Last night I had the good fortune to attend a screening of the newly restored 1927 silent film “Wings” at Paramount Studios. The event was second in conjunction with Paramount’s centennial celebration, kicked off by their float in the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 2.
“Wings” is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that is was the first film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture (the only silent film to ever do so). Director William Wellman used his experiences as a pilot in World War I to create a story that had great amount of truth about war while presenting a human story. Even though top billing goes to Clara Bow, the film is really about the friendship between two Army Air Corps. pilots during the Great War, played by Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. It’s a real guys movie full of battle scenes and daring airplane maneuvers. Of course there’s romance, but the film doesn’t get bogged down in it. It’s the cinematography that’s truly spectacular. Camera mounted on airplanes, in balloons, and on great towers captured images with great scope. Without the use of computer generated effects or rear projection, all the action was shot in the air, with the principal actors actually flying the airplanes.
It’s the restoration of this epic that really blew me away. The film had been in pretty bad shape, with high contrast from being duplicated untold amounts of time, nitrate deterioration, and other physical damage like dust and scratches. The team at Paramount put it though an extensive digital restoration, using the best elements available to start from, they stabilized the image and removed tears, dust, and scratches. Original tinting was recreated as were hand-painted special effects of gun-blasts and fire. They also took great care with the accompaniment. The original score by J.S. Zamecnik, which in 1927 was shipped as sheet music along with the print, was re-recorded with a full symphony orchestra. Zamecnik’s score included notes as to where sound effects should be placed, and these too were replicated in the track.
With the high quality of its direction, cinematography, and acting, and with a high level restoration to accompany it, “Wings” is a film that is definitely worth taking a second look at.