I’m going to take a break from posting about Wellman after this one and turn to other directors for a while… but first just wanted to say something about his movie focusing on aviation pioneers, Men with Wings, which stars Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Louise Campbell. Sadly this is another one of his that hardly anybody gets the chance to see, though it is hard to know quite why it has fallen into such obscurity. Made the year after A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred, it was another lavish early Technicolor production – but, where both of those famous films are available on a host of public domain DVDs and now also in properly restored prints on Blu-ray and DVD, Men with Wings has almost disappeared. I know it was recently shown during the Wellman festival at the Film Forum in New York, but I believe it is rarely if ever shown on TV, and it is only available to buy on bootleg DVDs, possibly of varying quality – the one I bought is fairly ropey, with badly washed out colour and a lot of noise on the soundtrack, but someone has posted the first 20 minutes or so on Youtube in a much more watchable print, where you can get a sense of what the colour should be like. Maybe the problem with its availability is that it was made by Paramount rather than Selznick’s company.
Even in a poor print, though, it is an enjoyable film and very characteristic of the director’s work, featuring the sort of buddy relationship between two pilots, complicated by a love triangle, which turns up time and again in Wellman’s movies, from Wings onwards. There is a lot of spectacular aviation footage and the film is beloved by aviation buffs because of the number of early and rare planes which it features. Some of the footage was reused many years later in Lafayette Escadrille, Wellman’s last movie.
The film starts with a sequence featuring the main characters as children, and foreshadowing later events, which is something Wellman did again in his next two films, Beau Geste and The Light That Failed. However, in this one the childhood section is much longer, showing the reasons why the heroine, Peggy Ranson and the two men in her life, Pat Falconer and Scott Barnes, all grow up with a passion for aviation.
Peggy’s father, Nick (Walter Abel) is a journalist on a sleepy smalltown publication who is so excited when he hears about the Wright Brothers that he packs up his job and goes into flying instead. Peggy and her two friends watch agog and try to imitate him, with an amusing scene where the two boys fly a giant kite and get Peggy to go up in it, getting stuck in a tree. However, the laughter turns to tragedy when Nick attempts a record-breaking flight. His plane crashes in a field straight after take-off and the pilot rolls clear of the wreckage but dies in his wife’s arms. The two young boys both offer comfort to Peggy and there are hints of how they will both grow up to love her. The young Pat is played by future musical star Donald O’Connor, who also plays the young Beau in Beau Geste.
As adults, Pat and Scott are still both obsessed with aviation, with Scott designing an aircraft which the two of them build on the cheap, helped by Peggy – who encourages and works with them despite her memories of her father’s death. A businessman backs the two young men to build their aircraft commercially, but, when the First World War breaks out, Pat (MacMurray) impulsively runs off to France to join the Lafayette Flying Corps. His character is clearly modelled on Wellman, as he becomes famed for his exploits, just as flying ace “Wild Bill” was in real life. Scott (Milland) and Peggy (Campbell) both later serve too, Scott as a fellow-pilot and Peggy as an ambulance driver.
Pat and Peggy first fall in love during a trademark Wellman rainstorm, and marry when they meet up in France, but, after the war, the self-destructive pilot can’t settle down to civilian life and is soon running off to serve in other conflicts around the world with a group of friends, while she waits at home. Pat is also out drinking when she gives birth to their daughter, Patricia, while Scott is the one who is there to give support at the hospital. All three main characters are portrayed sympathetically, and Pat has a couple of brief, moving scenes where he tells Peggy how he would love to settle down but just can’t – while she shows that she understands and accepts him, but she doesn’t come across as a doormat, has a sense of humour and gets on with her own life while he is away. However, I think the most sympathetic character is Scott, who has to stay silent about his own love for Peggy and goes through the years watching over his loved one with no hope of her ever returning his affection. Milland is excellent in the role and, even though he gets second billing to MacMurray, who is also good, I’d have to say that to me Milland is really the main male star of this film. I think he also has more screen time and it seems to be easier to find publicity shots of him for the movie.
Just going over the romance plot doesn’t really give the flavour of this film, though. It has sharp, witty dialogue by Robert Carson, Wellman’s co-writer on A Star Is Born, and gives an amusing/satirical portrait of a smalltown newspaper where the editor doesn’t want to mention the assassination of the Archduke which started the First World War because it didn’t happen in his circulation area! It also has a lot of good supporting performances, including one from regular Wellman character actor Andy Devine as Joe Gibbs, Scott’s comic but poignant sidekick, who watches over him rather as he watches over Peggy. Above all, the film focuses on the early days of aviation and it has some truly breathtaking stunt sequences (TCM’s notes on the film say that 20 stunt pilots worked on this production), as well as more down to earth moments in the aircraft factory.
I’m going to discuss the ending in this next bit.
As Pat heads off to a succession of wars, it becomes increasingly obvious that he probably won’t get out of this film alive. And he doesn’t – dying heroically during “one last mission” in China. The film ends with Peggy and Scott bravely going along to a company anniversary celebration, where Peggy pays tribute to her husband’s courage – and, implicitly, to that of all pilots. I was slightly startled to note that this final scene reworks the famous ending of A Star Is Born, as Scott introduces Peggy by saying “This is Mrs Patrick Falconer”. Since she isn’t famous under her maiden name, it doesn’t have quite the same shock as “This is Mrs Norman Maine”, but it does have a different type of poignancy because it is a man who loves Peggy saying it, and speaking her married name for the first time in the film.
Moving though this ending is, however, it seems it may not have been the one Wellman and Carson originally wanted. TCM’s notes say: “The plot synopsis in the pressbook ends with “Pat” returning from China for the company anniversary celebration. After he sees “Scott,” “Peggy” and “Patricia” together, he sacrifices his own happiness for theirs, and leaves unnoticed. According to an article in New York Times, Paramount rewrote the end of the film at the request of the U.S. government, in order to “eliminate the note of pacifism on which the picture had intended to end.” The article notes that at the celebration, Peggy speaks against the use of airplanes for the purposes of war. Modern sources dispute that the government was involved in the decision.”
It would be interesting to know more about these changes and whether any alternative footage was actually shot – but, anyway, I’m glad to have seen this film, and hope one day to see it in a decent print!