In 1928, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out annual awards of merit for the first time. The movies were just beginning to talk, and William Wellman's Wings became the first and only silent film to be named Best Picture. This Friday at 8 p.m., the North Carolina Museum of Art will screen this highly entertaining film with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin.
The film is set in 1917, and its plot--familiar to anyone who's seen Pearl Harbor--concerns two All-American boys, Jack and David, who enlist in the air corps to become flyboys. David is a pampered but decent rich boy who brings his miniature teddy bear for good luck, while Jack is the scrappy, up-by-his bootstraps tinkerer (played by an actor who's rather reminiscent of Justin Timberlake).
Despite our contemporary digital f/x sensibility, this film's old-school aerial photography is spectacular, with generous shots of stricken biplanes, spewing smoke and falling through the clouds. Then there's the adorable Clara Bow, one of the era's superstars, playing Mary, the Girl Next Door. Pining for Jack, who unaccountably can't conceive of her as a girlfriend, she enlists in the ambulance corps and follows her beloved to the battlefields of France. (Also making a memorable appearance is an impossibly handsome Gary Cooper, then a mere bit player.)
Another wonderful sequence, one of jazz-age debauchery in Paris, demonstrates the visual gags that were common to the films of the era. Here, a drunken Jack sees champagne bubbles spurting out of bottles, fingers and bedposts, as a mortified Mary (now dressed as a flapper) tries to sober him up.
The film's heroic vision of the Great War is hopelessly naive--novels that would forever redefine our understanding of that conflict, such as A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front, were only starting to appear in bookstores when this film was released. But Wellman's film, poised as it is at the dawn of sound cinema and a disillusioning decade, stands as a charming relic of a more innocent era. Two years later, things were very different, and the Academy's Best Picture award would go to the movie version of All Quiet on the Western Front.