Wednesday, November 21, 2012

WINGS, Wellman and Versatility

Last Saturday night I had the pleasure of attending a screening of WINGS, most famous today for being the first film awarded the Best Picture Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Seeing it projected in a restored 35mm print, at the landmark Loew's Jersey theater (an authentic 1929 movie palace) was quite an experience.

The film was hosted by William Wellman, Jr., son of director William A. Wellman and an actor in his own right. It was fascinating to hear his stories of the production of WINGS, some of which I had heard before in interviews with his father in documentaries such as THE MEN WHO MADE THE MOVIES and HOLLYWOOD. But his account of the film's production history, and especially how some of the more difficult shots were pulled off, was a fascinating glimpse into silent era filmmaking.

Watching the film on the Loew's 50 foot screen was a breathtaking experience. The scale on which the film was made (with the cooperation of the US government, who provided men, artillery, and other resources to the production) is difficult to conceive of, only because films are made so differently now. There are still films that depict large-scale events, to be sure, but how many of them are actually executed on such a large scale? Add to this the fact that stars Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen were actually given flying lessons, in order to shoot their own scenes from the air, and you begin to realize that this kind of filmmaking is really only tangentially related to the way films are made today. It's an almost entirely different experience.

What's remarkable to me, in thinking about the man who made this incredible film, is the versatility which Wellman brought to his films as director. While I have only been able to see a portion of Wellman's filmography (he directed something like 80 films over his 30-plus year career), I am constantly struck by the variety of subjects and genres he tackled. To think he was only 29 when he made WINGS is staggering, especially when you consider the strong opposition he was facing from the far more experienced and older Paramount studio executives. It's certainly a testament to the belief Wellman had in both the production and in himself, no doubt stemming from the fact that it reflected his own experience as a flyer and was an intensely personal project for him.

And yet, when I look at his filmography, I think, here is a man who clearly had a much larger perspective than could be reduced to single genres or star vehicles. Take THE PUBLIC ENEMY, which Wellman directed just four years after WINGS. A seminal film in the early gangster genre, it's an intense, focused character study tracing a young hood's development into career criminal. Or A STAR IS BORN, which remains one of the boldest films ever made about the motion picture industry, especially when you consider it was made at a time when Hollywood was most certainly not interested in anything self-critical.

But it was Wellman's very versatility that demonstrates how a film like A STAR IS BORN could be made in 1937 Hollywood. The key was the same one that allowed Wellman to create personal works within the factory-like studio system. Because A STAR IS BORN has all the dressings of a "Classical" studio film, it can make its point within a traditional "rising star" narrative, which makes the ideas being explored all the more subversive (compare this with the hostility with which Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD. was met 13 years later). Similarly, Wellman was able to inject his personal vision into films because he worked within the system. At first glance, his films may "look" no different than those of other directors. But when you realize the highly structured system under which Wellman was working, and look more closely at recurring themes that he explored, his versatility becomes even more impressive. Not to mention the fact that he made at least a half-dozen films that are now widely regarded as "classics" among the whole of world cinema.

And this was something else that his son emphasized when speaking about WINGS: that Wellman enjoyed working, enjoyed the process of making films. The studio system, whatever its faults, was the ideal place for a director like Wellman, who was able to keep working and exploring his ideas within the classical framework of Hollywood genre films, star vehicles, and so on.

WINGS, then, sums up perfectly what Wellman was able to accomplish so well. Even though the film was a grand-scale epic spectacle, a Best Picture winner, and commercial triumph, beneath all of that is the perspective of an intensely personal artist, a man drawing on his own life experiences and telling a story that was deeply important to him. The film, like the best films from Hollywood's classic period, manages to convey those ideas while also transcending them, creating a work that still moves and thrills everyone who sees it, a film that is both universal and timeless.

Although staged, there are glimpses of Wellman directing on-set in this trailer for A STAR IS BORN:

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