Wings (1927) - Planes Trains and Automobiles Blogathon


Today's post is directed to the planes part of the blogathon.
What can you say about William Wellman's 1927 epic Wings that has not already been said?  The first thing I can say is that if you have not yet seen the film, do your level best to make a way to see it.  Happily, a gorgeous restored print is available on DVD and blu-ray and, happier still, televisions are now large enough to do the film real justice for home viewing.  I would not hesitate to encourage and urge you to purchase the DVD or blu-ray and see the film for yourself on your 70" television.  It's a terrific film in so many ways and is absolutely part of what one would call the "canon."

Clara Bow, while she has really limited screen time in comparison to Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers, her billing and prominence in the publicity for the film make it very clear who was considered the STAR and selling point for the movie.  Which leads me to my take on Wings for this blogathon and my question as to what has not already been said?  In answer to that question, I'm going to tackle the lobby art and associated promotional materials for the film.

Other than the press and production announcements made in the trade magazines (which the general public would not have seen) the exhibitors would see announcements in the annuals issued by the studio up to a year in advance with (typically) a single page announcing cast, director and illustrated with mock-up art.  More often than not, many of the films announced in the campaign books would end up cast with a completely different set of actors, a different title, or sometimes the film announced was never made for whatever reason.

Two page spread from the campaign book for upcoming Paramount releases

The next thing the exhibitors would see would be the Press Book which gave them a chance to pull out pre-scripted press blurbs and choose the art (posters, lobby cards, window cards, heralds) to promote the film at the theater.  Here are a few pages from the pressbook for Wings.

Cover of the press book

Examples of the posters that the theater owner could order.  

The posters came in various sizes, 1-sheets, 6-sheets (center top and center 3rd row), 3-sheets and 24-sheet (or billboard size, bottom).  The 1-sheet in the upper right hand corner cost the theater owner .15 (cents), a rare surviving copy of this c-style 1-sheet auctioned in July 2005 for $63,250.00!  

$63,250.00!  Got one of these in your attic?

Wings, like Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 epic The Ten Commandments or Jame Cruze's The Covered Wagon, were considered "deluxe" or "super-productions." This meant more posters, more art and more tie-in material to publicize the film (and hopefully earn back and profit for the studio investment).  An average film would have two 1-sheet posters, a window card, one insert, one 3-sheet, one 6-sheet, a set of 8 lobby cards, 8-10 black and white stills, glass advertising slides and a herald (which were given away as freebies in the theaters to generate interest or "buzz" for an upcoming film).  Wings, as you can see, had multiple versions of a 1-sheet, 6-sheet and 24-sheet posters.  Of course, even this huge promotion was nothing compared to the materials made available for Lon Chaney's 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, the exhibitors had a choice from ten (!!) different 1-sheets and at least three 6-sheets.

Not one, but three choices for a billboard!
Other than buzz generated from blurbs in movie magazines such as Photoplay or Motion Picture, the first tangible evidence of the film your average movie goer would find, would be a herald.  Most heralds in the 1920s were simply gorgeous lithographed little works of art.  Multi-colored and very bright, they were designed to be attractive and enticing.  Once opened you would find the taglines and some photos to pique interest.  The rear side of the herald was usually entirely plain or with some decorative artwork in the corners, the purpose of which so the theater owner could stamp the date the film would be showing.  That way you would not forget to show up again next week!

Glass advertising slide, the blank portion was where the theater owner
would use a marker to indicate the days the film would be showing. 

Herald cover art

Herald center fold-out
What is really fascinating about the cover of the herald is seeing that Gary Cooper is billed on this art (and billed above Jobyna Ralston, who had more screen time than Cooper, and far less than Bow).  Cooper, now famously remembered for many films in his long career as a screen icon, at this time was just on the cusp of his big career and has mere moment of screen time.  Of course, those few moments are incredibly memorable.  This billing on the herald is a surprise!

Of course, in the silent era you would also see a trailer.  I have not been found that the original trailer from 1927 exists.  So here is the trailer that was created a few years back when Wings was released on DVD.  In 1927 there was no sound narration, naturally.

Once outside at the theater the movie goer, then as now, would see posters on display for the current film and for future releases.  Additionally, there was plenty of display area devoted to stills and lobby cards (often on sandwich board arrangements).  Lobby cards (11x14) were mostly in a set of eight cards (a "title card" and seven "scene cards").  Though, for prestige pictures like Orphans of the Storm or The Phantom of the Opera, larger sets were issued (10 and 12 cards). Quite often, the art on the "title card" was duplicated by the "half sheet" (22x28) poster.  Wings was not unique in having two sets of lobby cards.  This was more common in the Paramount films in the second half of the 1920s.  In addition to the regular set of 11x14 cards, there was also a second set known as "jumbo lobby cards." 

Title Card
Jumbo Lobby Cards

Jumbo Lobby Cards

Stills were also used to lured the patrons in.  Certainly not colorful like the lobby cards, the beautifully posed stills attracted fans of the stars.  These are but two examples.  These kind of portraits were also used liberally in the fan magazines.

A moody and pensive portrait of Richard Arlen (left) and
Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow which helped promote the film.

Once inside the theater, one could buy a program.  This was not typical of every film made in the silent era.  Much more common for the big prestige productions, like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Orphans of the Storm (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), Ben-Hur (1926), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Big Parade (1925) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924) to cite a few.  For .25 (cents) you could buy a deluxe program between 15-20 pages, with full color inserts, photos and the cast list and symopsis of the film.

Program Cover

Cast List

The text here can only be described as hoopla!

The movie goer could also find tie-in merchandise such as a novelization of the film, "photoplay editions" with stills sprinkled throughout.  The Wings edition has a deluxe binding with artwork on the endwraps as well as a dust jacket that mimics the film program.

Photoplay edition book

As we all know, silent films were never really silent.  Music was played in the theater, be it a piano, a small ensemble, a Wurlitzer pipe organ in the large movie palaces or, at a premiere a full orchestra playing a complete score.  For the average film, there was a guide for the musician(s) in the form of cue sheets with suggested themes for scenes and sequences in the film.  For many a film there was also a special theme song composed.  Naturally, if it was not recorded (and oftimes they were), you could purchase the sheet music at your local music shop.  The sheet music, in most cases, was published by houses that were also owned by the movie studios.  They had their fingers in every little financial pie!

Sheet Music
In the silent era, and on into the 1930's and 40's, the life of a film in the theater was fairly short.  Big pictures like Wings, had a much longer shelf life than the usual two to four days.  If the film was a monster hit, much like Douglas Fairbanks' 1922 film Robin Hood, the film played not only for weeks, but could run for months.  In the case of Fairbanks, Robin Hood played so long at Sid Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the streetcar conductors announced "all out for Robin Hood" at the scheduled stop instead of the street name.  The average films were released in the theaters for only a few days and then, forgotten.

With the coming of sound, most studios felt that the silent output was essentially worthless.  This mindset, along with accidents, fires and plain old lack of care led to the dearth of good prints of silent films to this day.  A huge percentage of the thousands of silent films made are lost with nary a frame surviving.  Almost none were considered worthy or of interest to movie goers now accustomed to sound films for a reissue.  There were, of course, exceptions.  Some silent films such as Ben-Hur, The Big Parade and Wings were reissued with recorded musical soundtracks.  In many cases, there were lines around he block to see these great films again.

1930's era window card for a sound reissue.

Paramount seemed to think the film was not exciting enough
to merely see it, you had to HEAR it, too.  Still, this is a fabulous poster!

The silent era is commonly regarded as the era where film was the universal language.  This is where you can get the idea of the popularity of a film or star like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino, and Clara Bow.  Pickford and Fairbanks were famously mobbed wherever they went while on their 1920 honeymoon.  The stars were known the world over and the studios had offices in practically every country from India (Paramount did have an office in Bombay), China, as well as our neighbors in Europe and South America.  Some of the artwork for the foreign issue posters were graphically amazing and more interesting than the U.S. issues.

Here is a beautiful full panel poster from France.
A 1930s era reissue from Japan

In foreign markets like China and Japan, for instance, silent films were still being produced well into the late 1930s.  Therefore, the market for American silent films was still very much in demand.  Many sound films did not see a release or re-release in Japan until long after the end of WWII.

Wings did have a much longer shelf life due to the fact it was awarded the first "Best Picture" Academy Award.  There were reissues even in the 1970s.

Mod poster for a 1970s era reissue

Now the film has come full circle and been treated to a really fantastic restoration and release for home viewing.

I love poster art, and hope that this has helped whet your appetite to seek out the film that inspired so much colorful art.  It's a classic and gives you the proper idea of what it was to sit in the theater and see a well made silent film.  Wings has hardly dated, except, perhaps patriotism is not what it used to be.  The themes of love, loyalty and heroism are all in there.  So is the horror of war and its toll.  Great cinematography combined with thrilling aerial footage and, of course, the delightful Clara Bow.  It's a great film.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Planes Trains and Automobiles Fall blogathon.  Please DO visit here for the lineup of fantastic blog posts!


I had no idea so many pieces were produced around one film. All of these pieces are gorgeous – I wanted one of each!

Thanks for posting this. Truly interesting bit of film history.
Caftan Woman said…
I knew a lot of work went into promotion, but not until your illuminating article did I realize just how much - and how enjoyable and interesting it all is.

Regarding re-issues of silent films. I have read that deep into the 1930s "The Big Parade" would sell out the legitimate theatre The Royal Alexandra for a week at a time. The audience knows what's what!
Anonymous said…
Fascinating post! Where did you find the press materials? I loved seeing the various posters and cards!
FlickChick said…
You are on fire with this blogathon!! I am just blown away by all of the lobby cards and promo information you've assembled.

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