Oscars 2012: Was 'Wings' Hollywood's first bromance?
Today the Oscars are the ultimate showbiz institution — with a swarm of pundits, publicists and consultants keeping the machine running smoothly all season long. But when the Academy Awards were first launched in 1929, it was such small potatoes that news of Oscar’s debut didn’t even get top billing in Variety, which went instead with a story about someone tampering with secret new sound equipment during a movie theater break-in.
The film known today as the first best picture winner (there was also a winner that year for “best unique and artistic picture”) was “Wings,” which is only now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
The movie, released in 1927, was the “Avatar” of its day, a mammoth hit that was still playing in theaters two years after its premiere. It remains the only silent film to win a best picture Oscar, though it may soon have to share that distinction with “The Artist.” “Wings” stars Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow (with a cameo by the then-unknown Gary Cooper) in a story about the exploits of fighter pilots during World War I. Paramount made the movie for a then-staggering $2 million.
The historic film screened recently at the academy — and what I saw was both a marvel and a disappointment. Thanks to director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, a decorated wartime pilot himself, “Wings” is perhaps the first film to capture the visceral thrill of armed battle in the sky. The film’s dogfight scenes are astounding even today, filmed with hundreds of real planes and shot with a revolutionary technique for the time: Cameras were mounted in the front of the planes so the actors could actually play their scenes in the air.
Sad to say, when the film is on terra firma, it sags badly. Everything is played too big and broad, especially the flimsy love triangle with Bow, which is the stuff of lame melodrama.
What’s most striking about the film is that, despite the presence of Bow, clearly on hand for her box-office clout, the film is a buddy picture. The real dramatic relationship is between the two daring young flyboys. In essence, “Wings” is the model for 80 years of adventure movies to come — it’s a male love story. Bow is on hand for decorative effect. The soulful affection is all between the two men. When Arlen dies at the end of the picture, mistakenly shot down by his pal, Rogers actually kisses him goodbye full on the lips.
Their relationship — men emotionally bonded by perilous adventures together — echoes across Hollywood history in films by our greatest directors, from Wellman to Clint Eastwood, from Howard Hawks to Quentin Tarantino, from Don Siegel to John Woo. The relationships in “Wings” turn up time and again in dozens of classic male-bonding movies — “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Mean Streets,” “Top Gun,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few.
It’s hardly a surprise that Wellman was the man to launch the buddy melodrama genre. Expelled from high school for dropping a stink bomb on the principal's head, he was a rough-and-tumble guy whose disdain for actresses was well known. He preferred working with men, saying actresses took too long to prepare for their scenes. When he directed “The Public Enemy,” it was Wellman’s idea to have James Cagney smash a half-grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face, saying it was something he fantasized about doing to one of his wives (he had four).
Like so many American filmmakers who followed his lead, Wellman found relationships between men the essential DNA for dramatic storytelling. It’s still a man’s world, even at Oscar time. No matter who wins the lead actress statuette this year, be it Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams or Rooney Mara, she won’t win for being in a film whose central story involves a relationship between a man and a woman.
So if you’ve always wondered why the movie business was such an insular boys’ club, take a look at “Wings,” which is more than just a dusty old Oscar classic. It’s the film that put Hollywood’s love affair with bromance on the map.
Photo: From left, Charles (Buddy) Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in a scene from the 1927 film "Wings," the first best picture winner at the Academy Awards. Credit: Associated Press/AMPAS