Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Wings" (1927)

Scene from Wings
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director:  William A. Wellman
Written By: John Monk Sanders (story), Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton (screenplay), Julian Johnson (titles), Byron Morgan (story idea)  
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen 
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 144 minutes

Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Picture
-Best Engineering Effects

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Racket
-Seventh Heaven

And the winner is...

Welcome to ground zero of The Academy Awards. In 1927, this is where things all started. With 12 categories presented, the award started off its lasting impact by soaring to the skies. The opening title cards of the first ever winner, director William A. Wellman's Wings, spoke of desire to fly into the sky and dream of something greater. It was a perfect summary of the first (and to date only) fully silent film and the concept of the award in general. With expansive scenery, a cameo by future star Gary Cooper, and rumors of exploitation, this was a Best Picture that started things off on a fantastic foot. It looked to the skies and made us dare to dream. In the 88 years since, things have only gone into more wondrous directions.

The idea for Wings came from Byron Morgan, who remained uncredited on the final film. He sold the rights of his many ideas to the Famous Players Lasky Corporation for $37,500 in 1925 and 1926. When the film went into production, it felt key to get the help of Wellman, who was hired by producer Lucien Hubbard because Wellman had experience as a combat pilot and served in France, even having reported three kills. Other former pilots on staff included writer John Monk Sanders and Richard Arlen. That is why he felt certain details had to be very specific. For starters, the film was delayed with shooting aerial photography because their location in Texas wasn't cloudy. He made the argument that without clouds, it would just look like flies in the air. He also had soldiers from Corpus Christi, TX help out with the filming as extras and taught many of the actors to fly planes. The military also donated millions of dollars of outfits and equipment for the shoot.

The film was rather innovative with how it filmed its aerial battles. When it was called upon for the many aerial battles to be filmed, the crew would strap cameras to the bottom and have operators hide in the back seat as they flew around. In one case, there were hundreds of extras flying planes and battling on the ground as massive explosions went off. Somehow, this only resulted in one injury and one death due to plane issues. The death was judged to be the pilot's fault and not the director's, which kept production on schedule. In the case of this battle, Wellman had orchestrated it over the course of 10 days. It featured 60 planes and 3,500 extras. The score was written entirely on a Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

The film also had a lot of firsts beyond the Oscars. It featured the first male-on-male kiss between, which was more fraternal than romantic. The film also is considered one of the first to have product placement. Finally, the film features very briefly some of the first male and female (though not sexual) nudity to be featured in a mainstream film. The latter was a deliberate move by Paramount to exploit star Clara Bow, who believed that she was more an accessory than a performer in the film. While seen mostly from the back, Bow was seen in one momentary shot from the front. She was also one of the few vocal about the uniforms. She didn't like that her outfit hid her curves and demanded that this be changed. As compromise, she was given a belt.

The Oscars, as to be expected, were vastly different from the modern incarnation as well as even the second year. For starters, there were two "Best Picture"-like categories with Outstanding Picture (which Wings won) and Unique and Artistic Production (which director F.W. Murnau's Sunrise won). The former category would mold into the Best Picture category the following year. Wings also was the only film to ever win Best Engineering Effects. Wings became the first of to date only four films to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (the others being Grand Hotel, Driving Miss Daisy, and Argo). Along with The Artist, it remains one of the only silent films to win Best Picture. 

The awards were announced in advanced via telegram with the ceremony in February with the award being presented on May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, CA, hosted by AMPAS president Douglas Fairbanks. The ceremony wasn't that traditional, with several awards being presented without larger context. If forced to have a reason for the award's creation, credit goes to Louis B. Mayer, who created AMPAS with a very basic goal in mind. He claims that "If I got them cups and awards they'd kill them to produce what I wanted." As a result, the award was born. According to nominee and director King Vidor (Best Director, Drama nominee The Crowd), the voting was almost exclusively in the hands of Fairbanks, Sid Gruaman, Mayer, Mary Pickford, and Joseph M. Schenck. 

Of course, Wings was itself a special film. It ran for 63 weeks upon initial release. While a large component was the spectacle, it had a lot to do with the era. Charles Lindbergh had recently participated in a transatlantic flight. It was also one of the most realistic films to depict aerial battles of its time and had beautiful cinematography to boot. It was long considered to be a lost film until a company called Cinematheque Francaise found a nitrate print and transferred it to safety film stock. Following that, the film has since been shown and rereleased to the general public. Historians believe that the film remains impressive almost 90 years later, offering spectacle the likes of which haven't been seen since.

So while Wings may be more known for being the first Best Picture winner than the great film that it is, it should be seen as a fantastic tribute to what cinema could be. It flew into the air and showed us something new and exciting. The Academy Awards would do so as well, slowly figuring out the kinks and becoming one of the most prestigious awards in history. Even if today's ceremony is far different from that of the 1927 origins, it remains something to aspire for and has included some of the finest acting talents in the process. Wings may have a questionable production history, but it also has innovation and quality on its side as well. This is where it all started and frankly, it is a fine way to start quite the exceptional award.

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