“Welcome to a merry little war,” reads one intertitle in 1927’s “Wings,” the Best Picture winner at the first ever Oscars. “Wings” goes to show that war movies winning Hollywood’s biggest prize are as old as the award itself, but this war film looks fondly and lightly on World War I, an otherwise grim and consequential period of American History. “Wings” sets the spoils of war and the global turmoil as the backdrop to a sprawling, action driven melodrama and feels somewhat cheaper for it.
“Wings” has this in common with 1931’s Best Picture winner, “Cimarron,” a Western about the pioneers at the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889 who built the settlement, town, region and then state from the ground up. It too has a complex setting of moral ambiguity, racial intolerance and gender inequality made weaker by a muddled narrative of nostalgia, conquest and a shoot-out or two.
To ask that both “Wings” and “Cimarron” be progressive is probably a stretch for movies as old as they are, but these are Best Picture winners forever given a place on film history lists, and although they hold up better than could be expected, they’re troublesome entries among many other great films in that time period and throughout Oscar’s legacy. The curious cinephile will find some surprising spectacle and production value in each film, but both “Wings” and “Cimarron” are ultimately non-essential in the Best Picture canon.
“Wings” represents the last great stand of silent cinema. While it doesn’t have its co-Best Picture Winner “Sunrise”‘s graceful, floating camera, it has spectacle in the form of thrillingly staged dog fights between actual pilots, stunts and aerial shots (albeit ones from a mile away). It’s a sweeping melodrama about two rival fighter pilots both competing for the love of the same girl. After duking it out during boot camp, they become flying partners and friends, and while their war exploits are fairly predictable, the patriotism and go-getter enthusiasm throughout the film eventually earns its rousing spirit.
That’s because the real heart of the movie is Mary (silent film star Clara Bow), a country girl in love with the oblivious Lieutenant Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers), who is in love with the girl in love with his partner David (Richard Arlen). Mary joins the army as a driver and even gets herself court marshaled trying to protect Jack while on a drunken leave in Paris. Her likable and vulnerable involvement eventually up the stakes in a meaningful way when near the film’s climax the love triangle rears its head again.
The rest of “Wings” however comes across as something of a lark. American soldiers cheer and fist pump during a deadly dog fight as though it were Jack and David’s boot camp scuffle. Jack and David eagerly jump at the chance to finally fly after a mentor (a young Gary Cooper) is suddenly killed in a crash. And the cornball love story intro and Paris antics drag on in a film about capturing the spirit of war.
There’s a bit too much nostalgia and sentimentality for the time period here. That’s not uncommon for Oscar bait, but its striking how it shows up again in “Cimarron” just four years later. It’s a film about the people who write the history of our country and the complex, revisionist history of their lives that doesn’t make it into the history books, or in the case of Yancey Cravat, on the statue plaque.
“Cimarron” earns the same points for serious spectacle and showmanship that “Wings” does. Its opening sequence rivals something from “Birth of a Nation” or “The Ten Commandments” in sheer scope, with hundreds of people on horses and wagons gathered in the middle of an open Oklahoma field awaiting the opportunity to claim their stake to a plot of land. Director Wesley Ruggles stages it with thundering noise, immense low angles and quick montage editing through this empty space, and the sequence thrills. Later, Yancey (Richard Dix) gets caught in a shoot out that would be a precursor for Hollywood’s many Western classics.
But amid the heroics of these scenes and the boastful personality of Yancey, the nuance of early America’s loose morality and turmoil feels disjointed from the rest of the film. Yancey declares that settling Oklahoma is “like a miracle out of the Old Testament” and the start of a new empire, and he convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) to accompany him in the lawless West. He starts a newspaper and eventually takes up roles as the town’s unofficial sheriff, preacher and defense lawyer. He’s always pegged as full of valor, but his interaction with Sabra reveals him to be a reckless man. He abandons his wife and kids for years at a time to lead a new conquest, and Dix’s performance turns him into an un-ironic Charles Foster Kane and exhibitionist full of pomp and circumstance.
What holds up about both films is their bravado. “Cimarron” was taken very seriously in its day for working its way up through American history to the then modern day of 1930. Sabra starts the film as a stuffy socialite loathing her new Oklahoman home and spouting intolerance about Native Americans, but she demonstrates the most growth as history transforms her surroundings, becoming a congresswoman and recognizing the pride and ambition in Yancey’s vision for the new America all along.
It’s a good stretch of revisionist history, but the fact that the film is always changing tone on a whim is part of its problem. Many of the film’s women, most notably Tracy Wyatt (Edna May Oliver), come out looking terrible; they’re near parodies of themselves in their aghast, gossiping, disapproving glares and attitudes. Then there’s peculiar supporting characters who come and go, like a woman who stole a plot of land from Yancey in the opening chase, or Yancey’s stuttering newspaper printer. That’s not to mention the horribly offensive black servant child seen ogling watermelon and quite literally groveling at the feet of his white servant master. “That’s loyalty that money can’t buy,” Yancey proclaims.
The simple truth about both “Cimarron” and “Wings” is that neither has aged well. You can see the ambitions on display and why early audiences celebrated them, but these are films not just enamored with their own time but caught in it.