AND THE WINNER IS... WINGS
Updated: Feb 20
The First Best Picture
The first Academy Awards ceremony was a banquet style event, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, in May of 1929, The first film to pick up the coveted Best Picture statue was Wings - from the 1927 and 1928 film season.
Produced by Lucien Hubbard, Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky, B.P. Shulberg and Otto Kahn, it’s based on a story by John Monk Saunders, and a screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton.
It was produced for and distributed by Paramount, and released on August 12, 1927.
The budget was $2 million – nearly $29 million adjusted for inflation, and the film did $3.6 million at the worldwide box office. The plot centers around the original generation of fighter pilots who came into their own during the first world war.
Based on a story by John Monk Saunders, and a screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton, Wings is a fairly pedestrian - 2 boys 1 girl - rom com. The rivals end up billeted together during the war. It’s not as sophisticated as the screwball comedies that would appear a few years later, but much of the genre, as it developed over time, became based on clever dialogue – which was unavailable to Wings.
Without dialogue, the acting in Wings is over emotive, by what we’d consider appropriate – or even good - today. Still audiences get a pretty good sense of what the war must’ve felt like for flyers and their families.
Wings Is The Only Truly Silent Film To Ever Win Best Picture
The Artist – which was shot in the style of the silent era – won in 2011 - but that film is still part talkie. So was The Jazz Singer – widely considered the first sound picture - for that matter.
Wings has no recorded dialogue at all.
There Was A Custom Score
It was written by J.S. Zamecnik, and played by a live orchestra. In that era big films often went on road show tours – playing major markets - accompanied by a full orchestra. Many of those scores have been lost, but Paramount found the original Wings score at the Library of Congress and added it to the restored version of the film for its 2012 Blu-Ray release.
Wings is a cinematic masterpiece – featuring scenes that would be difficult to produce today
The film was directed by William A. Wellman and photographed by cinematographer Harry Perry.
William Wellman was a true Hollywood character. He joined the French Foreign Legion in 1917, at age 21. He became the first American member of the Layafette Flying Corp. He quickly earned the nickname “Wild Bill,” scoring three confirmed kills, and five probable’s during the war. Under British rules – he’d have been an Ace fighter pilot.
But his fighter pilot career didn’t last long. He was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in March of 1918, and received a medical discharge.
Wellman never flew in combat again, but once America entered the war, he became a flight instructor – teaching air combat tactics for the US Army Air Service in San Diego.
He’d spend his weekends flying from San Diego to L.A.. One of the few places he could land was in Douglas Fairbanks’ polo field. The two became fast friends, and the movie star cast the fighter pilot in a few films.
It’s Well Known That Wellman Hated Acting
Wellman didn't last long as an actor. He thought it was “unmanly,” and judging from the amount of makeup and over emotion at the time – it’s understandable. He pretty quickly moved behind the camera, and began learning the craft of filmmaking. When he was hired by Paramount to make Wings – in 1927 – he was completely unknown and unproven.
Paramount Took A Risk
There were more than a few questions as to why Paramount – which had a stable of skilled directors - would go with an unknown for such a huge picture.
In the end, it was at Lucien Hubbard's insistence. As the film’s producer, Hubbard contended – that there was no one better to make a movie about fighter pilots – than a fighter pilot.
Paramount Had No Idea What Was Coming.
At the time - an average film cost a couple hundred thousand dollars – Wings had a budget of $2 million, and as it turned out - that wouldn’t be nearly enough. Hubbard and Wellman had a vision – one that would eventually include 220 planes, 300 pilots, and 3,500 soldiers on the ground.
Paramount knew they could never do a movie of this scale on their own - and make their money back - so they turned to the one source that could help – the War Department. Paramount reached out to General C.W. Saltzman – who thought the idea was good PR for the Army – but it was the Army. It had to go up the chain of command. Ultimately the decision went all the way to President Calvin Coolidge before they got a green light.
Paramount was used to green lighting films themselves – answering to only the money men. Now they had to get a “go” from someone else and they didn't like it.
One of the first things that rankled the studio was a request to shoot the film on location. Leaving the lot was rare in early Hollywood, but in order to provide maintenance for the aircraft, the Army wanted to shoot at Kelly Field outside San Antonio.
Shooting On Location
The studios didn’t like losing control over their directors. On the lot they could keep them under their thumb. If they didn’t like something - they could walk over to the set and make a change.
On location directors had free reign. The studio wouldn’t know what was being shot until they saw rushes – the daily footage being shot – but by then it was too late. The money had been spent. Now add a rookie director to the mix.
Ultimately, Adolph Zukor – the Paramount studio head – saw the big picture. He didn’t want to sacrifice their big blockbuster film for the year, so he reluctantly agreed to shooting in San Antonio. Kelly Field turned out to be a great choice– not just because of airplane maintenance – but there was also a large area where they could create no man’s land.
Building No Man's Land
Construction of no man’s land started before any of the production crew arrived. Construction crews dug miles of trenches and revetments – then the Army used the area for artillery practice for a week or so – to create the poc marked look of a battlefield. Scenic also built a complete French village – that they would later bomb as a part of filming. By the time William Wellman - and his actors - arrived on site... Texas looked like war-torn France. But the production was just getting started.
Aerial Photography Had To Be Invented
There were a number of firsts created for this film. Initially they tried to shoot with standard hand cranked cameras – but soon realized that air turbulence made it impossible to steadily turn the crank. As a result, the crew devised motor driven cameras, and new ways to mount them on planes - including under wing, fuselage, and engine cowling mounts.
The Lead Actors Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen Went To Flight School
Richard Arlen already had some experience. He’d served in the air service during the war. Buddy Rogers was a complete novice, but learning to fly was a necessity for the film.
The typical technique today - for shooting this kind of scene - is a process called rear projection. A partial set piece of a plane would be built on a sound stage, with a rear projection screen providing background - placed beside or behind it. That technique though - wouldn’t be invented until 1930, so Wings had to be shot in camera – i.e. performed live in front of the lens.
The Actors Had To Act While Flying
Stunt pilots could do the flying for the long shots, but the actors had to actually fly the planes themselves for the close work.
To capture close ups in the air - Wellman and his crew rigged up cameras to a switch in the cockpit. Actors would start the camera – act out their scene – then shut the camera off. They used hand signals to indicate the start and end of a take. All while actually flying the plane. It marks the first time an actor was ever filmed in the air.
Filming Was Grounded
A ton of new technology had been invented for Wings, but before they ever got in the air, the cast and crew sat on standby for 33 days - waiting for the weather.
Meanwhile - Wellman got everything he could on the ground – including the big battle in no man’s land.
The Scene Wellman Thought Ended His Career
During the climactic battle scene - the Germans are retreating in the foreground. Moments later a squad of attacking Doughboys crests a large hill in the middle ground - showing us why the Germans are falling back. That tells us the story.
But this is a film about planes, so the shot doesn’t stop there.
Perfectly on cue as the Allies crest the hill – three Bi-Planes scream into view from behind the ridge – flying what looks like a few yards above the heads of the soldiers. The shot’s unbelievable - even by todays standards. Of course, today they’d just as likely use computer graphics. But back then they had to block and signal thousands of extras to come over the hill – while others to retreated - exactly on cue.
It's much more complicate considering that there were no radios for communication. No loudspeakers - not that they could’ve heard them over the roar of the planes. All the cues for this scene were signaled using flags.
It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a shot like this is incredibly complicated, expensive and tricky to pull off.
Now Add Explosions
The crew had wired demolition charges all across no man’s land. The actors knew exactly where to be at what time – so they didn’t get blown up.
Wellman decided – since it was his responsibility – he would control the detonations himself.
While he was blowing up half of Texas, an outsider climbed onto his camera tower and tried to talk to him. It screwed up his timing just a little – but enough to cause injury to several extras. Wellman without looking up – told the intruder to "get the f**k off his f**king set" – and went on with his work.
It was only after the shot was in the can - that he learned who the intruder was. His name was Otto Kahn, one of the bankers funding Wellman's $2 million movie.
Wellman knew he was fired. He went back to his room at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, and got fall down drunk. Sure enough – there came the proverbial knock at the door. It was Otto Kahn and the rest of the bankers backing the film. Instead of firing him though – they were ebullient. They couldn’t believe what they’d seen earlier that day - especially those planes careening across the battlefield perfectly on cue. They told Wellman on the spot – whatever he needed to finish his movie – no matter the cost – he had it.
The Battle Scene Isn’t The Most Notable Shot Of The Film
The honor of most impressive shot in the film goes to the café scene - another stunning filmmaking achievement. The camera moves at eye level through a packed Paris café, flying across tables – between characters. Ultimately the shot settles on a close up of a drunk Buddy Rogers.
Method Acting 101
Rogers – only 21 at the time – and not used to drinking – kept guzzling Champagne take after take – by the time they got the shot in the can - he was totally plastered.
The Characters In The Cafe' Are Their Own Micro Stories
The action at each table creates a momentary vignette of Paris night life. We see an older woman giving a younger man a huge wad of cash. Why?
The camera flies between a lesbian couple mid caress. A cinematic first.
There’s a soldier or Gendarme, hard to tell from the uniform, looking around mysteriously – almost like he’s worried that his date’s husband is gonna show up.
Next a woman throws her drink in the face of the man across her table. What did he do?
Finally we land in a perfect Medium Close shot of Rogers as a waiter refills his glass.
All in a single camera move.
How Did They Get The Café Shot In 1927?
Wellman and cinematographer Harry Perry had a vision for the shot.
They also had a scaffold built over the entire set – then rigged an inverted dolly hanging from it. The cameraman E. Burton Steene – was lying on his belly with an Eyemo Bell and Howell parallax camera hanging below him.
Parallax – if you don’t know – means the viewfinder doesn’t look directly through the lens. Modern cameras use mirrors so the operator sees exactly what the lens does. A parallax viewfinder sits at a slightly different angle. Close but the operator doesn’t see exactly what he’s shooting - incredible considering that this shot was choreographed down to the inch.
Each take – the dolly would roll back to the start position, trundle its way across the room – hanging from the ceiling track – as the actors cleverly leaned out of frame at the very last instant. As the shot glides to a soft landing, you can see one actor nonchalantly slip his drink out of the path of the trundling camera.
There was a plan to do a second tracking shot – when Rogers and Bow were walking down a Paris street – but the cameraman E. Burton Steene had a heart attack, and they had to scrap it.
It seems like a crime that the Harry Perry wasn’t nominated for Best Cinematography. The flying sequences and the café shot alone, should’ve made him a shoo in.
The Photography In Wings, Is Unforgettable
That's a big statement. There are a lot of unforgettable shots in cinema history – the horses head in The Godfather, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the “top of the world” shot from Titanic, or the opening of Star Wars, when the Imperial Cruiser enters and keeps going, and going, and going. There were audible gasps in the theater when Star Wars premiered - and soon everybody was shooting models in space.
The café shot had a similar impact on filmmaking. It’s only 22 seconds long but, before Wings, the camera didn’t move all that much. It’s not stopped moving since. The cafe' shot was recreated to introduce the Canto Bight Casino in Star Wars - The Last Jedi.
Everybody Had A Crane Or Dolly Going Forward
Everybody was on a crane or dolly. Everybody but Wellman. He quickly grew sick of push shots, famously saying –
“I did the first big boom shot – 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 are a lot of people who think it made Wellman – and Ford for that matter - better filmmakers. It forced them into finding unique camera angles – and better ways to implement visual storytelling.
Wings, Was A Technical Marvel
In spite of the fact that it came out the same year as the first talking picture – The Jazz Singer – Wings won the award for Best Engineering Effects - today known as Visual Effects.
Remember Those 33 Days In San Antonio Waiting For The Weather?
Well, Paramount was apoplectic. The sun was out. The weather was perfect – so why the hell wasn’t Wellman shooting?
It seems counterintuitive - but William Wellman was waiting for clouds.
In those days filmmakers needed sun light – as much as they could get. Lenses were slow and required a lot of light. Normally, clouds were the enemy. But there was method to Wellman's madness. He'd been watching the dailies – and noticed that shots with a perfectly clear sky lost all perspective.
Without clouds there was no sense of scale, depth or motion. Planes with nothing to fly past – look like they’re barely moving – they were just tiny dots in the middle of big empty frame. The clouds gave the shots perspective – and a sense of how fast the planes were going. Add to that - diving through clouds – or spinning out of control and disappearing into them – increased the drama of the shot exponentially. Wellman had been up there. He realized what was needed to make the movie work. Paramount executives didn’t. What they did realize is that it was too late to replace the director. It would take too long to get someone else up to speed, if that were even possible.
All they could do was hope to recoup their investment.
Hedging Their Bet
Wellman had cast unknowns in the lead roles – against the studio’s wishes, but Paramount had cast Clara Bow before Wellman came onboard. It was their best hope of seeing a return on investment. It’s said that the appearance by Bow in a film guaranteed the money men would double their investment.
She was known at the time as the “IT GIRL,” meaning she had it. Whatever it was. Essentially it was the thing that men wanted. She had gotten the name after starring in a film call “IT,” based on an Elinor Glen novel of the same name. Lots of girls have had “it” since Clara Bow – Marylin Monroe, Madonna, Julia Roberts… Clara Bow became so iconic that the cartoon character Betty Boop is based on her, and Bow’s signature bobbed hair curls are on full display in Wings.
It’s not the only thing on display. Wings, is a pre-code film – meaning there’s no prohibition of nudity - and Bow takes her top off as she changes clothes in the back room at the café, prompting humorist Dorothy Parker to famously quip – “She doesn’t have “it…” She has those.”
A Brief Appearance By Newcomer - Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper's only in the film for one scene, a couple of minutes of total screen time. But, the impression he made, created a star. Wellman liked him so much he kept him in San Antonio – to pal around with - presumably on salary.
The Location Shoot Turned Into A Nine-Month Party
There are legendary - and possibly apocryphal - tales surrounding the film.
Clara Bow and Gary Cooper reportedly started an affair, even though she was engaged to director Victor Fleming at the time.
The entire cast and crew was billeted at the St Anthony hotel. According to David Stenn’s book “Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild," - all the elevators girls were pregnant by the time the Hollywood bunch left town. True or not – Wings delivers what the movie industry loves best - a good legend.
Early Special Effects
There was a sync sound system – providing the sound of machine guns, and aircraft engines. There are even reports of some live sound effect artists behind the screen starting engines and firing guns along with the action.
Parts of the film were shot – for the first time – in a widescreen format called Magnascope. Though none of that footage is known to have survived. Muzzle flashes were hand painted onto machine guns – and color flames were added to crashing planes. Techniques developed for this film would dominate film making for the next half century. Many – like crane shots, vehicle mounted cameras, etc… are still widely used today. We still add muzzle flashes and flames on most every action film made today.
The truly impressive thing about Wings”though is that it was all shot in camera. Nothing was done in the lab in post-production. The dogfights are real. The plane crashes are real. Those planes fly over no man’s land, perfectly on cue – for real.
Surprisingly There Were Only Two Aircraft Incidents During Filming
There was a fatal crash by an Army Air Corp pilot during filming, and stunt man Dick Grace, broke his neck in a planned crash, when his German plane unexpectedly flipped over.
He reportedly cut the cast off - to go dancing a few weeks later.
Dick Grace’s crash is in the final cut.
The Impact Of Wings Can’t Be Overstated
Director William Wellman would eventually go on to direct The Public Enemy, the original A Star is Born, in 1937 – Beau Geste, and dozens more.
Wings made $3 million at the box office more than recouping its investment - though it’s estimated that the army provided in excess of $15 Million in planes, soldiers, and services.
Adjusted for inflation that $288 million today – making it the 7th most expensive film of all time. At that cost it would’ve held the top spot alone until 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean – At Worlds End.
All of this makes Wings a good selection to kick off the Best Picture award category.
Imagine what it was like to see and hear - all that innovation coming at you on screen for the first time. In the context of its day – it must’ve been staggering.