Monday, November 19, 2012

Wings

Wings
seen @ Landmark Loews Jersey Theater, Jersey City, NJ
11.17.12

When I was in college, I made a comic book set during World War I. You could say it was my first graphic novel. It was for a class, and as part of my research on the era, I used for reference a photo book on WWI that I found in a used bookstore. (Still have it too.) 

I couldn't tell you exactly why I chose to do a war story. I suspect I simply wanted to try something different, something challenging. The story centered around the travails of two friends, an English pilot and a French soldier, during the war. I put myself and a bunch of my friends in it as different characters. At the time I was proud of the book, but looking back on it now, I can see that it's total crap. Still, it would lead me to making more comics.



While some of the actual history of the war interested me here and there, I remember approaching my story more like a romantic adventure than a gritty, brutal look at the realities of combat. Operation Desert Storm was in full swing at the time, and while I didn't write this as some kind of commentary on current events, it's possible I may have been subtly influenced in some way by the conflict in the Persian Gulf. Still, I was very nieve about war when I wrote it. Julie, my teacher, was encouraging, but god only knows what she must've made of the finished product. At least I passed the class.

I should've thought of Charles Schulz and Snoopy. It seems silly - a dog imagining himself as a WWI flying ace, using his doghouse as a Sopwith Camel - but whenever Schulz had Snoopy doing that in Peanuts, it had an earnestness that made you want to go along with it. Snoopy always had a vivid imagination, but the specificity of something like this - fighting the Red Baron, huddling down behind enemy lines, even his costume (did Charlie Brown get him those goggles?) - gave it a kind of reality independent of the rest of the events within the strip. That's what made it so memorable. Songs have been written about it!



I spared a thought or two for Snoopy while watching the glorious silent film Wings Saturday night. I had read about the recent restoration of this Oscar-winning film, of course, but I was unprepared for how entertaining the film itself is. Set during WWI, it's about two rival pilots and their adventures in the war, one of the first films directed by former WWI pilot William Wellman. It was a big hit during its release, and it's easy to see why: the flying sequences are stunning, not just for a silent film, but for any film! And of course, one must remember that the airplane itself was still relatively new technology at the time. It had been a little over twenty years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic first flight.

Wellman's son, William Jr., was at the screening at the Loews Jersey City and he spoke at length afterwards about the movie. Cameras were mounted onto the planes and had to be used by the actors, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen, while they were flying. Oh yeah, did I mention that that's really them flying those planes? They had to take lessons for the movie. Because Wellman Sr. was a veteran (and suffered a variety of injuries during combat), he was committed to giving Wings the verisimilitude it needed to be a success, even if it meant butting heads with the studio from time to time.


Fun fact: the flames from the fallen planes were hand-painted in post-production.
I can't say I cared much about the romantic subplot with Clara Bow, but simply seeing her was a treat in itself. According to Wellman Jr., many of the cast and crew were smitten with her. Indeed, her role was expanded as a result of her presence, since she was a superstar at the time.

The pipe organ music was provided by one Bernie Anderson, who received a rightly deserved standing ovation afterwards. (You try playing a pipe organ non-stop for two and a half hours!) I've not talked about the organ at the Loews before: its full title is the Bob Balfour Memorial Wonder Morton Theater Pipe Organ. It has no less than four keyboards, or manuals, and a pedalboard with special pedals called "swell shoes," which control volume. There used to be five organs like these in the NYC area. This one, which used to be at the Bronx Loews, was brought to Jersey City from the Midwest by Bob Belfour in 1997 and it has been rebuilt and refurbished ever since. (I got all of this information from the program.)



This, obviously, was my first trip to Jersey City since Hurricane Sandy, and wouldn't you know it, the PATH train still isn't 100 percent yet. It stopped at ten PM, so I ended up paying for a shuttle bus that went to midtown Manhattan. I had a brief moment of panic at the thought of being stranded in New Jersey overnight, but fortunately the shuttle buses were frequent and easy to catch.

4 comments:

  1. Very nice. Clara Bow is useless in this, but the relationship between the two leads is perfect and the dogfights are amazing for ANY time.

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  2. I wouldn't call her useless... especially since she goes topless in one scene (from the back, but still)...

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  3. A friend of mine just raved about this film recently, she absolutely loved it. Now I'm really curious to see it though I heard Gary Cooper's screen time was very minimal, bummer!

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  4. Only one scene; it comes relatively early and it's not that long, but he's easily recognizable.

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