As with the majority of Veronica Lake‘s work, I Wanted Wings has not received any DVD release. Thankfully, the fantastic Barbara of Reel Old Films offered to send me a complimentary DVD and this was the one I picked. I’m actually sad I picked this one, because it’s not the best movie, nor is it a perfect transfer, but considering that Lake’s filmography is lacking in any proper releases, true fans need to take what they can. I’ll pepper my review with a discussion of Reel Old Films’ DVD, but as for I Wanted Wings as a film; its pretty damn boring. The two-hour runtime is too long by over 40 minutes, and the script is inconsistent on what it wants to be. Is it a war drama? Is it a film noir? It tries to sandwich in both genres, which only succeeds in making the audience enjoy the noir and not anything preceding or following it. The film did nab a Special Effects Oscar for 1941, as well as giving Lake a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. For the latter, I’d say check this movie out. Lake, and a very young William Holden, are phenomenal and transcend the bloated, melodramatic work from other actors, like Ray Milland. If you do get a hold of this film, I’d say fast-forward to the Holden/Lake sections and enjoy.
Three Army Air Corp recruits find love and tragedy as they train to become top-notch pilots. Wealthy playboy Jeff Young (Milland) and sensitive Al Ludlow (Holden) end up falling for the same woman, a manipulative lounge singer named Sally (Lake); meanwhile, Young finds he’s drawn to a demure photographer (Constance Moore).
Coming out at the height of WWII, I Wanted Wings wears its patriotism as proudly as the American flag. The opening theme song is actually about the Army Air Corps, and an opening text scroll details the film utilized real airfields throughout production. I should admit, war films are not my thing. I’m not quite sure what it is, maybe it’s the abundance of talking whilst detailing maneuvers, but the plots feel tedious. Thankfully, many war films have big battle climaxes to keep the audience entertained. You have the ability to root for the hero because his life is truly on the line. That’s not the case with I Wanted Wings. The three cadets are training, and while death is a possibility in training, there’s never a fear that these characters will die. In fact, the one who does die has “Victim” tattooed on his head as proudly as that opening narration song. Furthermore, the movie opens with Young and Ludlow on trial for the death of Sally, so within the first minute you know that Lake is not long for this world. So, once you discover, within the first ten minutes, which characters are doomed to death there’s nothing to anticipate. There’s a few air crashes (that secured this film it’s Oscar nod), but they’re not as unique as what was done in Hell’s Angels or other superior war films of the time.
The air footage is miniature work (at one point you can see the strings holding up the mini-airplane). I’m not sure if it’s the limited budget, or the inability to control effects of the time, but there’s not much aerial footage. The actors are filmed inside cages made up to look like cockpits, and react to stuff that’s meant to be happening outside. We can’t see any of this (again, because director Mitchell Leisen doesn’t film outside the plane), so the actors are left to narrate what’s happening. It’s not exciting, and becomes laughable because for all we know they’re probably on the ground. It’s like telling me everyone in Gidget was really surfing; it’s that obvious. You never applaud the cadets’ accomplishments because you never see them doing any of them, defeating the purpose of the entire reason for this movie.
With that being said, I Wanted Wings is 90 minutes of an okay movie, and 135 minutes of an incredibly boring one. The film opens with Milland and Holden’s characters on trial, and the rest of the movie is told in subsequent flashbacks. That’s fine, but the movie forces us to watch 45 minutes of straight training footage. The three cadets arrive, go through their paces, meet a girl, talk, go through their paces, talk to the girl, talk to each other, etc. The plot doesn’t move or formulate till almost an hour in, as if the screenwriters forgot to add one. The characters’ dialogue feels more like whining about their inadequacies, making the viewer question why they’re even there if they hate it so much. The various tones and plotlines all feel haphazard, only brought forward if the story thinks it sounds good. Constance Moore is a nuisance as the photographer, Carolyn. She has a light banter with Milland, making you believe there’s a romance, and yet she shifts her focus to the idealistic Tom (Wayne Morris), only to have the film thrust her into that romance with Milland. Pick a man, sweetie! Similarly, Ludlow and Young are seen as rivals, only to have Ludlow marry Sally to save Young from an embarrassing situation. There’s little depth to their characters, and thus no need for consistency in their decisions.
Holden and Milland are good. Milland plays the typical rouge although it never feels believable. He’s not charming enough to have either lady eating out of the palm of his hand, nor is he arrogant enough to make him a hero worthy of redemption. He’s simply a character that you’re told to see as a rascally playboy, without him actually being one. Holden plays against type as a sensitive soul. He’s natural and exuberant in the role, but feels restrained when playing opposite Milland; almost as if the director knew Holden would overshadow Milland if given too much. Wayne Morris plays the dumb, idealistic Tom Cassidy (guess which one of these three men dies). He’s as American as apple pie, and what do you know, he plays football! Cassidy is a character born to die, and Morris doesn’t do anything with the role. He lumbers around, acting goofy, and I forgot his name every time I saw him.
I Wanted Wings could have been good (
with an edit) if it had focused on Holden and Veronica Lake. Lake doesn’t arrive till 57 minutes into the movie! She’s a lounge singer (Lake did not do her own singing) with a shady past. As with Holden, Lake feels uncomfortable opposite Milland. I vaguely recall her mentioning they didn’t get along, but I could be confused. She’s far more natural and easy-going with Holden. The problem is Lake is a femme fatale looking for a noir. She’s hardened and seductive, but we don’t understand why. Her relationship with Holden could have been filled with pathos and melodrama; instead, the climax has her revealing to Holden that she killed a man, and forcing him to help her. Where did that come from? How does that fit into a patriotic movie like this? Who knows, it’s just further proof the screenwriter has lost the plot. I would have loved to have seen their relationship (failing due to her career ambitions and his desire to fly) progress and end with her murdering a man leaving Holden to decide what to do. Instead, we get an overly long drama about a trio of guys who the script doesn’t care about.
Let me briefly mention the Reel Old Films DVD I received. These are not DVD quality transfers, let me state that now. Since these movies do not have proper DVD releases, and in many cases don’t have a VHS release, the transfers usually come from television recordings. This transfer is washed out due to the general lack of upkeep on the movie itself. The opening text is hard to read in parts. That’s not the fault of Reel Old Films, but simply a sad reminder that no one seems to be preserving these films at the studio. I did find it funny that this transfer included part of the opening introduction from the original recording. I had no idea AMC used to show old movies (as evidenced by the AMC logo in the corner) and the DVD included a bit of the host discussing the film à la Robert Osborne on TCM. The movie opens with the last remnants of this guy’s narration, and I’d actually love to know who the host of this was (maybe Barbara of Reel Old Films can tell me?) It’s a fun touch, especially if you’re like me and enjoy the history of television. The only irk with the DVD is that the movie abruptly cut to a fuzzy, black screen for two seconds (as if someone stopped the tape briefly). Nothing was lost in the movie, but it was loud and a shock to my system. Again, one really cannot complain considering the lack of any proper releases for these movies. The actual DVD came in a sturdy box with a nice cover as well as having the cover copied onto the DVD. The DVD is non-region so can play in any player, anywhere. I recommend checking out their site and seeing if there’s any hard to find movies you’d be interested in! Tell them Kristen sent you.
I Wanted Wings is sad because it fails to provide a strong war story worth watching. The acting is just passable, and the best characters aren’t given enough time to fully bloom. I would recommend this to fans of Veronica Lake or William Holden. Just be prepared to zone out a lot.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.