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Screens & Tech

'Wings': Made-in-SA Academy Award winner still thrills

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Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arden in a classic still of Wings, filmed in San Antonio.

The same qualities that sent movie moguls to southern California in the second decade of the 20th century — plentiful sunshine, cheap land and labor, varied landscapes — also made South Texas a promising mecca for cinema. Frank T. Thompson, in fact, called his 2001 study of filmmaking in San Antonio Texas Hollywood. However, the high point of "Texas Hollywood" was 1927, when Wings was shot at Kelly Field, Camp Bullis, Fort Sam Houston, and other local sites. Occasional later local productions — West Point of the Air (1935), Cloak and Dagger (1984), Johnny Be Good (1988) — cause no one to confuse Universal City in Bexar County with Universal City in the San Fernando Valley. Wings is probably the best movie ever made in San Antonio, though, for all its abundant charms, it doesn't hold a klieg light to the best features from Hollywood or New York, much less Hoboken (On the Waterfront) or Flagstaff (Casablanca).

Wings, however, will always hold the distinction of having won the first Academy Award (the statuettes were not yet dubbed "Oscars") for best production. In 1929, when the award was given, a parallel honor was bestowed on Sunrise, for "Best Artistic Quality." That separate award was discontinued the following year (so much for artistic quality), and it is generally assumed that the award Wings received became the Oscar for best picture. With a budget of $2 million, Wings was not only the most expensive film yet made, but it was also the only silent honored as best picture — until The Artist triumphed in February. The first public screening of Wings was held at the Texas Theatre on Houston Street on May 19, 1927, one day before Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, when aviation was still an audacious adventure. The film is set 10 years before, during a war in which horses outnumbered tanks and flying was a novelty. To see it now is to be struck by how early in the history of aviation the promise of liberation from the tyranny of gravity was perverted into deadly purposes.

Wings takes flight again at the Bijou Theatre on May 29, kicking off a new summer season of Texas Public Radio's Cinema Tuesdays. In a crisp, restored print with a remastered soundtrack, the film is spectacular. More than 5,000 soldiers were recruited as extras, and military authorities provided director William A. Wellman, himself a pilot in World War I, with access to vintage planes and critical sites, including the Fort Sam Quadrangle. One stunt man was killed and another broke his neck. Dozens risked their lives to put on screen intricately choreographed aerial dogfights with fearsome barks and fatal bites.

Surrounding the sensational footage of celestial combat is the sentimental story of two young men who are rivals in love and comrades in arms. The 1920 census found that more than half the population was now urban, so Wings was already an anachronism in celebrating a simple America that stood in stark contrast to Paris, the big city of iniquity luring wholesome young Yankees on leave. In an unnamed small town, Jack Powell (Rogers) and David Armstrong (Arlen) both love Sylvia Lewis (Ralston). For most of the film, Jack remains oblivious to the girl next door, Mary Preston ("It girl" Clara Bow), who is smitten with him. When war is declared, Jack and David enlist immediately in the Air Corps, and Mary volunteers to drive a truck.

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