(director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: Hope Loring/Louis D. Lighton/from the story by John Monk Saunders; cinematographer: Harry Perry; editors: E. Lloyd Sheldon/Lucien Hubbard; music: J.S. Zamecnik; cast: Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwimpf), Richard Tucker (Air commander), Gary Cooper (Cadet White), Gunboat Smith (The pugilist sergeant); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lucien Hubbard; Paramount; 1927-silent)

“The first Oscar winner for Best Picture was also the only silent film to win the Oscar.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first Oscar winner for Best Picture was also the only silent film to win the Oscar. The World War I fighter pilot picture is the forerunner of today’s action blockbuster film. It’s written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, from the story by John Monk Saunders. It’s a straightforward cornball romance about love, duty and country. The power of the film is in the great aerial footage of dogfights and all its stirring action sequences as directed by the 29-year-old William A. Wellman (“Beau Geste”/”Ladies of the Mob”/”Legion of the Condemned”). These terrific authentic air battle scenes are derived from Wellman’s and Saunders’ own experiences with the Lafayette Flying Corps, and set forever in motion how such aerial battles were to be filmed.

It opens in an unnamed American small-town in 1917. Young auto fanatic Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) is in love with attractive visiting city girl Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who doesn’t have the stomach to tell him that she’s in love with the town’s wealthiest lad, David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). Jack’s nice girl next-door neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), has a crush on Jack that he somehow seems to be unaware of.

At the onset of WWI both Jack and David enlist as aviators and train together. After getting off to a bumpy start because of their interest in the same gal, they become bosom buddies and advance to combat duty as flyers. When stationed in France they meet up with Mary, who enlisted as an ambulance driver.

The tragic event of the film begins with David saving Jack from enemy fire during a dogfight, but getting shot down behind enemy lines and is presumed dead. Jack, on the next mission, to avenge his buddy’s death, makes a foolhardy solo raid on the Germans but somehow routs them. Meanwhile David steals a German plane to fly back to the base, but Jack mistakes his friend for the enemy and shoots him down. When they both land, David dies in his friend’s arms and Jack finds a love letter Sylvia has written David.

The epic classical film on early aviation, hero-worshiping these daring pioneer flyers, is dated, overlong, too sentimental, insignificant about saying anything much about war and too predictable. But, all the same, is highly watchable as an important historical film.

Gary Cooper has a bit part early on in his career as a cocky pilot who succumbs to an accidental plane mishap on a maneuver.

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