Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot the café dolly shot in 1927’s Wings.
Set during World War I, the 1927 film Wings tells the story of two pilots from different socio-economic backgrounds who fall in love with the same woman. Beginning as romantic rivals, Jack (Charles Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) soon become fast friends and make a name for themselves in the fight against Imperial Germany. Meanwhile, hometown girl Mary (Clara Bow) joins the war effort, pining away after one of the boys. But her affections go unnoticed.
Wings was the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture. And to this day it is the only fully silent film to make off with the little golden man (sorry, 2011’s The Artist). If silent-era cinema is a little out of your comfort zone, Wings’ inaugural Oscar win may be all you know about the film. Which is a darn shame because if any silent film flies (pun intended) in the face of expectation, it’s Wings, a nudity-filled, action-packed, and emotionally intense portrait of male friendship and senseless wartime loss.
To boot, Wings also made off with another notable honor: the Academy Award for Best Engineering Effects. A far more ambiguous predecessor of today’s Best Visual Effects, the award vaguely gestured towards Wings’ technical achievement in convincingly dramatizing aerial dogfights and explosive trench warfare. And by “convincingly,” I of course mean “literally blowing up an on-location battlefield” and “filming actual pilots” in flight. This was 1927 after all.
Wait, did someone say camera? Because while I’m happy to lick the Academy’s boots for giving Wings its due, their failure to award, let alone nominate the film’s cinematographer, Harry Perry, is a crime I cannot forgive.
Case in point…
The dolly shot in Wings
After the film’s intermission, the two pilots go on leave as a reward for their heroics. As the title card (superimposed over the sultry silhouette of booze bottles) tells us: “and leave, with nerves strained to the breaking point by week on week of unceasing warfare in the skies, meant only one thing — Paris.”
The lads hit the city of lights and waste no time merry-making. “Paris in war-time,” a subsequent title card muses. “The capital of the world’s gayety crowded with soldiers of all races — on furlough from Death…trying to forget.”
Mary, now a first aid responder, attempts to locate the partying Jack who is celebrating so hard he might fail to clock in for the Big Push and face a court-martial. She finds him drunk as a skunk at the Folies Bergère (which still very much exists, for those curious).
Harry Perry’s camera is as delirious as the cabaret itself. And for all its riveting dogfights, this is the shot that has come to define Wings. In one continuous take, the camera hovers over and between rapt café patrons, pushing forward, over table after table. We pass through plumes of cigarette smoke, gentle caresses, lovers’ spats, until finally, we arrive at Jack, hypnotized by the bliss of free-flowing champagne.
It’s an unbroken, highly choreographed take that begs a lot of questions the first time you see it. Did the camera operator crawl over the tables? But then, if it was handheld, why does it look so steady? Did they attach a buzzsaw to the front of a dolly to cleave through each table? Did they nail a camera to a long-ass stick? How, in 1927, did they do that?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
The dolly shot in Wings was achieved with a special-built inverted rig hanging from an overhead rail.
Long story long:
When the Wings production returned to Paramount Studios, an indoor set stood in for the Folies Bergère. The remarkable café shot involved a specially constructed camera mount that was attached to an overhead track. This created the illusion of the camera floating at table level.
The vertical structure, which kind of looks like construction scaffolding, was supported by a rail that allowed the rig to move smoothly. A flat platform at the bottom of the structure supported the camera operator, E. Burton Steene, who lay on his stomach while he worked the Eyemo, a non-reflex, compact 35mm camera. The Eyemo was mounted on an extension below the boom. During each take, the camera would dolly-in from one end of the room to the other via the ceiling track. There was a plan to replicate the technique in a later scene with Rogers and Bow walking down a street. But Steene suffered a heart attack and the shot was ditched.
Now building an enormous camera rig for a single shot may seem like a lot. But it’s worth remembering that Perry was hot off a wild on-location aerial shoot. After you’ve pretty much invented strapping cameras to engine cowling, what’s a little ceiling-mounted camera rig?
If you watch carefully, you can clock the meticulous choreography of the extras. They appear to move closer to one another even when, in actuality, they are springing apart moments later to allow the camera to pass. I’m an especially big fan of the gentleman to Charles Rogers’ left. Watch him sneakily pull his champagne glass out of the approaching camera’s path.
In an unexpected twist, director William Wellman was not a fan of the “push” shot or its proliferation in other films. Wellman, as quoted in Kevin Brownlow The Parade’s Gone By, puts it like this:
“Camera movement I loved — and then I got awfully sick of it. I did the first big boom shot in Wings when the camera moved across the tables in the big French café set. Then everybody got on a boom, and both me and Jack Ford got right off. We both agreed we’d never use the thing again. There’s too much movement. It makes some people dizzy, it really does, and they become more conscious of the camera movement than they are of what the hell you’re photographing … I used to get some wonderful odd angles, but then everybody started odd angles — shooting through people’s navels.”
Quick side note: Wellman’s use of the word “boom” is pretty liberal and may simply mean “camera on a stick.” This isn’t necessarily an inaccurate use of the word boom. But it’s a bit confusing for those of us familiar with boom shots, which are vertical camera movements achieved via a counter-weight system and a crane or jib. The camera movement in the Wings shot being a horizontal push, Wellman’s use of the word “boom” should be taken with a grain of old-timey Hollywood salt.
Oh, and if Rogers’ amorous ogling of the champagne looks especially convincing get a load of this: According to David Stenn’s book Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, in the scene in which Jack gets drunk, Rogers’ intoxication was genuine. He was 22 years old with scant liquor experience. Supposedly all that champagne knocked the young actor on his butt.
What’s the precedent for the dolly shot in Wings?
Thanks to modern-day mounting equipment, like Steadicams and gimbals, tracking shots have become embedded in the language of film. You don’t have to look far to see the progression of the technology spearheaded in Wings. In Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, a long, elaborate tracking shot showcasing various degenerates eating scraps and gambling ends on a sign that reads “NO BEGGARS OR PEDDLARS.” A decade later, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane weaponized deep focus to create the appearance of a camera capable of passing through windows and iron gates.
But back in the 1920s, achieving complex moving shots was way easier said than done. To give an example, in the “Babylonian Story” chapter in D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance, aerial sequences were initially attempted by attaching a camera to a balloon. Adorable.
As far as anything in the way of a precedent to the Wings dolly shot goes, credit is due to innovative Canadian filmmaker Allan Dwan. He is widely recognized as pioneering the dolly shot in 1915’s David Harum, wherein a moving car was used to film an actor’s stroll.
While we are here, what is the difference between a dolly shot and a tracking shot? Well, simply put: a dolly shot is a kind of tracking shot that involves the apparatus known as “a dolly.” Tracking shots are so named because they (originally) involved laying track trails on a set, upon which a dolly-mounted camera could move through the space. In a dolly shot, the camera’s movement is not bound by the subject. Meanwhile, in a tracking shot, the camera follows a subject throughout the scene, keeping them in frame. Over time, tracking shots have gone off the rails, so to speak. These days, it’s easier to think of tracking shots as “keeping track” of their subject rather than being “on a track.”
Wings premiered the same year as the first feature-length talkie. Synchronized sound was standardized soon after. The innovation reset the incredible technical vocabulary of camerawork that had been pioneered up until that point. Because back then microphones didn’t move as easily as cameras could. Imagine what early cinematography could have become had it been untethered from sound recording equipment. Ah well, more champagne, please!