The Best Picture Project: Wings, 1928

Wings Movie Poster The Best Picture Project Breezy Afternoons

Wings brought visions of flight to the masses for the first time in American history. This, combined with the star power of Clara Bow and the depiction of what was known at the time as the World War, tipped the scales in favor of ‘Wings’ – making it the first winner of what would become an annual celebration of film larger than any other pop culture phenomena in existence. The first feature film in The Big Picture Project.

Vintage Wings Movie Ad, Brownsville Herald, 1928
Brownsville Herald, November 4, 1928. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Wings Trailer

The Plot (Spoiler Warning)

Jack and David are all-American boys about to head off to fight in the World War as pilots. They’re both in love with the same girl, Sylvia. Sylvia loves David, but does not tell Jack that he is out of the running. Jack nor David notice the girl next door, Mary, played by Clara Bow. She has always loved Jack.

Jack and David train and go off to Paris to fight against Germany. Mary is trained as an ambulance driver and ends up stationed near them. One day, she finds Jack drunk in a cafe. She gets him safe to his room and tucks him in bed, and as she is changing her clothes, military police barge in. Being alone in a room with a soldier is prohibited, and she is sent back to America. Jack does not even realize she was there.

During the offensive at St. Mihiel, David is shot down. He steals a German plane and tries to make it back across allied lines. Jack, furious that his friend has been shot down, sees the German plane and shoots it down with David inside. He rushes to the wreckage to find that David was in the plane. They embrace and say their goodbyes.

Jack returns home and realizes he loved Mary all along.

Historical Context

The Academy of Arts and Sciences often chose ground breaking movies as winners. A movie might be showcasing a new technology, making a major cultural statement, or pushing the envelope of society’s expectations. We see this even today, and in retrospect, which films are celebrated as the era’s best can tell us much about what Americans were interested in or dealing with at the time. Not only are these films living histories, they offer clues and context as to what people aspired to be, as well.

Wings is a movie that broke a lot of ground in Hollywood and film production. The director was a combat pilot in the war, and his understanding of combat influenced the flight scenes. In addition to the scenes being regarded as accurate, this was the first time a film was made in the sky. A vast majority of Americans had never seen the ground from an airplane. That view alone was worth the price of admission.

The roaring 20’s Hollywood scene was a scene obsessed with sex. College students openly held “petting parties” and the first erotic romance novels became huge best-sellers. These books were read by women, openly and without shame, and attitudes about sex in general were very open. As such, both male and female nudity was shown in ‘Wings’ – a feature that made the movie bold and exciting. Regressive attitudes toward sex came later with the Great Depression and World War II, leading to a long streak of movies with a more puritan view of sex.

Jack and David kiss at the end of the film, as David lays dying. It was not uncommon for men to kiss to show affection in the 1920s. This website offers incredible vintage photos of male friends showing affection in a way that would be seen as romantic today. Men sit next to each other with their legs wrapped together, holding hands. While the kiss is the first same-sex kiss on major film, it is not a romantic kiss.

Wings Trivia

Wings, a silent film with English “intertitles” – title cards that provided dialogue or context to the audience. We cannot exactly call them subtitles, although they were called subtitles at the time, as the meaning has changed to the modern use of “subtitles.”

Wings was the only silent film to win Best Picture until The Artist took the prize in 2011.

Clara Bow began an affair with Gary Cooper during the filming, despite being engaged to Victor Fleming.

Wings is the first mega-hit to feature nudity. Clara Bow’s breasts are shown for a second, and men are shown being examined through the crack in the door.

A same-sex female couple is featured in the cafe scene.

While some consider a kiss between the two male leads as the first same-sex kiss, in the 1920s men kissing each other was a common sign of affection, and was not seen as controversial.

The Library of Congress has an essay about Wings in its archive that is informative and available for free online here. Most notable to me is the use of the Magnascope technology, “

The most important special feature of “Wings” that
has never been recreated was a technique called
Magnascope, which would increase the size of the
screen and was used for the aerial battle sequences.
A standard 15 foot by 20 foot screen would expand
out to 25 foot by 40 foot. This required theatres
showing the film to employ a third projector with a
special shutter, intermittent and lens configuration
that would be used to project only the Magnascope
sequences.

Wings, Dino Everett.

Filmed in San Antonio, 1920’s.

Wings Premier Ad, St. Anthony Hotel, San Antonio, TX
The premier of the film was held at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The cast and crew stayed at the hotel while they shot the movie.

As a native Texan who idolizes my home state in that unique, bold way that only Texans can, I loved watching the aerial scenes and looking at Texas as she was, undeveloped. I spend quite a bit of time in San Antonio, and it is one of the most beautiful cities in our great state. The views from the sky over Fort Sam – still untouched in modern times, are featured throughout the film.

The film’s producer, Harold Ensign, described finding San Antonio in the article transcribed below.

“When we first came to San Antonio to analyze the stiuation (sp), we found ideal producing conditions. We found a location that so closely resembled the topography of St. Mihiel as to be almost uncanny. We found weather conditions favorable to production. We found a horizon banked with fleecy white clouds that make for composition and eliminate the bane of all photographers – the dead flatness of a cloudless sky.

Brownsville Herald, November 4, 1928

I’m certainly not shocked they found beautiful sky over San Antonio, Texas. “The prairie sky, is wide and high, deep in the heart of Texas,” is as true of a lyric as I’ve ever heard.

Hundreds of U.S. Soldiers stationed in Fort Sam at the time, acting out the scenes in the movie as the cameras flew overhead. How many of those soldiers went to war twenty years later? The Texas State Historical Association touches on many famous World War II heroes that came from Fort Sam, including future President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1917. Eisenhower was not at Fort Sam while Wings was filmed, however.

During the war, the headquarters for the Third, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Fifteenth Armies trained and deployed from Fort Sam Houston. So did the VIII Corps, Second Infantry Division, Eighty-eighth Infantry Division, Ninety-fifth Infantry Division, and a host of smaller units. In 1944 the headquarters of the Fourth Army moved into the quadrangle. Also on post were schools for the adjutant general, the provost marshal, and railway operations. There was a prisoner of war camp and the first unit of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Many of the top commanders during the war were Fort Sam Houston alumni. 

Texas State Historical Association Handbook, Fort Sam Houston

Michael Barrett wrote a fantastic feature piece for mysanantonio.com in 2012, bringing to our attention a book the directors son, William Wellman, wrote about the filming of Wings. The book is linked above or you can obtain a copy here and is only available in hardcover, as of 2021.

Newspaper Article about Wings movie filmed in San Antonio
Brownsville Herald, November 4, 1928. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress

WINGS PLAYS FOUR HOUSES OVER VALLEY; Brownsville Herald, November 1928:

(Photo Caption): Clara Bow in the famous war picture “Wings,” the epic of the aviation service. Buddy Rogers and Gary Cooper also have leading roles in the film, which is playing three Valley theaters today and opens at a fourth Tuesday. The picture now is playing at the Queen theater here, at the Riveli in San Benito and the Arcadia in Harlingen. The film will open in the Palace at McAllen Tuesday.

WINGS PLAYS FOUR HOUSES OVER VALLEY

Story of St. Mihiel Offensive In Air Is Made at San Antonio With Many Planes

Hollywood was moved to San Antonio and “Wings” was made there wthi (sp) practically the same facilities that would be available in the California center of film activity. “Wings,” Paramount’s air story, is woven around the aerial phases of the St. Mihial offensive in the World war.

The picture is playing at the Queen theater here today and Monday after opening on Saturday. It opened a two-day run at the Arcadia theater in Harlingen and a three day run at the Riveli in San Benito at the same time. It is to start a three day run at the Palace in McAllen on Tuesday.

Not only was a complete company of principals and supporting players, property men and all the personnel of a fully organized production unit operated in San Antonio but in addition to all of this, for the first time in the history of motion picture production, a fully equipped film laboratory was established on location.

Full credit for the development of the laboratory was given to Harold Ensign, superintendent of the studio laboratory of the Paramount Family Lasky Corporation in Hollywood. They said it could not be done, but Ensign did it.

“Few people realize,” says Ensign, “the number of operations a reel of film has to go through after the action of the players has been photographed. That is a side of motion picture production of which the theater-going public hears very little. And the crux of the problem lies in the laboratory.

“When we first came to San Antonio to analyze the stiuation (sp), we found ideal producing conditions. We found a location that so closely resembled the topography of St. Mihiel as to be almost uncanny. We found weather conditions favorable to production. We found a horizon banked with fleecy white clouds that make for composition and eliminate the bane of all photographers – the dead flatness of a cloudless sky.

“We found all this, in addition found splendid facilities for the development and printing of still pictures, but there was the same old problem of no facilities for handling motion picture negatives – the same old location drawback of not being able to know what we had gotten until we could ship our exposed film to Hollywood, have it developed and a positive print returned to us.”

“The establishment of the laboratory overcame the delay.”

Brownsville Herald, November 4, 1928

Merchandising

Using the Library of Congress archives, we can see the entrepreneurial spirit of America. The economy was great in the 1920s – if you weren’t a farmer – and savvy businesses and studios capitalized on stars like Clara Bow to increase their bankrolls.

Hahn Shoes Washington DC Vintage Ad Clara Bow Tie Wings Movie Merchandise
A shoe designed for Clara Bow fans, 10/10/1928, Washington D. C. Evening Star.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

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