I recently spent two consecutive Saturdays in a sort of time machine, living the silent movie experience of 1927 — what seemed back then to be its culmination, but was in fact a final blaze of glory before the whole structure collapsed under the onslaught of talking pictures. The first Saturday (on March 31) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I never expect to repeat, but the second (on April 7) was one I can recreate for myself any time I want — and so can you.
First, on March 31, there was this:
Seeing Abel Gance’s Napoleon
as it was meant to be seen — with a live symphonic accompaniment and its climactic three-panel “Polyvision” sequence, including this Tricolor triptych — truly is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen it three times. The first time was Bastille Day (July 14) 1981, when just about everybody who was anybody in Hollywood — plus a hefty contingent of nobodies like me — crammed the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles to see Gance’s masterpiece and to hear Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine conduct his own score. That engagement was such a thundering triumph that Napoleon
and Coppola père
returned to the Shrine for nine days in December and January ’82, and I saw it again.
But this third time topped them both, and it came my way courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival
(SFSFF). The movie I saw at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre was an hour and 45 minutes longer than the one I saw at the Shrine in 1981 and ’82. Some of the extra time was additional footage, some the result of a proper running speed of 20 frames per second (the Shrine speed had been 24 fps).
The great Kevin Brownlow — on top of everything else he’s done — has made the restoration of Gance’s picture a lifelong project, ever since he first bought two 9.5mm reels as a teenager in the 1950s. His efforts have been tireless and positively superhuman. In his 1983 book on the subject
he lists no fewer than 19 different versions of Napoleon
, beginning with its April 1927 premiere at the Paris Opera (4 hours 5 minutes) and Gance’s so-called “definitive version” (9 hours 20 minutes) shown only twice the following month — through various re-edits and reissues, right down to Brownlow’s own 1983 reconstruction for the Cinematheque Francaise (5 hours 13 minutes). But Brownlow didn’t stop there; additional footage has continued to surface from time to time in the nearly 30 years since his book. The version screened in Oakland was assembled by Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury in 2000 for the British Film Institute and has never been shown outside Europe; these four screenings were the first in the U.S., and no others are contemplated. With the expense and time involved in hiring and rehearsing a live orchestra (to say nothing of, in the SFSFF’s case, bringing composer Carl Davis over to conduct the score in person), plus the technical demands of three synchronized projectors, Napoleon
is insanely expensive to present. The San Francisco Festival’s efforts in this regard were heroic to the point of foolhardiness: it cost more than their entire budget for a normal year, and even if they sold every one of the Paramount’s 3,100 seats (at $40-150 a pop), they would only break even. (They sold out, sure enough, at the screening I saw; I can’t speak for the other three. I stuffed some extra cash in the Festival’s donation jar in the lobby, saying, “It’s a noble thing you people are doing, and I know you’re taking a bath on it.” The attendant smiled and shrugged: “It’s the mission of the festival.”)
Well, God bless ’em for it.
Gance regarded Napoleon as a tragic hero, and he planned a biography in six installments that would take his protagonist from his early revolutionary fervor and triumph through growing tyranny and megalomania to final downfall. But the best-laid plans, you know: Gance blew his budget for all six pictures on the first one, and the rest were never made. Probably just as well in the long run; it makes it possible for the one he did make to end on an exultant note, with the conquest — oops! “revolutionary liberation” — of Italy. But it matters little whether or not you accept Gance’s historical analysis (personally, I don’t; I think Bonaparte was pretty much a Megalomaniac in Waiting from the word go, biding his time while the thugs and jackals of the Reign of Terror lopped each other’s heads off); Napoleon is still a sensual and emotional feast that makes the word “movie” sound too puny to contain it. Seeing it the way we saw it in Oakland was a rare privilege, and I’m telling you right now: If you ever hear of this picture coming to anyplace within a thousand miles of you, do not let this golden opportunity slip by, and do not imagine that it will ever come again. Hop a plane, book a hotel, rent a car, do whatever it takes.
UPDATE 11/16/2022: When I published this post in 2012, I closed this half of the post with an embedded YouTube clip of the Napoleon trailer prepared for the SFSFF. For reasons that have never been clearly explained to me, I’m no longer able to embed YouTube videos, and the link I had has gone dead — even though that trailer is still here on YouTube. For good measure, there’s also this trailer advertising Napoleon‘s release on DVD and Blu-ray (alas, only in Europe Region 2, incompatible with North American players). I direct your attention to those trailers. Whichever one you watch, be sure to take it full-screen; it’ll give you (just barely) an inkling.
* * *
Moving from the sublime to the merely first-rate, I come to my second time-machine excursion to 1927, on April 7:
My sister-in-law mentioned a while back that she was embarking on a project to see all the Oscar-winners for best picture that she hadn’t managed to catch up with over the years. First on her list, naturally enough, was Wings — the first (and until this year the only) silent movie to win the Oscar for best picture.
(Strictly speaking, that’s not exactly true. There was no actual “best picture” category that first year; what Wings won was “best production”. There was also “artistic quality of production”, which went to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. So in a sense you could say that that year — for the only time — there were really two best pictures. Frankly, I think this production/artistic-quality-of-production dichotomy might be worth bringing back.)
Anyhow, back to my sister-in-law’s see-all-the-best-pictures project. It so happened that I had just gotten the new Blu-ray restoration of Wings and had been looking for an excuse to host a screening of it. I urged her not to settle for Wings from Netflix. I learned last year at the Kansas Silent Film Festival that to see Wings on home video is one thing, but to see it projected on a large screen is to understand at last why it won the Oscar (something it has in common with both Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver!). I suggested she wait until I could screen it for her and my brother, she agreed, and the date we settled on was April 7.
I would venture to guess that in the transfer to home video, no silent picture — perhaps no picture, period
— has ever been as lovingly and carefully treated as Wings
; Paramount Home Video can be as proud of the transfer as they are of the picture itself, for both are justified.
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide gives Wings two-and-a-half stars, saying: “One of the most famous silent films is, alas, not one of the best, despite rose-colored memories.” I say it’s Leonard who needs a memory check; Wings is a whopping piece of entertainment, and it set the template for Oscar-winning best pictures, with only rare (and usually regrettable) exceptions, from that day to this: well-crafted crowd-pleasers rather than groundbreaking works of art.
While it’s no work of art, Wings is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and extraordinarily well-crafted. The craftsmanship is evident even in straight black-and-white silent prints like the one I saw in Topeka last year, but on Paramount’s Blu-ray it shines like a beacon. The source material was a dupe negative in the Paramount vault that had nevertheless suffered significant deterioration in 85 years and required a frame-by-frame digital repair. The result is…well, in the supplement documentary, Tom Burton of Technicolor Corp. says, “It’ll never be like Day One in 1927 seeing this release, but it cleaned up a great deal.” Indeed it did; Wings looks like it was shot last week, an impression enhanced by the surprisingly frequent use of telephoto and even zoom lenses.
Almost as important as that dupe negative, Paramount also had the original documentation for how the picture was to be tinted — both stock-tinting (amber, violet, sepia etc.) and the Handschiegel process (shown here), which added color to highlight flames, machine-gunfire and explosions; the documents specified exactly the shades to be used and the frames where every tint was to begin and end.
Paramount also had access to a single copy in the Library of Congress (perhaps the only copy in existence) of J.S. Zamecnik’s original score (well, substantially original — it incorporates numerous popular tunes of the World War I era, and the music for the flying scenes was cribbed from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Zamecnik was a usually anonymous studio musician who did yeoman work assembling Wings‘s music, particularly his main theme, which serves as a wistful love theme, a stirring march, or a soaring anthem, according to the needs of individual scenes.
Oscar-winner Ben Burtt recreated Wings
‘s sound effects. No, that’s not a misprint, and on the Blu-ray the sound effects aren’t an anachronism. Wings
was state-of-the-art in 1927 (although the art was changing faster than anybody realized at the time), and it originally played with a soundtrack for sound effects — explosions, machine guns, auto and airplane engines, things like that (music was nonstop and performed live, and of course there was no spoken dialogue). The original track still existed as a guide to when there should be sound and what would remain silent, and Burtt and his associate Dustin Cawood worked with the earliest sound libraries from the 1930s to keep the sounds as authentic as possible. (Even so, the Blu-ray’s 7.1 surround audio allowed Burtt to indulge in effects the sound technicians of 1927 could only dream of — planes roar up behind you and pass overhead before swooping into view on the screen.)
Wings is famous, even among people who’ve never seen it, for its scenes of aerial combat, and rightly so — they’re still breathtaking after 85 years and countless fighter-pilot movies, from Hell’s Angels to Top Gun. Wings invented the genre, only 24 years after Kitty Hawk, using aircraft that were little more than motorized kites. No process photography, certainly no CGI in those days; there was nothing for it but to strap the camera to a plane and get up there and fly around. (And remember, of all the people who saw Wings on its first run, probably not one in a thousand had ever been up in a plane; if these scenes are amazing now, how must they have looked in 1927?)
But even on the ground, Wings has some of the most spectacular battle scenes ever filmed, climaxing in director William Wellman’s recreation of the battle of St. Mihiel, the first major American offensive of the war (and one in which the U.S. Army Air Service played a significant role). With 19 cameras posted in trenches, in shell holes, and on towers all over the five-acre location, it’s a sight to see — in fact, I’ve seen some of this footage (uncredited) in a number of documentaries about World War I, and you probably have too.
Last but absolutely not least, Wings
young lady. Let me say this as plainly as I can: There was never a more charming and delightful movie star than Clara Bow. Plenty who were as
delightful, certainly, but none more so. Ever. (If you don’t know Clara’s work, Mantrap
 and It
[’27] are good places to start. For that matter, so is Wings
.) She was the hottest star in Hollywood in 1927 (in every sense of the word), so naturally she’s top-billed in Wings
, but it’s really a supporting role, almost a cameo; she plays the adoring, neglected girl next door who follows Buddy Rogers to France as a member of the Women’s Motor Corps.
When Buddy’s leave in Paris is cancelled but he’s too drunk to respond, Clara goes to fetch him, only to find he’s too drunk even to recognize her, and she must dress as the flapper her fans have come to expect, all to lure him away from a French demimondaine
with designs on him. (This scene also has Wellman’s most amazing non-combat shot, as the camera glides across table after table at the Folies Bergere, each with its own little drama going on: an angry woman tossing her drink in her lover’s face, a matron slipping cash to her gigolo, an adulterous couple nervously looking over their shoulders, even a pair of love-struck lesbians!)
In Silent Stars Jeanine Basinger describes Wings as “an epic war movie enclosing a small Clara Bow movie”, and that sums it up neatly. The structure of the story is Hollywood showmanship at its best; without interrupting the war story or making Bow look like a cornball play for the box-office, Paramount created a picture that absolutely everyone who went to movies would want to see.
They still would, and Leonard Maltin really needs to take another look. The review in his book dates back at least as far as the 1980 edition; I’ll bet it was based on watching a VHS tape on a 19-inch TV (Leonard himself may not even have written it). As Ben Burtt says, “I can’t imagine that audiences today would not get excited by seeing Wings.” But as I told my sister-in-law, you have to see it as large as possible; the screen in my home theater is 70 inches wide, and that’s really the bare minimum you need to appreciate it fully.
My screening that night certainly made my point. As the music swelled to its crescendo, the final end title faded out, and I brought up the lights, I said: “And that’s why it won the Oscar for best picture.” “No kidding!” somebody said.
For my brother, whose only experience of a silent movie had been an 8mm Blackhawk print of Laurel and Hardy’s Two Tars 46 years ago, Wings was a revelation. He told me, “You know, Jim, I thought this was just going to be a sort of archaeology lesson. I didn’t expect it to be…you know…a really good movie.” And the next day at an Easter backyard barbecue, I heard my sister-in-law telling her adult children about it. She too had half-expected to be impatient and a little bored with a silent movie, but she had an interesting take on it now: “After the first few minutes,” she said, “it simply never occurs to you that they’re not speaking.”
* * *
I have no doubt that I’ve seen Abel Gance’s Napoleon for the last time, and I’m completely fine with that; as I said, I’m lucky to have seen it as many times as I have. But Wings, thanks to Paramount Home Video, a 70-inch screen and an Epson Powerlite 6100 projector, is at my beck and call anytime, almost exactly as the audience saw it at New York’s Criterion Theatre on August 12, 1927.*
And as the saying goes, that ain’t chopped liver.
*Almost: The battle scenes were originally shown in widescreen “Magnascope” — a surprising link with Napoleon — but none of that footage has survived.