims her love. But David gets a good luck charm of his own – a small childhood teddy bear – from his mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) while his wheelchair bound sentimental father (Henry B. Walthall) watches on. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Mary still gives Jack a picture of herself before he leaves for training camp, where German immigrant Herman Schwimpf (Brendel) gets a hard time at enlistment until he flashes the “Stars and Stripes forever” tattoo on his bicep and declares his U.S. citizenship.

At training camp, Jack and David are rivals until, during a brawl, each earns the other’s respect. By the time ground school is over, the two have become best friends. Before their aerial training begins, they meet Cadet White (Cooper), a more experienced trainee who jaws with them briefly before leaving to fly his morning exercises, during which his plane collides with another and he’s killed. Soon, however, the men are on their way to Europe where Jack and David quickly advance from fledgling flyers on the dawn patrol to experienced veterans. When an enemy bomber dubbed the Gotha threatens to destroy Mervale – a tiny village packed with munitions and jammed with billeted regiments – the two are sent to shoot down the "great dragon". Mary, who had joined the Woman's Motor Corps of America, finds herself in the middle of the action. Right after she’d driven her puddle-hopper into the town to deliver medical supplies to combat the flu, the bombing begins. Though the damage is widespread, she survives and cheers on the American fighters as they procede to shoot down the bomber and its two swift escort planes. For these acts, Jack and David become aces and receive medals and a furlough to Paris. But shortly after the men are found enjoying the city’s girls and champagne, the high command that’s planned the final push to defeat the Germans cancels all furloughs and recalls the fliers, who must return or face a court-martial. In a superfluous comic sequence that seems out of place and contrived to get more screen-time for starlet Bow, Mary corrals a drunken Jack, who’s captivated by ‘magic’ champagne bubbles, in order to get him back to the front on time.

This final push has David convinced that he’ll not return. He gives Jack his medal and asks his friend to give it to his mother if anything should happen to him. But Jack gives it back to David and states that it will be alright. After it’s learned that Mary has resigned and gone back home, Jack has a brief argument with Lieutenant Cameron (Karns) about the possible reasons why; he defends Mary. David thinks of his true love and asks Jack if he loves Mary, but Jack reveals that he loves Sylvia and shows David the locket as proof of her feelings for him. But the picture falls out – on the back is a note to David – and, after refusing to give it back to Jack, David rips it up to protect his friend from the truth that would hurt him. This causes a rift between the two as they’re called off to battle. After they’ve left, Lt. Cameron notices that David has gone without his teddy bear; he picks it up and rushes out to the field but is too late to return it to him, the planes have already taken off. The men are charged with shooting down a couple of enemy observation balloons. But before they’ve gotten close enough to take these out, David notices that four German fighters will soon intercept them, so he aggressively engages them while an unawares Jack proceeds towards their assigned targets. David is able to successfully eliminate two of their four opponents before he’s shot down, and Jack is able to destroy the balloons.

But David survives his crash landing and an assault by a German army patrol. He makes his way to the enemy’s runway and steals a plane. He then attacks the field to prevent any pursuers from taking flight. Unfortunately, Jack sees the plane as an enemy fighter as David tries to return back to base and shoots down the German fighter without realizing that his friend is its pilot. The airplane crashes into a house and Jack decides to land nearby to get its tail insignia as a souvenir from the war. He then discovers that he’s all but killed his best friend; they exchange a few words before David dies in Jack’s arms. Returning home a hero, Jack goes to the Armstrong home to apologize and return the teddy bear. David’s mother forgives Jack, who returns home to find that Mary still adores him. The two sit on the old hotrod and watch a shooting star before they embrace one another.

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