BY GENE TRIPLETT
“Wild Bill” Wellman’s first major movie mission was in danger of crashing numerous times before it finally landed at the first Academy Awards ceremony.
But “Wings” did make it to the 1929 Oscars, swooping up the very first best picture trophy and best engineering (special effects) honors to boot.
Now, with the 84th Academy shindig just weeks away, Paramount Pictures is celebrating its centennial year with the release of a newly restored version of the silent World War I epic on DVD and Blu-ray.
“It totally knocks me out,” said William Wellman Jr., son of the Oscar-winning “Wings” director who also helmed such classics as the 1937 version of “A Star is Born,” “The Public Enemy,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “Battleground” and “The High and the Mighty.”
“I mean, I have hosted the picture in five countries since 1993, and I’ve seen the picture many times,” Wellman Jr. said in a recent phone interview. “And when Paramount did this restoration and they showed me the final version I was speechless, how beautiful it is. It’s just incredible. … I couldn’t be happier.”
Andrea Kalas, vice president of archives at Paramount, said the restoration of “Wings” was accomplished in a meticulous frame-by-frame process, with state-of-the-art digital tools normally used to create special effects.
“It’s really just been in the last few years that digital restoration technology has evolved to a point where we could actually do what we did with this film,” Kalas said. “The element we restored from was compromised with things like printed-in nitrate deterioration, which literally softened the sides of the frame. And there were extreme vertical hairline scratches. To just bring the picture back to a basic viewable form involved major technology.”
On DVD and Blu-ray, the film now appears as sharp and clean as the freshly-struck prints shown in the first road show engagements of “Wings” in 1927, Kalas said.
The film stars Clara Bow — who was a superstar at the time — Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen in a story of two men and the woman they both leave behind as theygo off to become fighter pilots in the “Great War.” Gary Cooper also appears briefly — but memorably — in what was only his second screen role.
William Wellman — a former World War I flying ace himself — was a relative newcomer in the film business, having directed only a handful of B-movies when he received the “Wings” assignment.
“Paramount was the number one ranked studio in Hollywood because they had the best directors under contract,” Wellman Jr. said. “Cecil B DeMille, Victor Fleming, Allan Dwan …”
Studio cofounder Jesse Lasky was trying to decide on a director for “Wings,” which would be most ambitious project ever undertaken by the studio, when production head B.P. Schulberg recommended his protégé, William Wellman. But Lasky didn’t relish the idea of putting his epic in the hands of a 29-year-old second-stringer.
“But my father had a couple of things going for him,” Wellman said. “First of all he was a decorated fighter pilot in the first world war, so he was the only director under contract at Paramount that had frontline battle experience. And they felt that that’s what the picture needed.”
Lasky reluctantly agreed to meet with Wellman.
“Lasky said, ‘Well, what makes you think you can direct my big road show picture better than my veteran staff of directors?’ And my father said, ‘My war record does. And I’ll make it the best goddamn picture this studio’s ever had.’”
The senior Wellman had earned the nickname “Wild Bill” for his willingness to volunteer for the most dangerous dawn patrols during the war. He would continue to live up to it on the set of “Wings.”
For example, to achieve ultimate realism in the film’s aerial battle sequences, Wellman required that his two leading men, Rogers and Arlen, take flying lessons so they could go up in real planes and activate cameras mounted in front of them.
Arlen had had some flying experience but Rogers had none at all.
“Never before had actors been photographed in the air,” Wellman Jr. said. “They usually simulated it on the ground. My father did that too but he didn’t like the way it looked.
“Well, the studio figured that he was gonna kill their stars by making them take flying lessons. I mean it went on and on and on. And you can understand the studio’s position. But my father was not going to do anything that wasn’t in the best interest of ‘Wings.’
“Of course, they way they did it, there was a safety pilot. They went up in two-seaters and there was a safety pilot who would duck down. … Buddy Rogers said that he was the director, the cameraman, the actor and the pilot for 400 feet (of film) … the film rolls were 400-foot rolls.”
Wellman said Rogers would immediately “lose his lunch” each time he landed after an aerial sequence.
The filming was also running over schedule, because Wellman would only shoot the air battles when the sky was blue, with white, fluffy clouds.
“My father thought that the planes would all look like they were flies up in the sky if you didn’t have the clouds and the blue sky,” Wellman said. “So there was a lot of down time and this caused the studio to be, you know, let’s say anxious about where their money was going.”
But “Wings” eventually did get off the ground and into theaters, and now present-day audiences can thrill to the still-incredible flight scenes Wellman managed to engineer.
“It’s just incredible to watch,” Kalas said. “I think (film director) Kevin Brownlow said something like, ‘“Wings’ captures the romanticism that veterans remember about war.’ Which is a great way of summing up some of the real emotion that stays with you when you watch this film. I mean, when you get to the end of this film there’s very few dry eyes in the house.”