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‘Wings’ Takes Flight—On DVD

Features
by Leonard Maltin
January 25, 2012 2:51 PM
22 Comments
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Paramount Pictures Warfare on the air and on the ground, recreated by William Wellman in 'Wings'.

While it’s fitting that Paramount Pictures should unveil its masterful restoration of Wings on the studio’s 100th birthday, it’s a shame we had to wait this long. It is, in fact, the last Academy Award-winning Best Picture to be released on DVD and Blu-ray—an unintended irony, since it was the first film to receive that honor. (Fox’s Cavalcade was the other longtime holdout, and even now it can only be obtained as part of a big, expensive Fox tribute package.)

This is how the Criterion Theater was decked out for its premiere engagement of 'Wings' in 1927. The film played first-run in Manhattan for two solid years!

Paramount released eight of its finest silent films on videocassette many years ago, with newly-recorded scores by the great theater organist Gaylord Carter. Of those, the silent version of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is available as a bonus feature on deluxe editions of his 1956 remake, and Criterion has released the three gems by Josef von Sternberg (Underworld, The Last Command, andThe Docks of New York) in a superb boxed set. It would be nice to see more of the surviving Paramount silents (Old Ironsides, The Sheik, Running Wild, The Covered Wagon) on DVD and Blu-ray, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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.

Paramount Pictures Clara Bow had “it” even in this World War One saga.

Good prints of Wings have always been around, but this new incarnation raises the bar from “good” to “great.” Fighting nitrate deterioration and years of wear, the people at Paramount (led by VP of Archives Andrea Kalas), the Academy (led by Archive Director Michael Pogorzelski), and Technicolor (under the supervision of Executive Director Tom Burton) strove to bring the movie back to vivid life, and followed original notations about color tinting and use of the amazing Handschiegl process. Now, when an aviator blasts his machine gun, there is a burst of yellow fire, and when a plane goes down in flames, the flames glow brightly, as they did on the film’s original release. (Back then, this effect was highly labor-intensive; now it can be replicated digitally.) There are still a few rough spots, but overall the movie looks beautiful, and has a visual warmth that’s been missing for years.

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.

Paramount Pictures Richard Arlen with Gary Cooper, who has just one (memorable) scene but was promoted as a costar by the time 'Wings' came to theaters.

Oddly enough, when Wings was presented at the Academy last week, first for an invited audience including Paramount chairman Brad Grey, and the following night for the general public, it was missing the orchestral score and sound effects. Instead, we were treated to a magnificent performance by organist Clark Wilson, who regularly plays at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Academy president Tom Sherak first saw a revival of Wings with an organ accompaniment and wanted to share that experience with his audience. It took some doing, as Randy Haberkamp shared with us on Wednesday night. You see, the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre is wired for modern movie sound, so it is covered with fabric that deadens the sound, while an old-fashioned pipe organ depends on reverberation, as you would normally hear in a vintage movie palace, or a church. After several tries, a computer program provided by the Allen Organ Company succeeded in allowing an electric keyboard instrument to emulate the rich sound of a pipe organ.

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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22 Comments

  • Kevin Barry | February 14, 2012 8:00 AMReply

    There are goodies galore in the William Wellman canon, but no masterpieces. He never made a film as emotionally complex and expertly structured as Only Angels Have Wings.

  • Michael | January 31, 2012 2:49 AMReply

    I was fortunate to see the screening with the full orchestral score restored by Jeannie Gayle Pool and her team. All these years later, the film holds up wonderfully with exciting images that become more exciting when you realize Wellman used no special effects. The stunts are terrific, the story is not modern, but very touching and the sound effects and orchestra carry it along smoothly with great pathos. Yes, it is cause for celebration!

  • Gregg Nestor | January 29, 2012 9:28 AMReply

    Thank you for your insightful review of "Wings" and, in particular your mention of the extraordinary work that Jeannie Pool contributed. Without her direction, the soundtrack would have been a pale representation of what it is today! And as usual for Hollywood, others in power continue to take credit for all the archival work and attention to detail that she brought to the table. As an archivist, she is the true unsung hero of "Wings".

  • Michael | January 31, 2012 2:52 AM

    Ironically, the following Monday, after the search light premiere of WINGS on the Paramount lot, Jeannie Pool was fired from her position at the studio. Such an injustice.

  • G.Gallian | January 28, 2012 5:21 PMReply

    Hi Leonard! Did You watch the movie on DVD or BD? Still not convinced of HD ;-)?

  • Patrick Picking | January 28, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    Do you know if the original soundtrack is available on the DVD? I received this letter recently from someone who has it.
    "Hi: I have some Vitaphone discs here at my shop in San Diego. Some seem to be from the movie "Wings". They are 16" & there are quite a few of them. "

  • Gregg Nestor | February 2, 2012 2:40 PM

    Hi Patrick: saw your e mail recently. I worked on the restoration of WINGS" (score preparation). Jeannie Poole contacted me and was very interested in following up on your letter about a fellow in San Diego who might have access to a series of Vitaphone 16" discs on WINGS - wonder if you could help me to link up with the gentlemen - she may be interested in speaking with him and possibly purchasing them. Thanks

    Gregg Nestor
    1-858-408-5333
    gmn002@aol.com

  • Jim Reinecke | January 28, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    Sorry to be so verbose and make a second appearance under this particular DVD review, but for all of my fellow Wellmaniacs (if I may coin THAT term!) I just wanted to point out that a recent visit to warnerarchive.com revealed that Wild Bill's outrageous pre-code item SAFE IN HELL is now available at that site. Bravo!

  • Gary Meyer | January 27, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    Ten years ago we showed Paramount's studio print of WINGS with a wonderful original score by Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble. It was at the Balboa Theatre Birthday Bash in San Francisco. Bill Wellman Jr. appeared and told wonderful stories. I look forward to see it with colors, sound effects and the original score.
    But I must agree it is not the best Wellman nor war films with aerial fights.

    It is more likely that Criterion will bring out more of the Paramount silents if the terrific von Sternberg set sells well enough. They have a deal with Paramount.

    As for REDSKIN, it is available in two-color Technicolor on the fantastic "Treasures III, Social Issues in American Film." This is a series every serious lover of cinema should be buying. You will find features, shorts, trailers and other goodies most of us never thought we'd see.
    Check it out here.
    http://www.filmpreservation.org/dvds-and-books/treasures-iii-social-issues-in-american-film

  • Nathan Cone | January 27, 2012 9:54 AMReply

    The aerial footage sure is exhilarating to watch! If I may, for those interested... I produced a radio story about the film that aired yesterday on the public radio station in San Antonio, where the film was shot. Here's a link: http://www.tpr.org/thesource/2012/01/source120126.html

  • Paul Penna | January 26, 2012 10:09 PMReply

    One small, but nice bonus, at least on the Blu-Ray, is the backwards progression of Paramount Mountain logos at the start.

  • Ron Merk | January 26, 2012 8:36 PMReply

    Leonard,
    I saw Wings about ten years ago at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, accompanied by Gaylord Carter. I still have goosebumps from watching the curtain close over the final Paramount logo to the strains of Carter's spirited playing. I think that the film is a masterpiece and sorry you don't see it that way. Wellman's son, William Jr., wrote a wonderful book on the creation of the film (and as his father as a self-taught film director) in his book, "The Man and His Wings." The book contains the best definition I've ever heard about what a director is, stated by Jesse Lasky on page 104, and I quote: "A director, to be successful, must combine efficiency with artistry, blending the two by the exercise of judgment and finesse, and knowing instinctively when to cease exercising one quality, and when to begin employing the other. He should at once possess the qualifications of a dramatist, of an actor; should be a good executive and have a sympathetic understanding of human nature." I can't think of a better way to describe Wellman, whose work deserves more attention, and many of whose films are masterpieces in that unique Wellmanian way, if I may coin the term.

  • rafael castro | January 26, 2012 8:07 PMReply

    we hope THE PATRIOT appears somehow and that would be a incredible way to celebrate paramount 100 years.

  • James Knuttel | January 26, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    Well, Leonard, I hope your viewing of this film in its restored print will motivate you to upgrade the rating you give it in your annual movie guide. It may not be a **** film but it warrants more than the **1/2 that you currently give it. Also worth noting about the film: Among the supporting players is a young Gary Cooper in one of his earliest film roles. He's on-screen for only a few minutes but it's a memorable part.

  • Jim Reinecke | January 26, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    Nice to see this film finally receiving a first-rate DVD presentation. But in discussing outstanding late silents from Paramount, how about Wellman's BEGGARS OF LIFE from 1928? I know that you rate this one **** in your Classic Movie Guide and it's definitely on my list of "10 Most Wanted" (and in my case, that means 10 movies that I have yet to see in any format, but absolutely MUST catch up with at some point). Perhaps I'm wishing on a star (or four of them!) here, but I wonder if a package of Wellman's Paramounts (those that still survive) could ever be presented as a boxed set? As a Wellman aficionado I want to see not only the film mentioned above but CHINATOWN NIGHTS, THE MAN I LOVE and DANGEROUS PARADISE. Unfortunately, I realize that Paramount may not control the rights to some of these films, since Universal owns the 1929-49 Paramount library. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the recent gradual awakening to the enormous gifts of Mr. Wellman as a true giant of cinema may ultimately allow us easier access to his surviving early work. After all the years of virtual canonization of Howard Hawks (who certainly belongs in the "Academy of the Over-Rated" that Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy discussed in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN!), maybe some people will finally see that Wellman did many of the things that Hawks is given beaucoup credit for (the camaraderie of close friends, the independent woman, etc.) and did them better.

  • Norm | January 25, 2012 7:13 PMReply

    Quite a Night, I would have needed to wings to see Clark Wilsons magnificent performance, maybe they will print it and show it on TCM...

  • Roy H. Wagner ASC | January 25, 2012 5:34 PMReply

    I have some extraordinary behind the scenes photographs from "Wings" that I suspect that ven Paramount doesn't have if you're interested, Leonard. Dd you have an opportunity to see the Frank Phillipsnterview. Sent to you?

  • Rodney Sauer | January 25, 2012 4:16 PMReply

    When listing excellent late Paramount silents, don't overlook "Redskin" (1929), starring Richard Dix and directed by Victor Schertzinger. Filmed largely in Technicolor in the Cañon de Chelly and the Acoma Pueblo, it includes a very thoughtful exposition of the problems faced by Native Americans, but then unleashes a great Hollywood adventure in the last reels.

  • Karen Snoq | January 25, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    The aerial scenes totally leave in the dust the flying scenes in George Lucas' (look at my incredible CGI effects that look so real !) new film "Red Wings". Lucas has been boasting about those effects, and indeed they are the film's true appeal (the scenes on the ground are so corny, although the actors do their best), but they cannot hold a candle to "Wings" authenticity and brilliance.

  • Patrick Picking | January 28, 2012 1:47 PM

    And you mispelled the title of George Lucas' new film, Red Tails! :)

  • Karen Snow | January 25, 2012 3:24 PM

    misspelled my own name -- oops !!

  • Jeff Heise | January 25, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    According to Amazon, the film is #1 in categories like Romance and War films, and the Blu-Ray is selling more than the DVD, so maybe there is hope for Paramount to bring out more silents from the vaults, especially since it is their centennial.

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