Bromance of the Skies

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“Noooooooooo, no, no, silent film, stop!” cried Fiona, at the umpteenth pyrotechnic stunt sequence unspooled in William Wellman’s WINGS — not so much death-defying as death-inviting. Wellman himself spoke about blowing up real people instead of dummies by mistake, and everything we see in his impressive but alarming battle scenes supports the idea that dangerous stuff was going down on location. As James Mason said of the director, “He was a tough bastard but I liked him. He shot real bullets and stuff.”

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Just a little to your left, El Brendel. A little more. A little more.

DIALECT COMEDIAN SLAIN BY PROPELLER BLADE

All this mayhem and they failed to extirpate El Brendel! He has far too much screen time in this one, which is to say you can see him in a non-subliminal fashion. But at least you can’t hear him. And he’s not as cutesy as usual — I guess either Wellman whipped it out of him or he hadn’t acquired all of his bad habits yet (he had scores of them — in El Brendel’s native tongue there are fifty-seven words for “simpering” and forty for “smirking at your own unfunny material”. Incomprehensibly, Wellman had introduced this smug man-imp to the screen in YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN, which he does his best to ruin, and yet chose to give him employment again. I can only assume he was hoping a stray bullet would do cinema a service.

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Elsewhere, homoeroticism abounds between Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, with twin beards Clara Bow and the unfortunately-named Jobyna Ralston sidelined so effectively that one disappears completely apart from two shots and a photograph, and the other spends most of the film not catching up with her beau, who is drunk and completely indifferent to her when she does appear. The male kiss and embrace at the end is still pretty surprising, and Wellman seems to have spent the rest of his life disavowing it — his autobiography, A Time for Madness, might as well have been subtitled I Ain’t No Fuckin’ Queer, so constant is the refrain.

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Later, Clara puts on a spangly dress to look sexy — but — she really doesn’t need to.

“It’s a strange mix of glamour and excitement and tragedy,” Fiona observed afterwards, impressed by such harsh details as a boot stomping out a cigarette fallen from a dead man’s lips. “How would you describe it?”

Well, it’s written by one WWI aviator (John Monk Saunders, credited with story) and directed by another. It’s a dazzling Hollywood fantasy made by people who knew the reality. And the reality keeps bleeding through.

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4 Responses to “Bromance of the Skies”

  1. DBenson Says:

    The one that had me snickering was “Flesh and the Devil”, in which Garbo breaks up the hearty manly closeness between two buddies, set in a world ever so pretty. The happy ending, with one married to the younger sister of the other, almost had WINK WINK superimposed on it.

    Maybe straight manly closeness was more of a perceived ideal back in the day. Or simply an accepted immaturity: A standard theme in American comedy is boys hating girls until the mating season; after which husbands hate and/or fear wives, This seemed to apply whether the boys are the He-Man Women Haters of Our Gang or hearty adult males taming the wilderness or fighting a war.

    There’s a topic: Things that seem precious or laughable today that were still played fairly straight in silent and early sound, and when the tipping point was reached. Besides manly friendships outweighing mere biology (in time, a woman’s intrusion was played for laughs without challenging the basic idea), we have devotion to Mother (workable for certain comic heroes, but just as often a signifier of an inferior rival); sexless chivalric love; the sanctity of virginity (how many movies about the suspicion it was lost?); and pointless death or sacrifice for flag, principle or Honor.

    An indicator was Warner’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy”, where they felt a need to throw Freddie Bartholomew into a street brawl beside street-cred buddy Mickey Rooney. Where you could once go so far as to cast Mary Pickford in the part, now you needed to assure audiences that Fauntleroy is All Right.

  2. Lots of movies deal with male friendship versus romantic love, but not many of them has a kiss like Wings!

    I can accept plots predicated on virginity since it had social weight back in the day — as long as I’m not required to think it important for itself, it’s a serviceable plot device (Much Ado About No-Thing).

  3. Much Ado About No-Thing, eh? You’ve been listening to too much of Sir Peter Hall.
    And what on earth is the “versus” between “male friendship and romantic love”? My (male/male) marriage embraces both simultaneously. In my experience the same applies to intense (self-defined as) hetero male relationships.

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