Friday, February 20, 2015

The Winner of the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture

Bird man

In time for Oscar Weekend, my own little piece about the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Picture--

William Wellman's 1927 epic Wings won in 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's very first awarding ceremony, and you can see the thinking behind the choice: it's a boxoffice hit that capitalized on the aviator craze (Lindbergh had just crossed the Atlantic); it's big in terms of scope (furious aerial dogfights and sprawling ground battles) and emotional scale (Patriotic sacrifice! Love triangles! Brotherly love!).

Wellman by this time had directed a few films, mostly low-budget silent Westerns; he was picked for this, his first major production, reportedly on the basis of having actually flown in the first World War, with the Lafayette Flying Corps (three kills, five probables, shot down once). He directed fast, though he was rough on actors; the drama--and comedy for that matter--was often unconvincingly saccharine (Jack (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) taking leave of beloved Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) and unrequited lover Mary (Clara Bow)), but it moved, and once in a while was even moving (Mary's humiliation in a hotel room; Jack and David's farewell to each other).

In the air the film was a different creature. Wellman learned to shoot against land or cloud formations, to give the flying sequences a sense of speed and scale; he managed to intercut comedy with peril (clueless Mary knocking about in an ambulance while a German Gotha--a gigantic plane shot and framed to look as wide as a landing field--prepares to bomb the little town she's driving through), peril with pathos (David, having made a daring escape in a stolen German fighter, is attacked just as he approaches friendly territory). Wellman (or at least his writers Hope Loring and Louis Lighton, from a story by John Monk Saunders) even manages to insert an anti-war message without being too obvious (Jack in his thirst to avenge David, attacks David's stolen German plane). In other words: the German you hate may turn out to be the brother/friend that you love

Wellman would with better material go on to direct better films: The Public Enemy (1931) subverted the American Dream (work hard and aggressively, and you can own the criminal underworld); The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark's classic plea against vigilante justice for the big screen and gave it a claustrophobically stylized intensity; The Story of G.I. Joe (1945; his masterpiece, in my book) took its cue from Ernie Pyle's Pulitzer Prize-winning stories and insisted a major share of the cost of war is not the battles fought but the interminable time of waiting and surviving in between. Wellman would push that thesis to its immersive extreme four years later with Battleground (1949), his neorealist take on The Battle of the Bulge.

If there's an image in the film that stays with you, it's that of the pilot in his cockpit, staring straight at the camera--Director of Photography Harry Perry figured out a way to mount the camera in the cockpit, operable by the pilot, and when you saw the man grimace in fear while the world spun out-of-control about him, there wasn't much acting involved: he really was terrified. The shot will inspire and influence countless imitations, in nearly every aviator film ever made, from Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) through George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983) to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), among many others. In defiant refutation of the Copernican model of the universe, the shot puts neither universe nor sun nor even the earth but man at its center, in all his fleshy vulnerability and matchless ability to express emotion, the rest of reality wheeling vertiginously in his trail. 

Hughes' Hell's Angels is an interesting study in contrast--where Wellman's film peaked with its Oscar win and has grown hoarier in reputation every year since, the stock of Hughes' epic has only risen, championed by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Scorsese (whose 2004 biopic of Hughes does an elaborate tribute and re-enactment of scenes in the film). You can understand the auteurist admiration: Wellman was making a pop entertainment, with something for everyone--a little sex (Mary behind a screen, undressing); a little beefcake (Gary Cooper appears for ninety seconds onscreen, achieves screen immortality); a little comedy (a drunken Jack demanding to see champagne bubbles everywhere he looks); a little drama (Jack and David quarreling and making up, quarreling and making up); a lot of war (The Battle of Saint-Mihiel). Hughes attempts the template (Jean Harlow representing a cruder, more knowing kind of sex) but it's a half-hearted effort (James Whale had to assist with the talky scenes), and you can see where his heart really lies: in the whir and thrum of zeppelin engines; in the dive and roll of fighter planes (one of which Hughes flew, for a stunt considered too dangerous--and promptly rammed his plane into the ground); in the near-Hawksian drama of men wordlessly giving their lives that the dirigible might live (two years later Hughes would collaborate with Hawks, this time transforming the gangster genre).  

Difficult to call Hughes an artist--Wellman in fits and starts here and in his later work would prove to be the better overall filmmaker--but in his obsessive zeal to orchestrate the details, his heedless sacrificing of immense resources including his own time and energy, Hughes comes to evoke some of the qualities of an artist attempting a great work.  

Meanwhile we have this, which on the ground hasn't aged well (most everything that doesn't involve homoerotic tragedy, really), but in the air--in the air it soars.  

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