For more than 80 years, WINGS was considered the only silent film to have won an Academy Award for Best Picture. It now shares that distinction with THE ARTIST, a fact which irks many fans of silent cinema who don’t consider Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 release to be truly silent.
But what if somebody added a whole bunch of sound effects to William Wellman’s 1927 saga of World War I flying aces, and processed those effects in “exciting” Surround Sound to appeal to modern audiences? Under those circumstances, should it still be considered a silent film?
This is the dilemma facing viewers of the stunning new restoration of WINGS, the 1929 Oscar winner for “Outstanding Picture.” (F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE was also recognized that year, for “Unique and Artistic Production.” A single Best Picture award began with the second ceremony, in 1930).
Once considered a lost film, WINGS now looks better than ever, thanks to a $700,000 restoration by Paramount Pictures, in honor of the studio’s 100th anniversary. Paramount used state of the art digital technology to clean up heavily compromised source material – a dupe negative struck in the ’50s from a deteriorating nitrate print – and released the film on DVD and Blu-ray in January. And, in an almost unheard of turn of events, this 85-year-old movie was distributed to dozens of multiplex theaters in the Cinemark chain for special “one night only” engagements in May, where it battled THE AVENGERS for the attention of summertime moviegoers.
I saw the restored WINGS in February at Film Forum in New York City in a DCP “print” (via a 4k projector) and have since watched the Blu-ray at home on a 52″ plasma monitor. In both cases the film looked essentially flawless. But not only does the restoration of WINGS look amazing, it sounds amazing. And therein lies my discomfort.
In 1927, composer J. S. Zamecnik scored the film with a mix of original composition and, as was typical for silent movies, recognizable “samples” from popular and classical music. Zamecnik’s score was provided to local theaters in sheet music form for the roadshow release of the film, and a paper copy of it is on record at the Library of Congress. That original score has been re-orchestrated for the restoration by Dominik Hauser and performed by a full orchestra, with Frederick Hodges on piano.
As Hodges explains in a special feature on the Blu-ray, the only extant version of Zamecnik’s score is for a film 14 reels in duration, but WINGS was edited down to 13 reels after the first test screening, just prior to nationwide release. This left Hauser and Hodges with a certain amount of creative leeway in tweaking the orchestration, which I have no problem with. It’s still the composer’s work, enacted as the composer intended, with minor adjustment.
What I do take issue with is the extensive use of sound effects in the restoration. Whirring propellers, exploding bombs, punches, falls, and all manner of audio augmentation (in DTS-HD 5.1 Surround Sound) are featured prominently throughout the film, resulting in an oddly modern, un-silent-film viewing experience. For me, the relentlessness of the effects distracted from the emotional power of the narrative, and called attention to the lack of spoken dialogue in a manner that left this great film feeling flawed and incomplete. This is a common complaint about the art form from silent film haters, but it’s an opinion I have never shared – until I watched the restoration of WINGS.
During a question and answer session following the Film Forum screening, Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (who supervised the effects work on the restoration) told me that Zamecnik’s original orchestration included references to moments where audio effects should supplement the music, or supercede it.
“It says, ‘Stop playing here. Stage effects take over’ or ‘Weird whistle here for falling plane,’” Burtt said. “(Some) venues did it like a radio show, using machines to imitate the sounds. (Others) started doing it on disc. They had a bunch of turntables with pre-recorded sounds and people were cuing it up. In making the decision where to put sound, or what sounds to put, we read all the reviews we could about the sound, what things were mentioned, and we tried to cover those things.”
I followed up with a question I thought everyone in the room should be asking: “So, is WINGS still a silent film?”
A few audience members groaned, and I think one actually hissed, as if I was a mustache-twirling villain about to tie our hero to the tracks. William Wellman Jr., the featured guest at the screening – Burtt only joined the Q&A when I asked about the effects – glared at me with impatience, preferring, it seemed, to talk about his new book on his father’s classic. But I was undaunted. And Burtt seemed to understand where I was coming from.
“Was there ever a silent film?” he answered, chuckling. “I would say it’s a non-talking film. It’s at the crossover point (between silents and talkies).”
At that point, Mr. Wellman Jr. regained control of the event, and the conversation returned to questions of a more reverent nature. But after the screening I cornered Burtt in the lobby and continued my interrogation.
“Hello again,” I said politely, trying my best not to look like a revival house weirdo. “Thanks for answering my questions.”
“Okay,” he replied, with a friendly chuckle. “I didn’t know whether I was going in the right direction in the answer or not…”
I assured him that he was, and referenced the “is it silent or is it not?” debate amongst old movie buffs regarding THE ARTIST. For the record, while I love the film and appreciate all it’s done to increase awareness of the silent era, I don’t consider THE ARTIST a “silent film,” any more than I consider DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982) a “Humphrey Bogart film.”
“What was the intention at the time, dramatically?” Burtt said to me. “We wrestled with that a lot, because there was (live) sound in every venue (during the original theatrical release).”
I continued. “But was there ever an officially sanctioned sync print that went out with sync effects that Wellman himself supervised?”
“There was a sync version that eventually went out,” Burtt replied. “But it’s lost to us, at least thus far.”
“Did he supervise the creation or placement of the sound effects for that version?”
“We’ll never know,” Burtt said. “Probably not. He was probably long gone by that time.”
“It’s partially forensics, what you’re doing,” I replied, sensing it was time to play myself off (before security was summoned).
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s archeology.”
The trailer for WINGS on Blu-ray. Note the narrator’s reference to “exciting Surround Sound” – an odd way to promote a silent film.
I have unequivocal admiration for Ben Burtt. His Oscar for STAR WARS (1977) was well-deserved, and his work on the original trilogy was the soundtrack to my childhood. I also respect his desire to recreate what audiences in 1927-29 experienced at the movie theater, and I acknowledge that he did this work with the enthusiastic approval of the director’s son.
“He probably would have said, ‘Goddamnnit, that’s the way I wanted that picture!'” Wellman Jr. hypothetically quotes his father as saying – if he had lived to see the restoration – in an interview on the Blu-ray.
But, Wellman Sr. didn’t live to see the restoration. He died in 1975. And, regardless of what his son says, if the director didn’t select the effects and supervise their placement, they shouldn’t be such an overwhelming part of what is now the definitive version of the film. Or, at the very least, there should be a title card before the movie explaining that the new soundtrack is not definitive, and is “meant to evoke the live sound effects that accompanied the film in many venues during WINGS’ original run.” This would be the equivalent of the “this film has been modified from its original version” disclaimers that often precede pan-and-scan or edited films on TV.
Perhaps foreseeing this debate, Paramount has included an alterate audio track on the WINGS Blu-ray with the organ score composed and performed by noted silent film accompanist Gaylord Carter for Paramount’s 1985 VHS and laser disc release. Compared to Zamecnik’s jaunty compositions, Carter’s Wurlitzer accompaniment seems occasionally lugubrious, though the lack of jarring effects does create a more “silent” feel, at least for me.
Sadly, Zamecnik’s score without effects is not offered as an option on the Blu-ray. This is unfortunate, because the music is infectious – particularly the majestic title theme, which appears to have influenced anyone who has ever scored a Superman TV show, movie or cartoon.
After seeing WINGS live at Film Forum and watching both versions (orchestral and organ score) on the Blu-ray, I saw it again recently at the (relatively) new Brooklyn gastro-theater Nitehawk Cinema with live accompaniment by Bradford Reed (from the avant-garde band King Missile) and Geoff Gersh.
When I first heard of the screening, I wondered (on Twitter) how Reed and Gersh would “accompany” a film with a soundtrack. The Nitehawk account quickly replied to my tweet: “Our live music presentation for WINGS features the bands’ own score, recorded score will be muted when needed.”
Having seen the live performance, I can report that this explanation was not entirely accurate. The duo did perform their own live score, flanking the screen in the small auditorium, with Gersh on electric guitar and Reed on percussion and a homemade string instrument he calls a pencilina. But no portion of the restored soundtrack was used at any time. This was a relief, because I feared that imprecise integration would be distracting.
In fact, I found this accompaniment to be far less distracting, because of the lack of literal sound effects. The early sequence of the film, before the characters go off to a war from which not all will return, was mournful and portentous, in brilliant juxtaposition to the youthful glee Wellman establishes in the performances. In contrast, the enlistment and training sequence was upbeat and driven by martial snare drums, reflecting the enthusiasm of the young men as they begin the journey of heroes. The battle sequences were striking, with hard drum hits and musical cacophony perfectly illustrating explosions and the madness of battle.
Paramount and Ben Burtt may not be happy to hear this, but Reed and Gersh’s live performance was the best WINGS accompaniment I’ve heard yet. With the powerful performances and majestic staging allowed to re-take center stage, I found myself moved in a way that I have not been by other versions. And the live nature of the sound made it feel far more like an actual silent film experience than any digital effects track ever will.
I don’t know if Reed and Gersh will be accompanying the film elsewhere, but if they do, and you have a chance to see it, you should go. As I sat there watching Reed bang on bells, smack a snare and twang the strings of his pencilina all at the same time, I thought to myself, “I bet William Wellman would love this.”
Of course, I don’t know what Wellman would actually say today any better than his son does. I imagine he’d just be happy that a film he worked so hard to make is being enjoyed again by modern audiences. I know I am. I would never have seen WINGS without this restoration, and I’m sure there are many others in the same situation.
Sadly, According to Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount, the studio has yet to recoup their investment on the restoration, which doesn’t bode well for other labor intensive clean-ups of silent titles, particularly as the market for physical media continues to vinegarize.
This is unfortunate. Because, despite my mixed feelings, I firmly believe that anyone who loves classic film should have a copy of WINGS on the shelf. I’m glad I do.