Worst Best Picture: Is Wings Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1927 and 1928 winner Wings. Is it better than Crash?

The story of movie history isn’t the story of how we got to 12 Years a Slave any more than it is how we started with Wings, the first Best Picture winner. Different movies achieve immortality for different reasons. Wings was the first Oscar winner, back before they even called them that, but is it anything more than that?

It’s surreal to watch Wings in 2014. I try to keep the time period a movie is from in my mind when I watch it, but that’s not the challenge here. Rain Man is a fantastic movie that someone spilled 80s all over; Wings is pure 1927. It’s the only true silent movie to win (The Artist doesn’t count and should be ignored), for starters. A two-and-a-half hour silent movie seems like it would be a tough sell in 2014, but it’s worth exploring the first Best Picture.

Wings is the story of two boys who love the same gal, Sylvia. They both want to date her, but she only likes one back. The other guy’s cute friend is into him, but he’s only got eyes for Sylvia. I had to look up Sylvia’s name because she’s in about sixteen seconds of this movie. The boys go off to World War I, plucky female friend goes off to drive an ambulance in the war, and Sylvia presumably dies of Spanish flu, or something. Everyone kinda forgets her. It’s weird. The movie is unbelievably long, but that’s the end of that plotline, let’s go to war.

If Wings has a claim to fame beyond the first Best Picture Oscar, it’s two million dollars worth of plane combat effects. They’re impressive (to a degree, don’t expect much) considering what they had to work with in 1927. The conventions of silent film mean that you’re going to watch a lot of flying time, so at least it’s well done.

The main characters — Jack and David — are completely nondescript. They both love America, flying, this possibly dead woman, and just about nothing else. Wings is a patriotic movie before it is anything else, and it too often is willing to forego any interesting characterization to sell that patriotism. Of particular interest is a German-American character played to be incompetent and useless. He consistently mucks up simple tasks and has to demonstrate that he belongs in the war because he has an American flag tattoo. The creators of Wings knew that people wouldn’t buy him any other way.  The third or fourth time that happens, though, you start to wonder if this might have even been too long for people in 1927.

Clara Bow got top billing on Wings. She was a movie star of the highest order, and her portrayal of the rough-and-tumble “best friend/love interest” for Jack is as close as the movie gets to “interesting characterization.” It never quite gets all the way there, but she at least gets to drive an ambulance around and tell Jack that he’s brave and strong. Hoo-boy, that sentence really tells you where 1927 was at, doesn’t it?

The Best Part: Wings is not especially worth your time in 2014, but if you decide to watch it you’ll end up with a compelling movie. It’s way, way too long (largely because it feels totally unedited) but it eventually turns out an interesting climax that is somewhat surprising.

The Worst Part: Jack and David get some leave from the military and go to Paris to get drunk on champagne. They’re called back to provide needed air support, but Jack is too drunk to remember what the military is. Internet tells me that Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the guy that plays Jack, had never been drunk before the scene. To create a realistic portrayal, they just got him drunk in real life. It comes through like that, and it’s as hard to watch as any real-life drunk. Clara Bow eventually shows up to try to get him to go back to war, which helps, but the scene ends with Jack seeing “bubbles” everywhere. The mixture of a real drunk person on screen and some terrible bubble special effects creates a really, really bad scene.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashThe discussion of race in Wings is one of “real” Americans. The German-American is hated because he is not “authentic.” The women are hated because they are not men. Men are hated because they are not “real soldiers.” The world of Wings has no room for diversity, and it’s roughly as interested in a positive message about diversity as Crash is. But there’s 78 years between Crash and Wings, and honestly, I felt like Wings was a little more progressive. The only message of Wings is “be a man, fly a plane!” Crash would be improved by being just about that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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