In terms of crowd-pleasers, however, it would be hard to top Wings. I’ve never been a huge fan of the film, but watching it again on the huge screen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week, I couldn’t help but be impressed with its incredible flying scenes. William Wellman achieved what no one else had even attempted up until that point: realistic and exciting aerial footage, especially during the dogfight scenes. He and his team of cameramen devised daring new techniques to capture this footage, and even had his stars, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, pilot their own planes and control the motor-driven cameras facing them. (The film is less impressive when it’s on the ground, but the effervescent Clara Bow makes up for that.)
You can learn more about the making of the film in Tim King’s informative documentary that appears on the new Wings DVD. In it, such experts as William Wellman, Jr., historians Frank Thompson, James V. D’Arc, and Katherine Orrison, and Paramount veteran A.C. Lyles provide fascinating details of how this epic production came to be. A second documentary chronicles the restoration of the picture, which was done in conjunction with the Academy archive.
Similar care has been taken with the soundtrack. The unsung heroine in this process is Jeannie Pool, who has overseen the Paramount music library for many years. Her extensive knowledge and research made it possible to recreate the orchestral score by J. S. Zamecnik that was originally commissioned for Wings, supplemented by piano work by the gifted Frederick Hodges. The new recording was orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser, with Jeannie serving as session producer. (I’m delighted that the powers-that-be decided to retain Gaylord Carter’s organ score, as well, on a separate track.)
Another expert, and diehard film buff, multiple Oscar-winner Ben Burtt, undertook the task of recreating the picture’s sound effects, in partnership with Dustin Cawood, being careful not to overwhelm the score (or the picture, for that matter) and stay true to the period.
As for Wilson, he is a master silent-film accompanist, which means he is also a showman of the first order. The audience gave him a well-deserved ovation at the conclusion of his majestic performance. (Randy Haberkamp has showmanship in his blood, too: he strung replicas of original Wings mobiles from the Academy lobby ceiling, put together a terrific temporary exhibit of ephemera from the film, and duplicated the original pressbook herald, which was inserted in every program book handed out that week.)
I’m still not ready to embrace Wings as a masterpiece, or “the last great silent film.” But I can’t deny its great appeal, or the dazzling war footage that cemented William Wellman’s reputation. Its arrival on DVD and Blu-ray, in such beautiful condition, is indeed cause for celebration.
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