There has been renewed interest in and debate about silent movies with the release of "The Artist," the silent film about a silent-movie actor. But if you want to see a great example of silent moviemaking, look at the DVD and Blu-ray shelves.
Paramount is releasing "Wings" ($24.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray), the first film to win a best picture Oscar and the only silent movie ever to do so.
It has been carefully restored to replicate what it might have been like to see the movie in 1927, drawing on a rare negative in the studio's archives. The image has been color-tinted, mostly in a sepia shade, with flames and explosions even more sharply colored - all, according to Paramount, based on an old script and tinting notes from the period. In fact, a 1927 review of the film in the entertainment newspaper Variety praises some "deftly tinted" scenes.
It also boasts two audio tracks, one consisting of organ music like that used in some theaters, the other with a full orchestra and sound effects that would have been part of some presentations. The orchestral music was drawn from a score found in the Library of Congress.
And, as that musical effort would suggest, "Wings" was a big deal. Directed by William Wellman, its budget was about $2 million at a time when $1 million was huge. The Variety review alludes to its being a "road show" picture, presented in special screenings at a higher than usual price; for "Wings," that was $2 when the average ticket price was 25 cents. A road show was therefore a sort of movie event that had only been done half a dozen times before. (Previous road shows had included the epic "Birth of a Nation" and the silent versions of "The 10 Commandments" and "Ben-Hur.") Making it even more dramatic was the use of a process called Magnascope, in which the image expanded across an entire theater screen, engulfing the audience even more in the movie's aerial action. It also won the Oscar for engineering effects.
And what was all this effort serving? "An average tale," as Variety put it, about two young men (Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers) who become American fliers in World War I. But the story is really just the set-up for the flying sequences, including aerial combat, which are still impressive on standard DVD on a home-TV screen - even without the Magnascope effect. A Paramount rep said, "There is unfortunately no way to replicate that on DVD or Blu-ray (it could only be replicated if someone found an ancient Magnascope lens and projected the film using that lens in a theater)."
The color scheme is also interesting, although a change from the sepia tones to a shade that looked gray was startling; the Paramount rep explained the different color was a light lavender meant to indicate the scene was in the early morning.
The orchestral sound is dramatic and effective, although I am not sure the sound effects were useful, especially in a movie without spoken sound. The organ track omits the sound effects.
As for this being a silent movie, that may concern some audiences. Some British theatergoers reportedly complained when they discovered that "The Artist" was silent and in the old 4:3 screen ratio used in old movies (including "Wings") and many TV shows instead of the increasingly common widescreen format. But it did not take long to become accustomed to the pantomime and the intermittent screen cards with description and dialogue in "Wings," not least because the movie is so interesting on its own. It is long - about 2 hours and 20 minutes - and has some dull spots, but it's still one remarkable movie.
On the DVD, the lone extra is an entertaining 35-minute piece about the making of "Wings," and all the technical and studio battles that led to it. The Blu-ray adds two other pieces, one on the restoration of the film, the other about aeronautics in its day.