Wings at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 August 1927 and starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen, Wings was long thought to be a lost film. In 1992, a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris, and the process of restoration began.

In 1917, Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) are rivals for the attention of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston, Harold Lloyd’s longtime leading lady), a visitor from the city. This would-be love triangle is complicated by the fact that Mary Preston (Clara), the girl next door, is in love with Jack.

As it so often goes in these kinds of stories, Jack is most woefully unaware of this. After Mary helps him build a car, which they name The Shooting Star, she tells him someone who sees a shooting star can kiss the girl he loves. Jack thinks that’s a splendid idea, and drives off to visit Sylvia.

When the U.S. joins the war, Jack and David enlist in the Air Service. Jack, due to a misunderstanding, takes the signed picture in a locket Sylvia intended to give David. Sylvia later reassures David he has her heart, whereas Jack only has her picture.

Mary too gives Jack a picture in parting. She doesn’t get a goodbye kiss or declaration of love, but Jack does promise she can use The Shooting Star while he’s gone.

While David (who’s from the richest family in town) is saying goodbye to his parents, his mother gives him his old, tiny teddybear as a good luck charm.

Though Jack has always dreamt of flying, all the pre-combat training takes place on the ground. During basic training, he grows to hate David more and more, but they eventually become best friends.

Meanwhile, Mary responds to a call for Women’s Motor Corps volunteers.

Jack’s romantic dream of flying soon turns into ugly, stark reality when he gets into combat. Both he and David have their limits put to the test against Count von Kellermann’s enemy squadron.

The battle scenes, which go from the air to the trenches on the ground, are very well-done. In 1927, WWI was only nine years in the past, and still vivid and raw in everyone’s memories.

During all this intense fighting, Mary arrives on the front lines with her ambulance.

The influenza pandemic strikes while Jack and David are stationed in Mervale, and Mary’s ambulance becomes a regular presence, tending to both the wounded and ill.

War continues in spite of the flu pandemic, and Mary has to take cover under her ambulance during a bombing raid. After Jack and David help to rescue Mervale, someone points out Jack’s plane to Mary. Like his car, it’s also named The Shooting Star.

In recognition of their bravery, Jack and David (now lieutenants) are honoured by France as aces.

Following the Intermission, we see Jack and David on leave in Paris, having a merry time carousing. Mary is also in Paris, and thrilled to learn Jack is there. However, she quickly learns all furloughs have been cancelled to get ready for “The Big Push,” and goes to find Jack.

Jack, who’s gotten rip-roaring drunk, doesn’t recognise her. He just continues pouring more alcohol down his throat, leaving Mary feeling very defeated.

A Frenchwoman in a powder room comes to Mary’s rescue, helping to give her a makeover meant to catch Jack’s eye.

Mary’s sexy new look finally gains Jack’s attention, but he’s still drunk off his gourd. When they’re alone, he keeps hallucinating bubbles and finally passes out. Even worse, she discovers the locket with Sylvia’s picture.

Worst of all, two military cops walk in as Mary’s changing back into her uniform and order her sent home.

Jack defends Mary’s reputation when one of their fellow flyers insinuates she has loose morals, like all hometown girls who go to the big city. David asks if he’s in love with her, but Jack says he loves Sylvia. Jack didn’t confess earlier because he didn’t want to wreck their friendship.

Jack proves it by showing David the locket with her picture, but when the picture falls out upside-down, David rips it up so Jack won’t see the inscription. Of course, Jack goes ballistic.

The fight is broken up by an order to get back into combat. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

I highly recommend this film. It’s definitely 5 stars.

The original It Girl

Released 19 February 1927, with its grand première on 14 January, It is Clara Bow’s best-known film (with Wings in second place). The story is based upon an eponymous novella by spicy writer Elinor Glyn, who was hugely popular in the 1920s. Though her books are pretty tame by modern standards, they were really hot stuff in her era.

It is such a fun, cute, charming film, perfectly showcasing why Clara had “It” and what a good actor she was. Like many other films from a bygone era, it’s also a microcosm of society as it was. Clara grew up very poor, which enabled her to play working-class characters very believably. Her class origins were such a big influence on her, as was her traumatic, dysfunctional childhood.

Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno, né Antonio Garrido Monteagudo) has just become manager of Waltham’s department store. On his first day in his new office, Cyrus’s awesome office boy Monty (character actor William Austin) is reading Elinor Glyn’s “It” in Cosmopolitan (back when the magazine had a much different nature than it does today).

Monty looks in the mirror and proclaims he’s got “It,” then concludes Cyrus doesn’t have “It.” (I agree!) After this, Monty goes into the store to inspect all the “lady employees,” and declares none of them have “It” either. Everything changes, however, when he sets eyes on feisty shopgirl Betty Lou Spence.

Betty falls in instalove with Cyrus, and dismisses her mocking co-workers. At the end of the day, Monty catches up to her outside and offers her a ride home. Betty agrees, but only if he rides her “car,” the two-story bus pulling up.

The bus drops Betty off on the poor side of town. By her front stoop, Monty asks if she’d like to dine, and Betty says she’ll dine by the Ritz. Monty promises to bring his car by at eight. Though Betty doesn’t have formal evening wear, she and her roommate Molly transform her working dress into a fancy evening gown. They also use some other props to gussy her up even more.

Molly’s doctor has forbidden her from returning to work for at least a month due to some unnamed sickness. (I wonder if it were postpartum depression before the condition had a name.) This is a very difficult situation because the landlady and a friend of hers are trying to take Molly’s baby away.

By the Ritz, Betty demands a table in the middle of the action instead of a private booth. She sees Cyrus dining with his boring long-time girlfriend, Adela van Norman, and her mother. When Monty tells Betty whom Adela is, Betty determines to prove herself as the better woman.

During dinner, who else should show up but Elinor Glyn herself, just as the characters are discussing “It”!

Later, Betty gets Cyrus’s attention in the hall, and he’s quite taken with her. She bets he won’t recognize her next time he sees her.

Sure enough, next day at work, Betty schemes to get called into Cyrus’s office, and he’s blown away when he realizes whom she is. At first, Betty doesn’t want to claim her wager for winning the bet, but when Adela calls, she changes her tune. Betty asks Cyrus to take her on a date to Coney Island.

I love seeing Coney Island as it was in old films. All those rides, booths, and eateries now live only in memory.

The plot thickens when the landlady and her friend try to take Molly’s baby. She opens the window and screams into the street for help, and Betty rushes up. Betty pretends it’s her baby, thus making her an unwed mother. She’s got a job, unlike Molly. During this scene, a newspaper reporter (a very young Gary Cooper) is taking notes for a story. I won’t spoil what happens after this.

This isn’t great cinematic art, but it’s awfully fun, and it’s a great vehicle for being introduced to Clara Bow. William Austin as Monty is also awesome. He has far more personality than Cyrus, and is more sympathetic! The film is also packed with fun intertitles.

How to choose and view silent films, Part III

The conclusion of the section on some of the most well-known silents.

***

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) The original film version of the horror classic; it shows what a great timeless interesting story it is if it can successfully be remade so many times, both onstage and in film, but no version could ever be as great as the original. Lon Chaney could wipe the floor with the wannabe-actors of today. He did his own makeup for his films instead of letting other people do it for him or create the looks in his place, and the unmasking in this version is still one of the scariest movie moments, not least because his makeup was kept secret all during filming.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925) One of the films of the great Soviet director Eisenstein; you’ve probably seen the footage of the baby carriage careening down the stairs backwards, an image that’s been incorporated into some other films and tv shows since, though many people have no idea where this reference came from. A great many silent films were remade during the sound era, or had elements of them alluded to in later films or on tv shows, even though most people have no clue.

Strike (1925) Another Eisenstein film; the title is self-explanatory. We saw this film on laser disc in my Modern Russian Culture class, though unfortunately never got to finish watching it. [I’ve since seen it all the way through several times.] It concerns the bestial events leading up to the workers at a Tsarist-era factory striking, the strike itself, and finally what becomes of the strikers.

The General (1926) One of the handful of silents that ever appears on lists of the greatest films, this is also Buster Keaton’s most famous film. It’s based on a true story that took place during the Civil War, only the fellow in this film is a Southerner and not a Northern like in real life. (Buster was actually a Kansan.) It concerns his struggle to get back his train The General and his girlfriend Annabelle, both of them the loves of his life, from the Yankees who’ve kidnapped them. [I’ve always found this film a bit overrated and not my favorite of his or the one I consider his funniest.]

Metropolis (1927) Probably the most famous silent film, which I would go so far as to call the greatest. When I saw this film again after having become a Marxist, it took on a whole new emotional meaning for me, the exploitation of the proletariat, the indolence and cruelty of the ruling class, what can happen if we let machines take over and don’t treat everybody fairly, even people who are working for us. The epigram of this film is very powerful, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”

It (1927) This was far from Clara Bow’s first film; she’d already been an established film presence and great star for some time before this. It isn’t even her best film, though it’s solid and enjoyable for the 4-star movie it is. The popular British writer Elinor Glyn (who also wrote Beyond the Rocks and a number of other books which were made into films) was asked to write a story with the title of It based on the newly-coined term for the girl who had “It,” that indefinable quality of beauty, mystique, charm, and sex appeal. I’ve also found that, even though Clara did have a very thick Brooklyn accent, she did star in quite a few successful talking pictures, some of which performed better at the box office than her silent features had.

The Battle of the Century (1927) Probably the most famous Laurel and Hardy silent short (Big Business and Double Whoopee are well-known too) because it contains the biggest pie fight in film history, ever.

City Lights (1931) One of Chaplin’s most famous films, though this one did utilise very limited sound resources (having a musical soundtrack and select sound effects, and the joke at the beginning, with the speech of the city officials coming out as gobblety-gook). Everything else is in intertitles. It might not be as hilarious as some of his other stuff, but it’s a very sweet and tender lighthearted story, with plenty of funny moments too. I am a person who RARELY cries at movies (usually I just get chills or goosebumps if something is powerful or moving enough), but even I was moved to tears by the tender poignant unforgettable ending.

Modern Times (1936) His last stand against talking pictures, though this film uses a lot more sound effects and even has actual speech in it, though all speech that takes place comes forth from machines, like a radio, a record player playing a record explaining to the boss about the feeding machine they later test on the Tramp, and televised images of the boss snapping at people to speed up production or to get back to work. It’s one of his funniest films, and holds up very well today, not only a telling story about what many people experienced during the Depression but also a statement and damning indictment of what dependence upon machines can lead to.

Even though the barber in The Great Dictator appears to be the Tramp in all but name, like having many of his mannerisms and even wearing the same outfit a number of times and doing his walk, Chaplin was adamant they were entirely different characters. So this film really is the last time we see the Tramp (who does finally “speak” towards the end, in a nonsense song in a nonsense language); the ending depicting the Tramp, telling the Gamine to smile (via pantomime and not an intertitle) as they walk off into the sunset together, is a really beautiful film moment, the last time we’ll ever see this lovable universal figure again. Now he exists in all of us, as a beautiful poignant race memory.