Tuesday, November 23, 2021

William A. Wellman | Wings

kisses and poses (2)

by Douglas Messerli 

Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, screenplay, based on a story John Monk Sauders; titles by Julian Johnson), William A. Wellman (director) Wings / 1927 

You might argue that William A. Wellman was one of the first Hollywood directors who seemed to actually care about representing a diverse selection of American society in his films. True, these figures were often rooted in simple types, but over his long career a diverse representation of social, political, and sexual figures appear in his works, pointing to numerous lesser-discussed aspects of the mythical melting pot that American culture had long been perceived to be.

       His first major film, winner of what might be described as the first Best Picture Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, is a perfect example.* Although most of the film focuses on the mass of humanity into which war generally transforms individuals, Wellman—despite the complaints of some critics including the usually perceptive, but with regard to this film seemingly myopic Daniel Egan in his book on the National Film Registry—spends the first fourth of his movie establishing archetypal figures such as the good looking All-American boy, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) souping up his car to become the hot rod “The Shooting Star”; the pesky tomboy-girl next door, Mary Preston (Clara Bow) who’s loved Jack since she was and he were kids; the ethereal “outsider,” new-to-town beauty with whom Jack imagines he is in love, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston); and the handsome, sauve, rich boy, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), with whom Sylvia is truly “in love.” 

     Along the way, Wellman introduces further types, including the fairly obnoxious immigrant stereotype Herman Schwimpf—played by the German-born actor who performed as the mumbling, bumbling Swedish “Ole” under the name El Brendel, but here seems also to be doubling as a Dutchman—and numerous others.

       Yet, typical for this director, the molds into which these types are generally bound are all quickly broken, as we discover the complexity of their true beings forged through an introduction to the wider world and their interrelationships with one another, which really what Wings and other Wellman’s other films are very much concerned. Whereas directors such as Frank Capra or even Charles Chaplin might have left these types as he found them, for Wellman the “cast” is cracked in order to transform his figures into the four-dimensional human beings they become. Even the most stubborn stock figure, El Brendel, is transformed as the film develops into a talented and very capable mechanic who very much cares about the air pilots and their machines he looks after.

       In this particular film, set against the backdrop of international events, the focus is almost entirely upon the male characters. Even actress Clara Bow realized from the start that she was not an important figure in Wellman’s scheme of things:  Wings is...a man's picture and I'm just the whipped cream on top of the pie.”

       Yet this was a “man’s picture” in a far different manner than Hollywood had ever seen males depicted. The cameo feature of Gary Cooper as Cadet White, an experienced air pilot who meets  up with the younger trainees for the World War I version of the Army Air Force, establishes the archetypal heterosexual male figure: the quiet, determined he-man who sleeps for much of the time that he’s on the screen, catching-up on lost hours when he’s been flying, and who when called for dawn patrol, introduces himself and readies to face the daily odds of survival, gently dismissing the two new trainees’—Powell and Armstrong—dependency on protective tokens such as the tiny childhood bear David carries with him and the silver locket wherein lies Sylvia’s picture that Jack wears around his neck. 

       The suggestion is already posited that Jack and David are somehow less masculine that Cadet White, different in their obvious weaknesses, including the fact that, despite entering training hating one another but during a boxing match coming to respect and truly like one another and forging a “close” friendship as the two bunk together. White obviously goes it alone and faces up to facts, proven by the moment that he enters what the film describes as the “heavenly sea” when his plane crashes back to earth killing him.

       The incident is also Wellman’s first indication that his film, while often seeming to glorify battle, belongs also to the growing tradition of film’s that will reveal the horrors of war.

       Wellman, who himself served during World War I as a combat pilot—when he isn’t busy wowing his viewers with his remarkably ability to provide his audience with true arial film footage imitating the real dangers and terrifying encounters of airplane battle, which many have argued is what this film does best—turns his attention to that different kind of heterosexual male for whom friendship becomes something more than a handshake, smile, and collegial pat on the back or ass, but spills over into something that gets messy, coming dangerously close in the loving relationship between the boys the hints at homosexual feelings. No, these boys apparently—although we can never be certain—don’t have sex and given half a chance can’t wait to put their arms around a good looking girl to give her a smooch.**

      Yet Wellman’s camera catches the beautiful young men side by side on ground, in their tent, or other barrack quarters almost swooning over one another. As Vito Russo splendidly summed it up in his The Celluloid Closet:

           In William A. Wellman’s Wings...Richard Arlen and Charles

           Buddy Rogers have a more meaningful relationship with each

           others than either then has with Jobyna Ralston or Clara Bow,

           both token love interests whom male adolescents all over

           America correctly identified as “the boring parts” of the movie.

           In fact Arlen and Rogers have the only real love scene in

           Wings, and Rogers learns the true meaning of love through

           his relationship with his buddy.....

      Already in December 1926 and January 1927 Clarence Brown—another filmmaker who dared to hone-in on character stereotypes which he might expand into complex human beings—had given the audiences of the period a vision of soldiers loving the same woman (in this case made even more complex given actor John Gilbert’s notorious offscreen affair with Greta Garbo) who, by film’s end, realized that their love for one another was far more important than dueling over a woman. Even eschewing incidents and language from novelist Hermann Sudermann’s far-more homoerotic fiction on which the film was based, Brown establishes—as Garbo rushes out to stop her lovers from their duel and drowns in the cold water on her journey to their “sacred” island—that the two have developed something far deeper than a strong male-bonding as they embrace and walk off together into the future.

    Wellman, basing his May 1927 film on a story by John Monk Saunders appears not to go as far Brown had, finally awarding Jack, when David dies, the girl next door Mary as his lifetime companion. But Clara Bow was certainly on to something when she described that final kiss allowed with the fall of a shooting star, as nothing but whipped cream. For it’s already been established not only that Jack doesn’t  know whether or not he “truly” loves Mary, but he doesn’t quite know what love between a man and a woman is all about. While he confesses to Mary that he has (maybe) had sex with a French woman in Paris during the war—later in his life Wellman, who was married four times in the US, confessed to having had an earlier French wife who died during the War—what he doesn’t know is that it was really Mary in his hotel room who, a female soldier herself, had come to sober up her boyfriend so that he could return to camp as required. And they had no sex since he was more interested in champagne bubbles than in the bodies that produced them.

        And, although by film’s end he finally kisses Mary—something she’s been trying to get him to do all throughout the film—he has already far more intensely kissed his friend David on the lips as he was dying in a French ruin, after being shot down by Jack who, since his friend was flying in a stolen German plane, he believed to be the enemy. That deep kiss on the lips might be described as others have argued, as the first genuine queer male kiss in US cinema history. He carries him off, moreover, in a manner that suggests the pietà, which will later become a trope of the early gay “coming out” videos.

      But even before that occasion in the film, discovering that on the back of Jack’s precious photograph of Sylvia, she had inscribed, “With love to David,” David had torn up the picture incurring Jack’s wrath. But in so doing, Jack had also, symbolically speaking, destroyed the object of his own heterosexual desire, proving instead his homosexual devotion to Jack. And even Wellman, a product after all of his own society, could imagine no other future for his young hero than death. Almost immediately David has the feeling that his time has come, asking Jack to be certain to deliver up his medal and beloved mascot to his parents back home, Jack scoffing at David’s dark prognostications. 

      In that day’s foray against a monstrous German airplane Gotha, Jack succeeds in shooting it down while David takes on the two smaller Fokker E.III Eindecker’s accompanying it, one of which eventually shoots him down in German territory. David survives, only to steal a German Fokker plane and attempt to fly back to the Allied line on the day beginning the Battle of Saint-  Mihiel, when Jack shoots him down resulting finally in his death. As Jack later packs up his loved one’s possessions, he discovers the torn-up photo as well as Sylvia’s letter declaring her love for David, suddenly realizing that he was not loved as he imagined by Sylvia, but was loved deeply by David.

     If “normality” is restored in this film, we recognize it will be only a cover for one true love Jack has ever known, that of David who sacrificed himself for the sake of his male lover. If love has meaning in this work, it is defined only by the relationship and “friendship” of Jack and David.

     Wellman has not truly “coded” this film, representing that love through the concept of pure and unsullied male comradeship, something heterosexuals have superficially accepted throughout history and was permitted when it came to cinematic depictions of cowboys, athletes, soldiers, and prisoners, locked away in worlds where women were forbidden or in short supply—related as Russo hints to the Peter Pan myth where male comradeship was not yet necessary given the “lost” boys’ refusal to grow up and take on heterosexual male responsibilities (which also explains, in part, why male/male sexuality is sometimes overlooked in the rom-com movies of raunchy teenage adventures and angst, sometimes moving terribly close to gay “coming out” sagas). Yet our society to this day refuses to identify that “comradeship” as being fully homosexual or queer. And as Wellman continued to explore these issues in later films such as his movie of the following year, Beggars of Life, he realized he would need to “code” or hide similar homosexual and even lesbian tendencies in his cinema.

       Certainly there will be countless readers who utterly dismiss or at least feel highly uncomfortable with readings such as mine, Russo’s, and the numerous other critics, gay and straight, who have observed that in this film Wellman took the male bonding from the shower room into the army cot. Surely, I can hear them argue, Wellman meant nothing of the sort. What he represented was merely a close friendship which young men away from home often forge in wartime situations when they are forced to rely on their fellow soldiers for their very survival—certainly my father’s words if he had deigned to even respond to my sexual insinuations.

       Yet Wellman has well prepared for that, underlining his homosexual depictions with a wonderful scene in a large Paris bar where his camera on a crane brilliantly tracks straight through tables of the room’s various habitués catching them in brief tableaux to indicate their  various relationships: a heterosexual couple arguing, a sailor and his girlfriend, a male and female appearing be making some exchange of valuable items, and a lesbian couple, dressed in suits, in which one of the women gently reaches up and over to stroke the cheek of the other, before his camera settles itself upon the table where we see Jack drunk sitting next to a whore and other soldier friends and their recently obtained girlfriends. In his study of queer cinema Screened Out, Richard Barrios suggests it may have been Wellman’s “way of condemning French liberality, but most likely...meant simply as a bit of spicey scene-setting.” Quite the opposite, I argue that it was one of the numerous subtle ways Wellman had of telling his audience that he was  serious about the issue of same-sex love. Here were yet other “types” whose molds waited to be cracked open, the butterfly of their lives escaping into celluloid reality. 

     Similarly, and perhaps less subtly, early in the film Wellman presents us with male nudity in the background of the induction center where El Brendel signs up. And in one of the film's very first frames, Jack, sprawling out on the grass, unexpectedly and inexplicably raises his legs over his head to expose to the camera his butt. When the two boys receive their French medals for heroism, the director's camera focuses several moments on the procedure as the officer giving out the awards kisses each man on both cheeks, as if to emphasize that there is a significant difference between the French cultural expression of greeting and friendship and a long kiss on the lips which Jack awards his beloved David. In each of these instances the director emphasizes the male body and male relationships in a manner in which no other US director has previously explored. Wellman's positing of a fully loving relationship between his two hometown airmen, in short, is not an anomaly, an oddity, or even an abnormality, but another reality, another tableaux in the vast array of human experience.        

      It is also notable that when Jack finally gets up the courage to visit David’s dour parents to present them with his companion’s sacred objects, the medal and the tiny teddy bear from his childhood, David’s mother refers to Jack as John—the first and only time this character is addressed by his given name—to reiterate his relationship with her beloved son, signifying the biblical connections with David’s love of Jonathan, the love that surpasses the love of all women. Is it any wonder that Jack almost breaks down in the tears not usually allowed male leads of any kind, particularly not a war hero of the significance of “The Shooting Star.”

     I argue that Wellman’s work, along with Mauritz Stiller’s similarly titled film The Wings (1916), Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others (1919), Theodore Dreyer’s Michael (1924), and Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil (1926) is among the five most significant LGBTQ films of early, silent movie history.

     Let’s be honest, Wings impressed its audiences and won awards for Wellman’s truly impressive aerial photographer and his ability to amass Cecil De Mille-like crowds to portray the endless battlelines of World War I warriors. And his film makes equally important statements about the hellish crucible of war, that destroys lives and forges new relationships between both men and women.

     His depiction of male love, however, could never after be erased from cinematic history and its influence over the years, in films as various as William Dieterle’s Sex in Chains (1928), Leontine Sagan’s Girls in Uniform (1931), Dudley Murphy’s The Sport Parade (1932), Jean Grémillon’s Lady Killer (1937), Victor Fleming’s Test Pilot (1939), Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), to name but a handful of films focusing on same sex love in worlds separated or isolated from the opposite sex. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) might be described as the great-grandchild of Wellman’s Wings, if we were interested in imagining movies spawning celluloid babies.   

     I have to admit, I’m not fond of war films, but I cried at several points along the way while watching Wings. But then, after all, I’m not a manly man and have permitted myself to cry whenever I feel like it.

     The restoration of this film was made possible through the discovery of a spare negative in Paramount’s vaults used in the 1950s reissue of this film across the US. Suddenly, I realized that other than the great musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel that I had shared with my parents in the early 1950s at an Iowa drive theater at age 6 or 7, I had long had a vague memory of a wartime air movie with a lot of airplanes in it, which must have been that reissue of Wings. My father had served as an Air Force bombardier in World War II, and loved to watch any movie with airplanes in it. 

* In fact that first year there were two top awards, one for outstanding production and another for “artistic” production. F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise won the latter, while Wellman’s Wings won the former

** Arlen was a skilled pilot when hired for his role, and Rogers, pioneering the territory that today someone like Tom Cruise occupies, learned how to pilot his plane for the film stunts.


Los Angeles, November 23, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).  

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