Whenever I hear the word “wings” I’m reminded of two classic TV comedy moments. The first is Carol Burnett and Madeline Kahn in a Eunice sketch rehearsing Mary, Queen of Scotland. Only Carol could make the line “Oh, mah lady, mah lady, you flah before me as on wangs!” into pure comic gold. The second is a typical Simpsons throwaway gem. In an episode from a very early season, the camera pans across the living room and you hear the TV announcer: “Tonight, on Wings…ah, who cares…” Pure genius. Now those two memories have been shot down by a new winged memory.
The 1927 silent film WINGS became the first Oscar winner for Best Picture. Starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Clara Bow, the World War I aerial drama told the story a couple of fresh-faced flying aces who go off to war, leaving the women who love them behind. The film became an unlikely hit and gave composer J.S. Zamecnik (pronounced ZAHM-mish-nik) his biggest project to date.
The name may not mean much to today’s film score fans. But along with Hugo Riesenfeld (another long forgotten name in the film music canon), Zamecnik (1872–1953) was the preeminent film composer of the silent era. Between 1931 and 1929, he released a total of nine folios of photoplay music for distribution to silent movie houses around the country. Now, thanks to the film restoration efforts of Paramount and the good folks at La-La Land Records, Zamecnik’s score for WINGS once again takes flight.
When it came time to restore the film, Jeannie Gayle Poole, a musicologist at Paramount in charge of the score restoration, went to Dominik Hauser to arrange and orchestrate the Zamecnik’s music. Using a conductor’s short score of two- and three-staves, it was up to Hauser to translate the period accompaniments and few instrumental directions in the printed music into a proper score that matched the restored film. Because of budget limitations, Hauser employed a technique he has used for his many reorchestrations on the BuySoundtrax label, combining acoustic instruments with MIDI files. Once you buy into the unique sound palette, Zamecnik’s score is a delight.
Zamecnik created a quartet of memorable, hummable melodies for his four main characters as well as a love theme (that was later released as the song “Wings”) that captures all the sweep and heartbreak of lovers separate by war. Zamecnik had planned on composing an entirely original score. But when the film’s premiere date got bumped up, the composer was given only four weeks to compose 150 minutes worth of music. Instead he followed the practice of the day, weaving his original melodies among snippets of classical melodies, popular tunes, and library cues of his own and other composers.
Because of the nature of the film, lengthy scenes that ran into each other required the combination of numerous cues. Among the most exciting moments in the film and score are the still-amazing aerial fights. Here, Zamecnik combines his original melodies and pre-existing cues with a superb use of Mendelssohn’s overture from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to create a top-flight musical sequence. Hauser adds percussion flourishes (there were no percussion markings in the score at all) to give the action cues a bit more contemporary resonance.
Poole and Hauser chose well when it came to selecting what to include on the album out of the 150-minute score. All the themes have their “pie in the sky” moments without overstaying their welcome. Mid-album, the sonic landscape breaks for a couple of cues utilizing more traditional silent movie piano music, expertly performed by Frederick Hodges.
Poole’s liner notes deliver a battle’s worth of fascinating details on the challenges and victories of restoring the score. All the library cues are properly attributed to the various composers in the notes and on the CD. They provide an interesting look at how silent film scores were constructed using multiple sources. Gaylord Carter created an organ score for the film’s VHS debut in the 1980s. This is the score most modern audiences are familiar with. Zamecnik’s score certainly bears a distinctive time stamp. But it also points the way toward the modern scoring techniques around the corner in the sound era.
If you encounter WINGS outside of watching the film, the acoustic/synth combo may be a bit off-putting at first. But don’t let that deter you from experiencing Zamecnik’s dramatic, melody-rich score. Bravo to Paramount, Poole, Hauser, La-La Land, and everyone involved. Here’s hoping more silent film scores receive the same loving treatment.