Wings (1927) Directed by William A. Wellman. Richard Arlen, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Clara Bow, Jobyna Ralston (139 min.)

Ever wondered what it would be like to fly in a WWI biplane? To zoom in a dogfight, shoot down enemy balloons, chase down the general’s staff car, watch the clouds spiral around your plane in a deadly tailspin? Layfayette Flying Corps veteran Wellman bolted cameras on the noses of barnstorming crates for the ultimate “you are there” experience. Two pals are in love with the same girl (but not red-hot honey Clara Bow) in Oscar’s first “Best Picture.” First, a special treat: Buster Keaton takes the air in “The Balloonatic.” Live piano accompaniment by Maestro David Drazin.

Wings is a rip-snorting adventure movie, the best ever made about aerial combat in The Great War. John Monk Saunders, who wrote the story, and William Wellman, the director, were both air war veterans, and were chosen for their ability to convey their war experiences to the audience. Saunders was a Rhodes Scholar and former 2nd Lieutenant in the aviation division of the Army Signal Corps. “Wild Bill” Wellman was rowdy, short-tempered and foul-mouthed. He had been a member of the Layfayette Flying Corps between December 1917 and March 1918 and shot down three enemy aircraft, winning the Croix de Guerre before being downed himself. After the war, he taught flying and barnstormed in air shows performing feats like wing walking. He’d met Douglas Fairbanks when Doug was still a stage performer, and Fairbanks gave him his first job in the movies–as an actor. But, he wanted to direct and worked his way up through the studio, starting as a messenger. It was his experience in the war that gained him the chance to direct the biggest super production Paramount had ever attempted. He made a number of famous pictures including Public Enemy with James Cagney and the original A Star is Born. Even his less well-known films like Night Nurse, Love is a Racket, So Big and The Purchase Price are worth watching for his directorial skill and imagination.

Saunders convinced the US War Department to cooperate, lending men and materiel, as long as the government had approval of the final product. Paramount insured all participants and paid for all damage, structuring the film as a virtual training exercise for the military. The military donated $16 million in supplies, a good investment since a successful film would be the best recruitment tool their money could buy. Usually, when there are airplane scenes in a movie, there is a long shot of flying planes, and then close-ups shot on the ground against the sky (or later, using a projected background). There would be no faking in Wings. If you saw somebody flying a plane, they would be in the air. Cameras were bolted to a mount shaped like a saddle, which then was strapped to the body of the plane. The planes were extremely light, and the added weight of the camera created an additional danger of a crash. The actors had to emote, without a windshield, at heights up to 11,000 ft.

Kevin Brownlow recounted in The War, the West and the Wilderness, “One trick aroused widespread comment, and for a while Paramount refused to admit how it was done (the front office probably didn’t know). Frank Clarke, playing a German, was instructed to go up to 6000 feet, then come swirling down, his plane on fire and out of control. This was not so hard to do in a long shot. What astounded audiences–and technicians–was the fact that the camera stayed on him in close-up, the clouds wheeling behind him. He reached the required height, switched on the camera, jerked as though hit by a bullet, opened his mouth to release a gush of theatrical blood, released a gate in a box containing lampblack (for smoke), let go of the stick, and kicked the plane into a tailspin with his foot. Aviators acknowledged this to be one of the toughest stunts on record–to sit limp and useless while your plane does the one thing you have been trained to avoid.”

Wings had a $2 million budget in excess of the military investment and used thousands of soldiers, almost all the existing army pursuit aircraft, and the top rank of military fliers; several of the pilots in Wings became generals in World War II. The war scenes were filmed outside of San Antonio, Texas, near Army bases and airfields. The recreation of the battle of St. Mihiel was done by the 2nd Division, which had actually fought the battle in the war. Wellman spent ten days rehearsing between 3500-5000 troops and 60 planes while waiting for the sky to clear. One of the director’s close friends had been killed in the battle, and it was recreated so faithfully that Wellman, flying over it in his own plane, felt ill and said, “God–I’m back in France.” You can see Wellman in the battle scene. He’s shot, and the title reads “Atta boy. Them buzzards are some good after all.”

Inside the front cover, a personal inscription

One of the lead stuntmen, Dick Grace, broke his neck in one crash. Wellman insisted that his final stunt be faked with miniatures. Grace was outraged, sued the studio for damaging his reputation–and won. There was a fatal accident, which horrified the director and his ace cameraman, Lucien Hubbard. Hubbard thought that the army would shut down the picture, but the operations officer said, “What’s the matter? What are you so glum about? We don’t think anything of it. Guys are always killed in training. It was his own fault. We told him to come in at a certain angle, he came in too short. These things happen.”

There was nine months of location shooting in Texas, and more back at the Paramount studios, this in a day when most pictures were shot in one month. There was terrible luck with the weather; the skies were overcast for weeks. Wellman knew that without clouds in the sky, the audience couldn’t get the sensation of flight. By the end of the picture, the War Department became a more reluctant collaborator, as it appeared vast military resources were being wasted, and that the realistic battle scenes were actually endangering the troops. And, of course the infantry objected to the glorification of the flyboys.

A romantic swing in the garden. Director Wellman is leaning his head against the camera tripod. Note the mood musicians on the right.

Richard Arlen was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1900. His family moved to St. Paul MN, and when World War I broke out, he crossed the border into Canada and joined the Royal Flying Corps. After the war, he knocked around North and South America in a variety of odd jobs before ending up in Hollywood, where a fortuitous motorcycle accident against the Paramount gates while making a film delivery brought him to the attention of the front office. He’d been in a few films and tested, along with everyone else on the lot, for the part of David Armstrong. Wellman saw the test and asked Arlen, “Can you act?” “Not worth a damn.” “Can you fly?” “Yes, sir.” Wellman wanted to make another test of him. When Arlen showed up “the camera was ready, and there were even musicians to give him the mood of the scene. He was getting A plus treatment. It was the scene where Armstrong reads a letter, and there is a growing premonition as he looks into space that death will await him when he goes up the next morning. They shot 400 feet of film, when Wellman called ‘Cut.’ He addressed Arlen, ‘You’re in.’ He turned to his assistant to say, ‘Don’t print it. We won’t need it.'” (Bodeen). He went on to a brief starring career (most notably in Beggars of Life (1928) for Wellman and The Virginian (1929), opposite Gary Cooper and then an enduring one as a character actor for a total of 53 years in the movies. He fell in love with leading lady Jobyna Ralston during filming and was married to her for 18 years. His last film was in 1976.

“Bruce is shot down behind the enemy’s lines” (sic)

For Charles “Buddy” Rogers, too, Wings is simultaneously the beginning of his career, and its pinnacle. He was born in Olathe, Kansas, where his father, B.H. was a probate judge and married the young lovers of Johnson County in their living room. Rogers had been perfectly happy at the University of Kansas, “I had a racoon coat, a Model T Ford, two or three girls and I was in a fraternity. Heaven!” He also conducted a 5-piece college jazz band. His father submitted his photo to a nationwide movie talent contest, seeking 20 wholesome faces to appeal to the college crowd. He was shocked when he was one of those chosen to be paid $50 a week to study at the NY studio, ” we learned two things–how to fall downstairs without hurting ourselves and how to hold a kiss for three minutes without laughing.”

Just a picture of a boy and his dog. Charles Rogers bought this police dog as a young high-spirited puppy. With love, patience, discipline and dog biscuits, “Buddy” trained the pup to obey orders, perform tricks and be a perfect friend to his master. The dog has had plenty of movie offers, but “Buddy” believes that a pup’s place is in the kennel. And, anyway, the dog refuses to take direction from anyone but “Buddy.”

He despaired of getting a real part after being turned down for Beau Geste when Wellman tapped him for Wings. Rogers supposedly had never tasted alcohol before Wellman plied him with real champagne for the nightclub sequence, if you can imagine a teetotalling Phi Kappa Psi. Airsick at first, he logged over 800 hours of flying time and became a Navy test pilot in WWII. Rogers said, “Wellman was the toughest director I ever had. Most directors would say, ‘Fine, Buddy, that’s great,’ when they knew and I knew that it wasn’t fine and it wasn’t great. They just wanted to get it over with. But Wellman would make me do it until it was really fine.” (Thompson). 1927 was Rogers’ big year; he also gave Mary Pickford her first screen kiss in the charming My Best Girl. When America’s Sweetheart’s storybook marriage to Douglas Fairbanks collapsed, Rogers was there to pick up the pieces. He married her in 1937 and adoringly protected her and her screen image for 42 years until her death. Rogers continued his dual careers as band leader in the Paul Whitman mode and movie actor, along with charity work, winning the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and dying only in 1999.

“Powell leaps through the opening torn in the house by the enemy plane he shot down.”

Jobyna Ralston gained her greatest fame was Harold Lloyd’s demurely pretty leading lady after he married the heroine of Safety Last, Mildred Davis. Ralston was in most of his brilliant 1920s features, Girl Shy, Hot Water, The Freshman and The Kid Brother. Wings was her last major film.

Frisky Clara Bow lights up the screen whenever she appears. Saunders and Wellman were willing to have their story rewritten to accommodate her, since she would ensure their box office success. Bow chafed against her wholesome “girl next door” part and her on-screen romance with naïve Buddy Rogers, “I hate them love scenes,” she said, “It’s like kissin’ ya brother.” She knew she was in a man’s picture and she spends most of her on-screen time dressed in a military uniform, which she kept trying to doll up. One scene was written in for her to flaunt her charms, but Paramount designer Travis Banton couldn’t be bothered with such a boring project and assigned it to one of his assistants. Banton didn’t care much for Bow anyway, “She slit his necklines and cut off his sleeves,” recalled Louise Brooks. “Clara was quite beyond Banton and quite right.” After her next movie, It, she would forever become the “It Girl.”

“Clara’s effort to save Powell from court martial results in discovery and disgrace.”

Bow’s childhood had been impoverished and sordid. She entered a Motion Picture magazine “Fame and Fortune Contest” and visited the office to hand deliver her 2 for $1 photos to a contest manager who wrote “Called in person–very pretty” on them. Waiting at the end of the semi-finalists audition line wearing the slum version of Cinderella’s rags, she learned from her rivals’ mistakes. Her private miseries allowed easy access to her volatile emotions and on camera she was a wonder. Sixteen-year-old Clara Bow won the “Fame and Fortune Contest” and went to Hollywood. After she became a huge star the studio ruthlessly began to exploit her fame, as did her wastrel family and a conniving staff. Her salary was the lowest of any major star and bonuses were put in a trust fund contingent on her adhering to the morals clause in her contract. Paramount began to crank out formula films while charging her for incidentals, like 25 cents for each photo of herself she used. Richard Griffith called her “the most uneducated aspirant to stardom ever to make the grade, Marilyn Monroe not excepted.” She had no interest in being a phony and had few friends in status-conscious 1920s Hollywood.

Her first talkie in 1929, The Wild Party did not get bad reviews. But, as a symbol of 1920s heedlessness, she didn’t seem to fit into the grimmer Depression years. Her slight stammer, Brooklyn accent and nerves, coupled with her studio’s cavalier attitude towards her fame would soon take its toll. Her friend and secretary, Daisy DeVoe was suspected of embezzling from her, and when taken to court in1931 retaliated by revealing Bow’s enjoyment of gambling, sex and booze. A moral backlash and her growing mental illness swamped her shaky foray into the talkies and her career evaporated. She married cowboy actor Rex Bell and retired from the screen. Many years later, when her favorite actress, Marilyn Monroe, committed suicide, Bow explained, “A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.”

Rogers, Bow and Arlen

There’s a small part in this film played by the son of a Montana State Supreme Court Justice, lately arrived in Hollywood via school in London. You won’t have any trouble recognizing Gary Cooper or wonder why after Wings he became a star.

Cooper made such an impression that he was soon starred opposite Fay Wray in his own flyboy movie, “Legion of the Condemned.”


Although ostensibly a movie glorifying war and the military, Wings is a reminder at how many victories were won by obedient soldiers marching to certain death towards a barrage of enemy gunfire. This is a film made by those who fully understood the horrors of battle. The wrenching scenes of departure in the beginning are echoed by the sorrow of the parents whose little boy will never return home. And remember, when this film was made, few people had ever been up in an airplane, flown above the clouds and seen the world from the air. The audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art screening were deeply involved with the thrills, the emotion and the terror, thanks to David Drazin’s excellent score and the superb print from the Library of Congress (thanks, as always, to Mike Mashon and Patrick Loughney).  Drazin asserts that this is one of the most difficult silent films for which to play, since you have to fight WW I for over two hours on the keyboard.

The dawn patrol sequence used an early wide screen process called Magnascope. In the big cities, there were drummers behind the screen creating the rolling sound of the airplane motors. At one point in the orchestral score, there was a cue that signaled a stagehand to open the curtains wider, and a special lens was put on the projector to make the image larger. Brownlow says, “Wings gets better the older it becomes. Values that once seemed overly sentimental now seem so much a part of their time that they no longer irritate. For most of its length, Wings avoids the grimness of war and captures exactly the fierce romanticism that so many veterans feel for it.” Wings was a smashing success and the very first Academy Award winner for Best Picture. But there was trouble on the horizon. In a theater down the street, recently converted to sound, Al Jolson was crooning, “Mammy.”


(Photo of three stars from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store. “Buddy” and “his” dog from the July, 1928 Photoplay Magazine. Legion of the Condemned from a 1928 Chicago Tribune movie star scrapbook. All other photos from the Photoplay novelization of Wings by John Monk Saunders. Sources include The Parade’s Gone By, and The War, the West and the Wilderness both by the exhalted Kevin Brownlow, Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (ghost-written by William K. Everson), Clara Bow: Running Wild by David Stenn, “Richard Arlen” by DeWitt Bodeen in the June-July, 1979 Films in Review, “Charles (Buddy) Rogers by Kevin Lewis in the December, 1987 Films in Review, “William Wellman” by John Gallagher in the May, 1982 Films in Review, Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield, William A. Wellman by Frank T. Thompson, Aviation in the Cinema by Stephen Pendo, Wampas Baby Stars by Roy Liebman. The David Drazin website has quotes, a list of scores and soundclips)

c.MoviedivaMarch2003revisedFeb2005, August2009