While it’s fitting that Paramount Pictures should unveil its masterful restoration of Wings on the studio’s 100th birthday, it’s a shame we had to wait this long. It is, in fact, the last Academy Award-winning Best Picture to be released on DVD and Blu-ray—an unintended irony, since it was the first film to receive that honor. (Fox’s Cavalcade was the other longtime holdout, and even now it can only be obtained as part of a big, expensive Fox tribute package.)
Paramount released eight of its finest silent films on videocassette many years ago, with newly-recorded scores by the great theater organist Gaylord Carter. Of those, the silent version of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is available as a bonus feature on deluxe editions of his 1956 remake, and Criterion has released the three gems by Josef von Sternberg (Underworld, The Last Command, andThe Docks of New York) in a superb boxed set. It would be nice to see more of the surviving Paramount silents (Old Ironsides, The Sheik, Running Wild, The Covered Wagon) on DVD and Blu-ray, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In terms of crowd-pleasers, however, it would be hard to top Wings. I’ve never been a huge fan of the film, but watching it again on the huge screen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week, I couldn’t help but be impressed with its incredible flying scenes. William Wellman achieved what no one else had even attempted up until that point: realistic and exciting aerial footage, especially during the dogfight scenes. He and his team of cameramen devised daring new techniques to capture this footage, and even had his stars, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, pilot their own planes and control the motor-driven cameras facing them. (The film is less impressive when it’s on the ground, but the effervescent Clara Bow makes up for that.)
You can learn more about the making of the film in Tim King’s informative documentary that appears on the new Wings DVD. In it, such experts as William Wellman, Jr., historians Frank Thompson, James V. D’Arc, and Katherine Orrison, and Paramount veteran A.C. Lyles provide fascinating details of how this epic production came to be. A second documentary chronicles the restoration of the picture, which was done in conjunction with the Academy archive.
Good prints of Wings have always been around, but this new incarnation raises the bar from “good” to “great.” Fighting nitrate deterioration and years of wear, the people at Paramount (led by VP of Archives Andrea Kalas), the Academy (led by Archive Director Michael Pogorzelski), and Technicolor (under the supervision of Executive Director Tom Burton) strove to bring the movie back to vivid life, and followed original notations about color tinting and use of the amazing Handschiegl process. Now, when an aviator blasts his machine gun, there is a burst of yellow fire, and when a plane goes down in flames, the flames glow brightly, as they did on the film’s original release. (Back then, this effect was highly labor-intensive; now it can be replicated digitally.) There are still a few rough spots, but overall the movie looks beautiful, and has a visual warmth that’s been missing for years.
Similar care has been taken with the soundtrack. The unsung heroine in this process is Jeannie Pool, who has overseen the Paramount music library for many years. Her extensive knowledge and research made it possible to recreate the orchestral score by J. S. Zamecnik that was originally commissioned for Wings, supplemented by piano work by the gifted Frederick Hodges. The new recording was orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser, with Jeannie serving as session producer. (I’m delighted that the powers-that-be decided to retain Gaylord Carter’s organ score, as well, on a separate track.)
Another expert, and diehard film buff, multiple Oscar-winner Ben Burtt, undertook the task of recreating the picture’s sound effects, in partnership with Dustin Cawood, being careful not to overwhelm the score (or the picture, for that matter) and stay true to the period.
Oddly enough, when Wings was presented at the Academy last week, first for an invited audience including Paramount chairman Brad Grey, and the following night for the general public, it was missing the orchestral score and sound effects. Instead, we were treated to a magnificent performance by organist Clark Wilson, who regularly plays at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Academy president Tom Sherak first saw a revival of Wings with an organ accompaniment and wanted to share that experience with his audience. It took some doing, as Randy Haberkamp shared with us on Wednesday night. You see, the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre is wired for modern movie sound, so it is covered with fabric that deadens the sound, while an old-fashioned pipe organ depends on reverberation, as you would normally hear in a vintage movie palace, or a church. After several tries, a computer program provided by the Allen Organ Company succeeded in allowing an electric keyboard instrument to emulate the rich sound of a pipe organ.
As for Wilson, he is a master silent-film accompanist, which means he is also a showman of the first order. The audience gave him a well-deserved ovation at the conclusion of his majestic performance. (Randy Haberkamp has showmanship in his blood, too: he strung replicas of original Wings mobiles from the Academy lobby ceiling, put together a terrific temporary exhibit of ephemera from the film, and duplicated the original pressbook herald, which was inserted in every program book handed out that week.)
I’m still not ready to embrace Wings as a masterpiece, or “the last great silent film.” But I can’t deny its great appeal, or the dazzling war footage that cemented William Wellman’s reputation. Its arrival on DVD and Blu-ray, in such beautiful condition, is indeed cause for celebration.