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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Wings Over Hooterville

In The Wake of Wings, Fans Received This When They Wrote
for Clara Bow's Autograph
I've got this swell idea for a sitcom episode. A rinky-dink town down South (my own perhaps) stages a forty-years late premiere of The Godfather, with guest stars Jimmy Caan and Al Pacino joining in nostalgic fun. We could recreate the kooky fashions and silly music like they had in 1972! Jim and Al could show up as if they were still big stars, but turn out to be nice guys and good sports. Everybody would get a laugh over this old movie Dad and Grand-folks thought was so great. We could all be glad too that movies have progressed so far as they have since The Godfather. We've even got 3-D now, something they never dreamed of!

Kinda Slow Uncle Joe's In Fast Company When Dick and Buddy Touch Down For 1968 Pixley Wings Premiere

A Picture So Big, The Ad Didn't Even
Have To Mention Clara Bow 
Some of you will remember the November 9, 1968 episode of Petticoat Junction simply called Wings. If not, go to You Tube and watch (in three parts) before Paramount legal pulls it down. This is the most remarkable souvenir of Wings that ever was, and would have made a fab extra on the just-released Blu-Ray. A lot of Wings' following have no idea this thing is out there. I'm aware because it was a big deal that CBS (school) night when otherwise labored Petticoat Junction followed up on Beverly Hillbillies conceit that deep South theatres were still back of conversion to sound and hopelessly stuck with relic movies the culture had grown out of. If only reality had been so! I could have sat in the Liberty watching London After Midnight and Heart Trouble while the rest of you had Angel In My Pocket and She-Devils On Wheels.

Dick and Buddy must have dined many a night on memories of Wings, but how many among Petticoat Junction viewers actually saw the 1927 (first) Best Picture winner past those around for initial release? For me at the time, there'd be no more exposure than seconds flashed on Pixley's Bijou screen. Better it was thought in 1968 to acknowledge "great old" silent pictures than sit through one, let alone offer up a Wings for network broadcast. I wonder how many runs Paramount licensed during the sixties (Films, Inc. had it available on 16mm non-theatrical by 1977). VHS and laser disc were years off, these formats a first modern (home) exposure for Wings, and now after a decade begging, fans are in receipt of Blu-Ray and likely a best presentation the air-epic will ever get. That's waiting longer than Pixley did, but for quality got here, a rewarding one.

I Went By Radio Shack and Asked For a Kolsterphone, But They Were Out

Could Paramount  piggy-back Wings into theatres  just off successful play of The Artist? Would satisfied patrons for that homage to silents come back for the real goods? I'd not call Wings silent, though. For music and effects Paramount has added, it's more of a sound movie than most talkies. My one-word review of this Blu-Ray is stunning, and that's 'nuff anyone need say for colossal result Para achieved. Just when you're ready to give up on these big congloms, along comes a job like this, distressed residue of Wings now within reach of digital healers to mend. Progress moves so fast in today's tech realm to keep us continually amazed. What Paramount did puts rise to speculation as to when other pre-talkers might roar back, trouble being sad fact few of them have the cache of Wings. It being Academy-anointed Best Picture of that first awarding year is primary reason we've got Blu-Ray possession now.

Director Bill Wellman Shuts Down For Wet Ground, But It Must Have Been Plenty Cold Too, If Dick Arlen's Fur Mittens Are Any Indication

Was a next generation of silent enthusiasts conceived by The Artist and theatres it filled? Should this one win 2011's Best Picture, there surely will be renewed interest in things non-talking, maybe not wide-encompassing, but well beyond closets the so-far micro-niche has been confined to. Before retreat into Greenbriar's shell, I ran silents to college attendance ... voluntary, not class-compulsory ... and these were among best-received of respective seasons (all within a last ten years). Again I cite a simplest rule: never, Never call them silent movies. Music and Effects is selling's most effective label. I'd challenge anyone to walk out of Wings calling it a silent movie. The next time I play the Blu-Ray will be as much to listen as watch (especially with the disc's two score option).

Buddy Rogers and The Guy Everyone Knew Would Be The Next Big Thing

How sales go on the Blu should be interesting. Will media support it now that The Artist makes pre-talk fashionable? This could be occasion for sheep leading us in a good direction. What if enthusiasm for (really) old movies suddenly became cool? To paraphrase Jerry Colonna, we can dream, can't we? Wings has lots to generate interest. Ancient aircraft (there are buffs for these nuttier than our community), battles fought by men instead of microchips (realism here is almost startling beside phony-baloney CGI), plus revelation for many of spellbinding Clara Bow. I loved Paramount's showman-like retrieve of the Handschiegl color effect (practiced writing that word down several times and bet I still got it wrong) used for dog-fight guns and spiraling planes. Here's a tip for whenever you play Wings or any WW1 aerial pic to a crowd: Just whisper "Guys got killed making this" before each combat. Never mind whether it's true so long as it perks 'em up, which it invariably does for my shows.


Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I am seeing THE ARTIST this afternoon and have the disc of WINGS to watch tonight. Here in Richmond, starting at least in the 1960's and well into the 1980's, WINGS was annually screened at the Byrd theater with live organ accompaniment. I am sure these were 35mm prints. So---there was at least one venue showing the film regularly. The Byrd organ actually has some sound effects built into it, so I know at least the sound of bullets was part of the show... maybe even some sort of airplane sounds as well. Short of a full orchestra, this was a pretty perfect way to see this film presented.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The folks behind the pedestrian soundtracks foer Kino's releases of silent films ought to spend a year or two studying the soundtrack for WINGS.

This presentation does it right.

Just imagine THE BIRTH OF A NATION suited out as this film has been instead of as the snorefest the Mont Alto Orchestra has turned it into. The music behind the riot scenes should have had us on the edge of our seat in terror (think of GONE WITH THE WIND with this sort of musical background instead of the thrilling score it has).

Not one of the scores created for the Criterion release of PANDORA'S BOX paid attention to what the film calls for.

I don't think the people who create these scores have ever actually watched a movie.

Kudos to Paramount for giving this great film the score it needed to make it fly.

They have really brought it to life.

WINGS soars.

If they take this approach with the rest of their silent library it would be thrilling.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Actually, there was a BEVERLY HILLBILLIES episode with Gloria Swanson that predates that PETTICOAT JUNCTION. The Clampetts think Swanson is broke and has to leave her mansion (she is merely selling things off for charity), so they say they will produce a new (silent) movie for her, letting her know that back in Hooterville, she is a big star and her pictures are blockbusters. So she does, and appears at the triumphant premiere.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous John said...

That "Petticoat Junction"/"Wings" episode aired about a month ago on ME-TV. I thought at the time that it would have been a wonderful bonus feature on the disc. Both Arlen and Rogers looked great and seemed to be having a great time. My copy of "Wings" arrived yesterday and I'll be watching it sometime this weekend.

1:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, Paul. I remember watching the Gloria Swanson episodes several years before "Petticoat Junction" did "Wings." Viewers by 1968 were well aware of Hooterville/Pixley's theatre policy, and belated runs of silent features there.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

What always impressed me about Buddy Rogers was how he arrived at the Oscars year after year, almost right up to the end of his life, looking like a million bucks. He and Arlen were on an episode of The Merv Griffin Show in the late '60s, too, and they were incredibly charming and funny.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Amen to all this; Paramount has really done itself proud with this Blu-ray of Wings. I especially liked the opening of the disc, cycling back in time through all the variations on the Paramount logo over the years, landing finally in 1927 for the feature itself; an audacious touch, and evidence of the care and thought lavished on the restoration.

I saw Wings at the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka last year, first time on a big screen -- and it was a revelation. To see it projected large is to understand at last why it won best picture -- that's something it has in common with Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver!. A TV screen, no matter the size, can't duplicate that. I can't wait to crank up my Epson projector for this Blu-ray, and I plan to have some friends over (if I have to drag them here myself!); they don't know the treat they have in store.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Joseph said...

There was a first season episode of HILLBILLIES that had the Clampetts returning home to the hills and enjoying a night out at the theater. The feature attraction? BEN HUR--silent version with accompaniment by Cousin Pearl, who made the occasion even more special with a song she'd written for the audience to perform as a singalong. Funny shows.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

John, I love your website, have read it avidly for years, but you have never performed a greater public service than letting us all know how to properly pronounce "Jobyna Ralston." I've been saying "Joe-buy-na" for years.

This is going to give me such cred among my film archivist buddies. Many many thanks.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

THE ARTIST, while amusing, is a silent movie for those who have never seen a real one. On the other hand, the WINGS disc, which I just watched, is the real thing. I fully agree with Mr. Hartt and would only hope more silent classics got treatment as fine as this.

10:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Griff e-mails in about "Wings" and "Petticoat Junction" ...


I am staggered by this post. I started to joke yesterday with someone that the ultimate extra on the WINGS blu-ray set would have been the Petticoat Junction episode in which Rogers and Arlen come to Hooterville for a belated local premiere of the picture... but I never got to finish talking about the show; my friend didn't believe me. Can someone out there rustle up a contemporaneous issue of TV Guide? The weekly did a nice little feature with photos on this rather special show.

The priceless meta notion of some modern sitcom doing a similarly themed episode using THE GODFATHER is very, very funny. I don't even mind that it makes me feel old. [I'd bet Francis Coppola would be willing to appear!]

Best regards,
-- Griff

7:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Paul Duca comments on "Petticoat Junction's" 11/9/68 broadcast night:

"Actually, John...November 9th, 1968 was a Saturday. The show ran at 9:30 PM ET there for its last three seasons, after four years in the Tuesday at 9:30 slot."

Like I said, Paul, it was a school night ... SUNDAY school.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Griff and John...I have a friend who owns a large collection of classic TV GUIDE issues. I asked him to check them out for the story on this PETTICOAT JUNCTION.

11:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot, Paul. I would love to see that.

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

My friend John doesn't have the Nov. 9-15 issue. It's a hot item on the collector circuit--Barbara Feldon in a wedding gown on the cover, to celebrate the marriage of Max and 99 on GET SMART (which may have been earlier that evening--it ran at 8 PM). He also doesn't have the ones for the week or two beforehand, just in case they pushed the Rogers/Arlen piece up for that reason.

I'll have to wait until I can get to a library to find out what film NBC SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES was debuting that night
(Wikipedia has the entire schedule for its first two seasons, but that's all I could get on Google).
I do know that Mike Douglas was the guest host on HOLLYWOOD PALACE that week.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

I think "The Artist" might do even more for Doug Fairbanks Sr., since the Fairbanksian hero is so appealing -- and audiences will find Doug's real films are snappier and funnier than the simulations within "The Artist."

I remember both the sitcom episodes -- plus another Beverly Hillbillies, where real-life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper campaigns to preserve a historic backlot. The Clampetts try to stir up support by using the sets to film their own silent western. Hopper sees their film, and personally bulldozes the western street set.

8:52 PM  
Blogger rockfish said...

That Bobbi-Jo flapper routine put starch in my Wings! You've connected the dots so well, from Godfather to Petticoat Junction and the Artist.
Thanks for another great post!

3:49 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Re: Dbenson's comment about THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES episode with Hedda Hopper.

One of the funniest of the entire nine year series.

First, Jed and Jethro, thinking Grauman's courtyard has been vandalized, fill in all the imprints with cement.

Then, they make a silent western with Jed portraying a Bill Hart-type named "Honest Jed" and Jethro as Valentino.

After seeing the film, Hedda hops aboard a bulldozer and destroys the western backlot.

And all that in 26 minutes.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

I found out the premiere NBC had opposite WINGS was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

In a blog filled with fabulous posts, you've hit a new high...

I remember both Petticoat and Hillbilly episodes in reruns, which I would watch avidly for the old movie bits.

Wings is a remarkable movie -- moving, stirring and honest. I like the artist fine, but as another commentor said, it's nothing like the real thing.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I remember an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where a discussion of movie stars comes up and Jed Clampett says something to the effect of..'Is he more popular than Bull Montana?" Now thats really knowing your silent film stars..

12:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer e-mails some thoughts about "The Artist" and silent films:

Dear John—

It is a lovely thought, that the success of The Artist might result in other silent movies being theatrically released again. I saw it again recently at a wonderful venue, the Ambler Theater in Ambler, Pennsylvania, which opened on October 31, 1928 with Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters. It is a Moorish-themed movie house once owned by the Warner Bros., that was refurbished about five years ago by the non-profit organization which now owns it. You could hardly want a better place to watch such a film, but I would have found The Artist a delight wherever I saw it. The curious thing is, however, that neither its director, Michel Hazanavicius, or its stars, the excellent Jean Dujardin and the adorable Berenice Bejo, enjoyed anything in the way of a reputation even suggesting that they were capable of this. Hazanavicious’ spy film spoofs were commercially successful enough to justify this project, but were otherwise unremarkable. Perhaps he and his stars simply found their metier in this film, or maybe there is something about telling a certain kind of story with images and music that finds such dynamic results, or in the use of black and white photography and the academy frame that lends itself to elegant and well-composed visual compositions. Certainly I’ve found that the silent film has had a way of opening doors and windows in my imagination and heart that most other art forms cannot. If this is so for others, as The Artist suggests that it is, then perhaps we will see other films follow it, telling new stories in an old way, or crisp prints of the classics of the past reissued, such as Wings or the best of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind, Murnau’s Sunrise, and on and on. Truly, we find ourselves living in an age of wonders. And since string theory and such concepts as “dark matter” now dominate the science of physics, it is inevitable that we will see the contra-comedies of Harry Langdon as well.

7:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One little thing I noted about "The Artist": People were picking up on fairly subtle details that would whip by in a sound film. The star's wife enjoys defacing his photo in magazines with mustaches and such -- even when her handiwork was barely in the frame it would register and get a laugh.

1:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Malcolm Stewart wrote:

A good article, but what was the Kolsterphone? Google has nothing except articles about hearing aides and the Greenbriar article.

Malcolm, I assume the Kolsterphone was another of those budget sound systems sold to theatres during the changeover. The only time I've come across it was on the vintage ad I included in the "Wings" post.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mark Kelly Hall said...

I just saw the film via Netflix on DVD. Very cool.

I'm related to Jobyna Ralston via my maternal grandmother; I'm pretty sure they were 2nd cousins (checking on it), and I have a pic of my grandmother's immediate family taken by Jobyna's mother (I'm pretty sure), c. 1900. The family connection was what got me interested in seeing it. (BTW, we're also related to the judge in the Scopes trial, John Raulston).

I know the little town Jobyna was from (South Pittsburg, TN--not a misspelling) has celebrated her and her career through the years. Just learned their newly-restored Princess Theatre will be showing some of Jobyna's films soon. I trust "Wings" will be included. Here's the time to visit, if anyone is inclined:

Add my thanks for the visual pronunciation guide--I was pronouncing her name correctly all the least I'm pretty sure!


11:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Mark --- it's great hearing from a Jobyna Ralston relation, and I was not aware of her Tennessee connection.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Here's hoping we're around to watch the 2052 sitcom that decides its locale needs to get its debut showing of THE ARTIST, and invites the Oscar-winning star and director to the ceremonies.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

HILLBILLIES played the silent connection from the first episode. ... after expressing a wish to meet Tom Mix and being told he was dead, Buddy Ebsen deadpans the line "Oh yeah... he did die at the end of that last picture...."

3:38 AM  

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