Friday, March 28, 2014


     In the beginning...She Blinded Me With Silents (Post 12 of 12)

Clara Bow in Wings
I just finished reading Bill Bryson's book One Summer: 1927. Bryson pieces together the important events that were happening in the United States at that time: Prohibition, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge the great Mississipi flood, the Roots of the Great Despression and at the center of it all the young pilot Charles Lindbergh, who became the most famous man on earth that summer.

Bryson also talks about the movies of that year and I realized I hadn't seen the two movies that won the first ever Academy Award that won the best picture Oscar that year. I say two because, William Wellman' Wings won the Best Picture Production Oscar and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: the Story of Two Humans won the Best Picture, Unique and  Artistic Production. So there were essentially two Best Picture winners that year and they were very different from each other.

Wings is a high adventure thriller often set in the front of a plane doing battle during World War I. Bryson points out that "to the astonishment of everyone he (Director William Wellman) made one of the most intelligent, moving and thrilling pictures ever made." The movie was big budgeted and seemed like a big gamble, but the story of two American pilots who start as enemies and end up as best friends and battle in the air over the skies of Europe proved to be a huge hit. 

'Many people went to Wings to not thrill at the aerial acrobatics, but gaze in admiration at its female lead, Clara Bow."-Bill Bryson

The two buddies are played by Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen, but the top billed star of the production was actually the biggest female star in Hollywood, Clara Bow (Rin Tin Tin the German Shepherd was the biggest male star). You could say that Bow's part of the girlfriend of Buddy Rogers probably should have just been a supporting role. Since she's such the biggest name here, it seems like there are a couple of scenes with Bow that are just thrown in. But I really didn't mind. I found Bow so charismatic, I actually wish she had had more to do. It's easy to see why she was such a big star, even if for only a short time.

Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in
Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans

The other Best Picture winner was Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans, a drama about a man whose mistress convinces him to murder his wife and run away with her. After initial resistance, he agrees and takes his wife out on a rowboat to strangle her and dump her body overboard. As he's about to do it, he becomes overwhelmed with guilt and decides not to do it and asks her forgiveness.. He has to win back his wife's affection, but he does. This is a plot point I had a little trouble getting past. Keep in mind the wife realizes he's about to kill her, yet she does eventually forgive him. I'm just feeling that if my spouse was clearly about to kill me, that would pretty much be the end of the relationship. He also proves to be so volatile, that he's lucky he doesn't kill his mistress towards the end of the movie. That being said, if you could overlook this plot point, the reestablishment of their relationship is very heartwarming and provides many poignant and heartfelt moments. It does devolve into a couple of odd comic interludes (an especially strange one involving a pig) that made me think I was watching a Harry Langdon comedy at times, but the movie did get back on track and the scenes featuring the rescue of the man's wife after a storm brings everything to a satisfying conclusion.

Oh, yes and speaking of Rin Tin Tin. I brought up the German Shepherd because I also finished Susan Orlean's book (hey, two book references in one blog!) Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, where she discusses the German Shepherd's rise to be the biggest movie star in Hollywood in the 20's. So I was really knocked out when I was watching Sunrise and there is a scene where the husband is taking his wife out on the boat to do her in. His dog goes crazy at this turn of events, breaks his tether and swims out to the boat and the husband has to take his dog back to shore and start his plan over again. But thanks to the dog's diversionary action, the man has time to change his mind. The hero dog is (of course) a German Shepherd.

But which of these two films was the real winner that year?

The answer is...none of the above 

"It is a painful irony that silent movies were driven out of existence just as they were reaching a kind of glorious summit of creativity and imagination, so that some of the best silent movies were also some of the last ones."-Bill Bryson
Al Jolson sings for his Mammy in The Jazz Singer.
Yes, the real winner of the 1927 sweepstakes was The Jazz Singer, forever remembered as the first movie that talked.

"The Jazz Singer was by no means the first sound movie. It wasn't even the first talking picture-but that was a nicety lost on its adoring audiences. For most people, The Jazz Singer would be the picture that made talking pictures real."-Bill Bryson

The story is about Jack Robin (Al Jolson) who forsakes singing in the synagogue for his Rabbi father to embark upon a career in show business. Though much clumsier than the other two films listed above, the artistry of any silent picture simply couldn't compete with Al Jolson singing "Toot Toot Tootsie" or "My Gal Sal." It really is a silent movie (very heavy on the cue cards) with a few songs and some dialogue here and there. It's entertaining in an antiquated way and the movie's relationship between Jack and his parents does have some moving moments.

One thing for sure, movies were never the same.


  1. I had a similar issue with the "I'm going to kill you; wait, I changed my mind" point in Sunrise, too. I like the film, and it's got the visuals (which is why it won the "artistic" award), but I don't love the film. I prefer Wings.

    And while I can appreciate The Jazz Singer's place in movie history it didn't do as much for me as these other two films.

  2. I think if I was forced to pick between Wings and Sunrise, I would probably give a slight nod to Wings also. Certainly sound gave movies a new dimension, but it's still sad that silent cinema died away as an art form. I guess you can't have it both ways.

  3. Those last silents are really impressive. As they did not have to worry about sound they were free to use the camera in very creative ways. It took some time for the cameraworks of the talkies to catch up, but when you look at movies like "M" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" you know there was no way back.
    I have never seen "Wings" simply because it was never on the List. I guess I should make the effort.