Prior to the Production Code (1930), LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. This set the stage for Wings which was directed by William A. Wellman in 1927 and featured what is considered the first gay kiss in an American film.
Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack and Dave, who compete for the affections of a beautiful girl before discovering the true love they feel for each other. While the relationship is referred to repeatedly as a friendship, the acting and directing of the film make it obvious that the men’s feelings were romantic. The storyline ends when one of the men is fatally injured. He dies in his lover’s arms after a passionate kiss. Despite the condemnation of gay men in society as a whole at this time period, the film is surprisingly respectful of love between the two characters (Denesi). The camera remains mostly still in a tight shot of Jack and Dave embracing as they share a final goodbye. Jack assures Dave as he nears death that nothing meant more to him than their relationship. A swell of romantic string instruments plays in the background as Jack mourns over Dave’s still body. The directing choices made by Wellman humanized both characters and allowed the audience to experience the tragedy without exploiting the perceived exoticness of a relationship between two men. This film is exemplary of many films featuring gay characters in the 1920s. Wellman escaped criticism over his inclusion of gay characters by very carefully walking the line between friends and lovers. To anyone not paying close attention, Jack and Dave could easily pass as close friends. The movie was incredibly well-received and was chosen as Best Picture for the 1927–1928 cycle. However, not all films featuring LGBT characters handled the issue as sensitively as Wings.
Wings is a 1927 American silent war film set during the First World War produced by Lucien Hubbard, directed by William A. Wellman and released by Paramount Pictures. It stars Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen. Gary Cooper appears in a small role which helped launch his career in Hollywood.
The film, a romantic action-war picture, was rewritten by scriptwriters Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton from a story by John Monk Saunders to accommodate Bow, Paramount’s biggest star at the time. Wellman was hired as he was the only director in Hollywood at the time who had World War I combat pilot experience, although Richard Arlen and John Monk Saunders had also served in the war as military aviators. The film was shot on location on a budget of $2 million (equivalent to $28.3 million in 2018) at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas between September 7, 1926 and April 7, 1927. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the United States Army Air Corps which were brought in for the filming and to provide assistance and supervision. Wellman extensively rehearsed the scenes for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel over ten days with some 3500 infantrymen on a battlefield made for the production on location. Although the cast and crew had much spare time during the filming because of weather delays, shooting conditions were intense, and Wellman frequently conflicted with the military officers brought in to supervise the picture.
Acclaimed for its technical prowess and realism upon release, the film became the yardstick against which future aviation films were measured, mainly because of its realistic air-combat sequences. It went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture at the first annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award ceremony in 1929, the only silent film to do so.[b] It also won the Academy Award for Best Engineering Effects (Roy Pomeroy). Wings was one of the first to show two men kissing, and also one of the first widely released films to show nudity. In 1997, Wings was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and the film was re-released to Cinemark theaters to coincide with the 85th Anniversary for a limited run in May 2012. The film was re-released again for its 90th anniversary in 2017. The Academy Film Archive preserved Wings in 2002.