Tuesday, 4 March 2014

One year on ...

Well, it's been a while since I posted anything new, having been too busy actually completing the manuscript for Kings of the Air (and it still isn't done yet - only a couple of months late so far :-( ). But press on rewardless regardless.

In the meantime, I missed celebrating one year of this blog's existence. I have also missed commemorating the milestone of 6,000 page views. It may not be a milestone compared with some, but it's still a pleasing thing to have reached so many over the twelve months that I've been going. So thanks to everyone who's taken a look at the pages over the past year, and here's to the next one.

Since this is Oscars week, it immediately brings to mind the very first film to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar, in 1929 - Wings, directed by William Wellman, realeased in 1927, and starring Richard Arlen, 'It Girl' Clara Bow and Charles Rogers. The Wikipedia article on the film is here; the IMDB page here.

William 'Wild Bill' Wellman (1896-1975) had been the director of several B-movies before being given Wings. He later told Kevin Brownlow, 'They gave me Wings because I was the only director who had been a flyer, in action. I was the only one who knew what the hell it was all about. That's literally the only reason - except that I had fortunately made a successful picture just before that, You Never Know Women.'

Willman had joined an ambulance corps in the Great War, before enlisting in the Foreign Legion on 26 June 1917 and then transferring to aviation. He did his basic training at the school at Avord, before going to the Fighter School at Pau. On passing out, on 1 December 1917 he was posted to N87, a unit almost completely composed of Frenchmen, at Lunéville. In a short career, he was credited with three victories and another five probables. But his Nieuport 27 was hit by German flak over the Forest of Parroy on 21 March 1918. He survived the descent, but was sufficiently badly injured to justify his discharge. Returning to the States, after a spell promoting war bonds, he joined their air service, teaching tactics at Rockwell Field, San Diego.

Shooting the film near San Antonio, Texas, Wellman was able to use men and planes from the US Army as extras. And he would need them, because the film was conceived on a epic scale, including the attack on the Saint-Mihiel salient. 'We had been rehearsing with 3,500 army personnel and 65-odd pilots for ten days. ... It was a gigantic undertaking, and the only element we couldn’t control was the weather. All morning long, we waited, everything in readiness. The barrage to gouge its creeping devastation and noise, the troops to plow through God knows what, and the cameras to record the countless number of rehearsed bits of battle business. The planes on the runway ready to take off and circle to my right of the battlefield, to swoop down on their strafing assignments, and the camera planes at different altitudes to photograph the air view of the maze of confusion of a battle.' So, while there are some ground shots that seem to feature genuine SPADs, most of the airborne action features contemporary Curtiss P-1 Hawks of the US Army Air Corps.

Wellman knew exactly how he wanted to film the aerial battles in the film, and continually had to justify the expense to cheese-paring bean-counters from the Paramount studios. 'Say you can’t shoot a dogfight without clouds to a guy who doesn’t know anything about flying and he thinks you’re nuts. He’ll say, "Why can’t you?" It’s unattractive. Number two, you get no sense of speed, because there’s nothing there that’s parallel. You need something solid behind the planes. The clouds give you that, but against a blue sky, it’s like a lot of goddamn flies! And photographically, it’s terrible.' The aerial sequences reveal that Wellman's experiences at the Front were put to good use; while they may not strictly reflect the crowded skies of 1918, his dogfights often include sequences filmed at a distance, emphasising how small the aircraft are against the towering cloudscapes, and how aircraft cannot simply turn on a sixpence. One sequence, where a pilot is killed, is still quite shocking in its graphic nature - something you tend to attribute only to modern films.

In this more cynical age, one or two modern commentators have curled a lip at the scene where the machine gun of one of our heros jams in the middle of a dog-fight, and is allowed to fly away by his chivalrous German opponent. They imply it would never happens. Yet it did (again in 1916-17), to Paul Tarascon (N3/N31/SPA62), when his opponent flew a red Albatros: 'After three or four passes and a fierce exchange of machine-gun fire, the enemy quite literally flew straight at me … He passed just a couple of metres beneath my wing and in doing so raised his arm in greeting! … I was lost for words. I can still see him waving [now] in his black balaclava. We'd both run out of ammunition … and I wanted to withdraw but without seeming to run away. I banked and pointed my Lewis gun straight up in the air so he could see it. Then we flew off, each to his own side.'

One of Wellman's stars, Richard Arlen, had served with the Canadian Flying Corps during the war, but his fellow star, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers had to be taught the basics of flying so he could look half-way convincing on screen. He recalled how they filmed some his aerial sequences: 'They would strap a camera on the cowling of the engine, and I had a second lieutenant with me who would get in the back seat and take off and get us up about four or five hundred feet ... then I would shake the [control] stick and he’d have to duck down and hide because I was now the cameraman and the director and everything ... for five hundred feet … that is!'

Clara Bow was Paramount's biggest star at the time, and despite her scenes, is a bit of a spare part, as she thought herself, 'Wings is…a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie'. One supporting actor in the film is the young Gary Cooper. In his recent book One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson notes that for much of the film, off-screen, Bow was draped over Cooper 'like a wet sheet'. So perhaps there were compensations for her after all. Sadly, it was one of the last of her hits. She was undone by the arrival of the 'talkies' in the same year that Wings was released - it was not apparently her strong Brooklyn accent that was the reason, but the fact that the presence of the microphones turned her into a very nervous performer, and she became prey to debilitating depression.

If your curiosity has been piqued, then there are a number of clips on YouTube: trailers here and here, and half-an-hour's-worth of excerpts here. Much has been made in recent years of a same-sex kiss, which can seen in an excerpt here, but the comments probably say more about modern sensibilities than any intention to shock by Wellman.

Two essays on the film can de found here and here. An interesting modern reassessment of Wellman's work by Bertrand Tavernier is here. Wellman's son, William Wellman junior became an actor is his own right, largely in supporting roles in western series, but also making an appearance in Star Trek DS9 (which you may, or may not, deem as the pinnacle of his career!). He wrote a book about his father and the making of Wings. His home page is here.

Pictures: Rogers, Bow and Arlen in a publicity shot from the film; Wellman and his Nieuport, while serving with N87, taken from his autobiography Go Get 'Em!; a still of Gary Cooper in the film; film posters from around the internet.

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