“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.”
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.
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.
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.