The San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 12-15, 2012
Castro Theatre, San Francisco
|Director William Wellman on the set of Wings.|
The SFSFF got off to a flying start with their opening night screening of William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927)*. This first Academy Award winner for Best Picture tells a fairly simple story, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), two small town boys in love with the same girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), enlist in the Air Corps during WWI. The men eventually bond and face the excitement and horror of air combat together. Meanwhile, the hometown girl that secretly loves Jack, Mary (Clara Bow), joins up with the Women's Motor Corps of America and is stationed in France at the same time as the pilots. The women’s roles and the love story angle are weak; it’s the evolving relationship between the two men that is the most fully developed part of the narration and gives the film emotional depth.
|"Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen in Wings|
But ultimately it’s the breathtaking depiction of aerial combat that make the eighty five year old film more exciting to watch than any contemporary action film. Director Wellman’s partnership with cinematographer Harry Perry and editor E. Lloyd Sheldon brought to the screen aerial sequences that have never been eclipsed. The dogfights are breathtaking and the affecting use of close-ups puts the audience right into the middle of the action. The sparing use of color also adds to the effectiveness of the combat scenes. The filmmakers tinted the flames shooting out of the machine guns as they fire and from the planes as they are hit—a strong visual shock that conveys the violence of war.
|You are there!|
Two more factors added to the success of the screening. The SFFSF showed the fully restored version of the film, funded by Paramount Studios to celebrate their 100th Anniversary. The digital restoration incorporated the original tinting and much of the elements used for it were from a nitrate print. The restored film looks like it was shot yesterday and captures the incredible visual sophistication of silent films of this period. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s fine accompaniment was partnered with outstanding Live Foley, created by Ben Burtt and Rodney Sauer. Their team of effects artist used an array of “instruments”, from the traditional thunder sheet to bicycles, to reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action sequences. Particularly effective was the choice to stop playing music and use the Foley exclusively during the first dog fight sequence. Hearing only the roar of the engines, the machine gun fire, and other sounds of aerial combat was incredibly effective.
*If you can, please forgive the terrible pun.