Classic Film Talk: ‘I Wanted Wings’ (1941)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

I Wanted Wings (1941)

Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Starring: Ray Milland, William Holden, Veronica Lake

 

Synopsis

Jefferson Young (Milland) is a pilot that is being tried in front of a military court as he is accused of not following proper protocol including going against regulations by carrying a woman passenger on an aircraft, whose lifeless body was found on the ground after an accidental plane crash. Young insists that he is at fault but his friend and fellow airman Al Ludlow (Holden) says otherwise, asking the court for a chance to explain the truth. We are taken by flashback to a year earlier when Young and Ludlow enlisted in the Air Corps to attain their pilot’s wings.  The two men end up sharing a room together along with another fellow, Tom Cassidy. During the 4-month training, they will learn to do such things as reading Morse code, learning scientific reasoning behind aerial manoeuvres, and practising with simulated flying sessions. In the beginning, Young and Cassidy do well while Ludlow struggled. Ludlow, who is heaving difficultly moving forward from a past relationship, is able to eventually overcome his problems.

During their first weekend leave from boot camp, they go to a club in San Antonio where they meet a beautiful singer named Sally Vaughn (Lake). Unbeknownst to Young, Sally and Ludlow once had a relationship that ended badly. Sally, who is aware of Young’s family’s wealth, sets her sights on him. One afternoon back at the base, a recruit named Masters crashes his plane. Before a fireball erupts, Ludlow rescues Masters while Young looks on without helping. Not being able to forgive his cowardice, Young goes AWOL and heads to the club where Sally works and gets extremely intoxicated. Despite them going to Sally’s place together for the night, Young ends up returning to the base with Ludlow’s help and resumes his relationship with war photographer Carolyn Bartlett. Sick and tired or being wronged by men, Sally threatens to blackmail him if he stops seeing her. Wanting to maintain his good reputation, Young continues to see her in secret even after getting engaged to Carolyn. Meanwhile, Ludlow remains wary of Sally but ends up coming to her aid after things go sour for good between her and Young.

 

Observations

There is something special that comes along with watching films that were made during the Second World War. An unmistakable ambiance permeates the screen and although you know the outcome, the stories and characters within hold your attention and, at times, capture your heart.

This film was an important object of propaganda because it both boosted American morale and, in particular, introduced the Army Air Corps for the first time to the viewing public. Although the U.S. had yet to start actively fighting in the war, many felt that eventual participation was on the horizon. I Wanted Wings is unlike most WWII-related movies that I have seen that take place in an affected country of conflict as a great number of them concern Europe. Here, we get a unique perspective of how the U.S. functioned at the beginning of the war and how big metropolitan areas would react/fare being under attack. Filming took place at actual Air Corps fields in San Antonio, Texas: Randolph Kelly and March Fields. In addition, the actors participated in real flights both for practise and during filming. The large majority of extras were active military personnel. The fact that I Wanted Wings takes place before the U.S.’s entry in the war gives us a chance to be introduced to some extraordinary characters. We are able to give our full attention to their emotional development throughout the course of the film. There are moments of action, such as when the recruits are flying and in the events towards the end of the film, but this is not solely a “blast the enemies” type of picture. (I once recommended that my father-in-law watch Mrs. Miniver, an award-winning WWII film set in England, and he was visibly disappointed that there were not more scenes of explosive, bloody conflict.)

Generously paced with a run-time of a little over two hours, the film allows you to become attached to the characters’ lives. Leonard Maltin, who was not so kind in his appraisal of the film, called the plot “stale” and accused it of being a vehicle solely to thrust Veronica Lake into the spotlight. In all respect to the gifted Mr. Maltin, I must disagree with him completely. There was never a moment that I found dull; in fact, I was anxious to see how certain situations would play-out and had a genuine care for everyone’s well-being. Moreover, I do not feel as if Lake were singled out in any way. She does not appear until about 45 minutes in, thereafter coming and going as the film progresses. Critics panned everything about her though the public reacted much more kindly. The only thing that I would change about the film is how references to pregnancy are communicated in the script. Due to the stringent Hays Code, use of the words pregnant and pregnancy were strictly forbidden. To get around that, Lake’s character proclaims “I am in trouble” in a scene before sinking to the ground. In following conversations, her condition is only obscurely hinted at and when the time comes to reveal her scheme, she admits that there never was a baby. The thing is that she would had to have been about 7-8 months pregnant at the time of her revelation and her appearance had not changed one bit. Holden’s answer of “I know that” is almost comedic as a result.

It seems that my appreciation is not aligned with the critical response to the film, as I thoroughly enjoyed I Wanted Wings and thought it to be a first rate film that I would easily recommend to others.

 

Golden Holden

William Holden as ‘Al Ludlow’

I Wanted Wings highlights one of Holden’s earlier performances, coming only two years after his remarkable debut in 1939’s Golden Boy and proving once more that he had a natural on-screen talent.  As Al Ludlow, Holden shows a lot of maturity yet remains an uncomplicated person who is still fragile over certain occurrences in his life. Ludlow is an extremely kind soul, sometimes to everyone but himself, taking on hardships to spare his beloved friends the burden. He eventually learns to overcome his privation, ultimately redeeming himself and finding his own happiness. Holden had wonderful chemistry with Milland as well as with Lake. What struck me the most about his portrayal of Ludlow was the comfort he displayed in front of the camera, holding his own as a lead. One would have believed that Holden had received top billing alongside Milland.

The other cast members were lovely and created a superb ensemble. Ray Milland gave a flawless performance though I was slightly off-put by his British accent. His character is supposed to come from an upper-class family but for that, a softer Mid-Atlantic accent would have been more appropriate. The stiffness/properness of Milland’s dialect makes Holden’s Ludlow, who has an All-American accent, much more accessible. Veronica Lake swept me off my feet with an amazing turn as a conniving floozy, playing her role with a great deal of passion and no barriers. She was only 18-years-old when making the film despite being physically built like a grown woman. Her silky, sultry voice and speech patterns were hypnotic and she was an absolute knock-out. It was nice to see her in a role where she was very forward with her behaviour, not playing a damsel in distress or a hesitant woman. Although I held no sympathy for her distasteful character, I admire Lake taking on the responsibility of portraying a marked woman.

Jeff & Sally

 

Trivia

  • Several of the characters pronounce Los Angeles with a hard ‘g’, as if they had a cowboy twang.
  • This was Veronica Lake’s featured debut, filmed right before the AFI 100 film Sullivan’s Travels.
  • Initially billed as a supporting player, modern databases credit Lake alongside Milland and Holden.
  • Lake reportedly had a bad reputation on-set and did not get along with some actors, including supporting player Brian Donlevy. Ironically enough, he would star alongside her a year later in 1942’s The Glass Key, one of her classic film noirs with Alan Ladd.

 

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