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Friday, November 28, 2014

A Good One Just Released On DVD

Above and Below Are Frame Captures From Uni's DVD

Wellman's Men With Wings (1938) from Universal Vault

Men With Wings is out on DVD (from Universal's Vault series) and it's a honey. The transfer looks recent, and color is rich. This is a show that has been out of circulation for years. Last night was a first time seeing it for me. Men With Wings was very much intended as a special, 1938's "cavalcade" of aviation from Kitty Hawk to then-latest advance in flight. Who but William A. Wellman, creator of Wings, to sell so mighty a saga? That it wouldn't quite click as intended was fault of flimsy scripting, not Wellman air supremacy for a first time displayed in color. For footage of vintage planes alone, Men With Wings soars (trite phrase that, but necessary to convey GPS enthusiasm for this disc). So why doesn't MWW rank at top among Wellmans? Being about his Topic A, and a virtual revue w/ planes for chorus line, Men With Wings should have been fullest statement of WW re flight, but he'd not mention the show in his memoir, and career coverage by others is largely silent. Was Men With Wings better left buried? I'll look forward to reappraisals now that we have this rarity back in quality circulation.

Maybe I'm badly off the beam, but something here smacks of studio interfering with director intent. Fact that Wellman stayed off subject of Men With Wings in later interviewing suggests he was unhappy with concept and outcome. Had overseeing Paramount leaned too hard on the producer/director? His dual credit implies greater control, but it wasn't absolute, especially with reported two million spent on this most ambitious of Para projects for 1938. Association with Wings lent Wellman cache he'd enjoy for remainder of a career and lifetime. Had less money been poured on Men With Wings, his might have been a firmer helm, but maybe I'm attributing too much weakness of the film to (presumed) meddling others. Possibly it was Wellman that goofed by hanging his epic in wobbly frame of three-cornered romance involving Fred MacMurray, Louise Campbell, and Ray Milland. Love triangles had been fallback for this director before, would be again, but that's blame we must in fairness assign to all Classic Era makers, as how could wider audiences be drawn to mere take-off, landing of aircraft, no matter how arresting, or in this case, colorful?

As with all rivalries of the heart, one must win, the other lose. H'wood convention being what it was, conclusions are foregone along heart interest line, our patience possibly less than that of 1938 critics who aimed arrow of sarcasm at soft targets MacMurray/Campbell (him the irresponsible pilot she can't help loving) and "doglike" Milland, who'll love from afar as temples gray among the three. "Starmaker" Wellman was credited at the time for discovering Louise Campbell, who'd go from here to mostly B's, then early retirement. Could it have been her voice reminiscent of Gracie Allen's that stalled Campbell? Best of "breathless story" that is Men With Wings is recreation of key flight between the Wright Bros. and eve of a war that planes would be crucial in winning. Four months was allegedly spent just shooting the aerial stuff. It was first time for movies going aloft in Technicolor, and heady was sight of red smoke belching from wounded craft during dogfight staged by Wellman for a WWI segment, this footage strong enough for the director to borrow for stock in his twenty-years' later Lafayette Escadrille.

Never Mind Models. Some Kids Home-Built Airplanes For Real

Lately It's Garage Bands. Back Then
It Was Garage Planes.
Aviation was a national craze before and after the Lindbergh flight. People built planes in garages. I knew an old-timer who in boyhood constructed a single-seater and flew it around his neighborhood, beyond belief but for picture he had of himself and dog companion preparing to lift off. Men With Wings captures this state of mind beautifully. In a first scene, news reporter Walter Abel quits his job to design a home craft after witnessing Kitty Hawk. Kids that will grow to be MacMurray/Campbell/Milland fly first in an oversized kite, then learn science of powered flight to get their own bi-plane off the ground. Not a few youngsters then wore goggles to school, and many more enlisted for WWI (like MacMurray in Men With Wings) to get in on air action.  William Wellman, a combat flyer himself, said excitement off the ground was like a drug, particularly that of life-risk nature. He captures all through dogfight, then test piloting, portions of Men With Wings. It's happy surprise and event to have this long-lost flight make DVD-landing, fact that it's a visual beaut like happy extra in holiday viewer stockings.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer ID's planes used in "Men With Wings" and considers hazard of Technicolor in the air:

William Wellman was a combat flyer with the Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I, credited with three "kills" and five "probables" and receiving the Croix de Guerre with two palms. His war record was achieved during three furious months between joining N. 87 escadrille on December 3, 1917 and being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on March 21, 1918. He was invalided out of the service and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

The biplanes in stepped echelon in the frame enlargement are Boeing P-12s, a type used by the United States Air Corps as a first line pursuit plane from 1929 through 1934. It was rugged, maneuverable, and had a top speed of 189 miles an hour. By the time "Men With Wings" was made, it was still being used as an advanced trainer and would have been readily available for filming. By 1941, the remainder would have been scrapped or sent to mechanics' schools.

It's interesting that an aviation film would have been filmed in Technicolor at this time. Warner Bros. made "Dive Bomber" three years later with the process, but had the advantage of Technicolor's monpak system, which allowed relatively lightweight cameras to be used for the aerial sequences. "Men With Wings" would have had to have used the heavy and cumbersome three-strip cameras of the Process 4 system. There were only a small number of those cameras available then, and I can only imagine the cost of the insurance policy that would have been purchased to cover some of them being taken aloft to film dog fights.

3:33 AM  

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