Wings – The First Best Picture

Clara Bow in Wings (1927)

For the longest time I had a framed photograph of the above image which travelled with me everywhere. It’s a photo of Clara Bow from the 1927 silent film WingsI originally bought the photo from a small shop in New York that specialized in prints of film stills, lobby cards and 8x10s of your favourite matinee idol.

I have no idea where the shop is, having stumbled upon it back in 1999 – I’m not even sure if it exists any longer. With books upon books to flick through and pick out images you wanted copies of, it was an incredible little shop, and I imagined myself like a young girl in the days of silents looking through Photoplay for images to post on my wall.

The little black and white 8×10 travelled with me back to the UK and on several subsequent moves, to Slovakia and back again to the UK, finally calling home with my friends on the head office walls at the Lab Theatre Collective.

Tonight the 85th Oscars are being held with people all over the world watching and hosting their own Oscar parties, but what of the first film to ever win the Academy for Best Picture?

Wings Opening Film Credits

The story behind the filming of the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture – Wings and particularly that of the director William A. Wellman, is an interesting one.

William Wellman in WW1William Wellman during World War I

Wellman, was originally an Aviator, flying as part of the Black Cat Squadron during World War I in France. The adventure of learning to fly, tragedy of war, and staggering personal heartbreak and loss are chronicled in his son William Wellman Jr’s excellent book The Man and His WINGS: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture.

Battlefield Scene in Wings

During the war Wellman received a cable from Hollywood leading man Douglas Fairbanks congratulating him on a job well done and telling him that he had a job waiting for him on his return. Returning to the States a hero with an uncertain future now that he was back in civilian life, Wellman decided to take Fairbanks up on his offer. And spectacularly so – Wild Bill (nicknamed so during the war) landed his plane at one of Fairbanks famed parties and asked the Hollywood star for a job.

And job he did get, as an actor in a Western picture. Acting didn’t suit Wellman, with dreams of becoming a Director he traded in the acting gig for work on set climbing his way up the ranks to his ultimate goal.

Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in WingsBuddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in Wings (1927)

Wellman was a new Director when the opportunity to direct Wings came along. BP Schulberg, the Producer of the film, argued in favour of using Wellman because of the complex nature of the film Schulberg believed that only a man with a war background could fully do justice to the story of the film.

Clara Bow was the first actor cast, and given her celebrity and use of her superstardom to assure against a massive financial risk the script was rewritten to improve her part as Mary Preston, the girl next door originally overlooked by Jack.

Wellman fought against the studios to cast two unknowns in the other leads roles – Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers (who would later wed Mary Pickford) and also gave Gary Cooper the role that would launch his career.

Gary Cooper in WingsGary Cooper in Wings (1927)

Wings had a budget of 16 million in government manpower and equipment with an additional 2 million budget, making the film the most expensive of its time. Willam Wellman Jr. in his book comments that he believes Wings was the last great silent film and was “the Star Wars of its generation“. And given the incredible shots, innovative stunts and camera techniques utilized throughout I’m inclined to agree.

After an initial 2 months of filming Wellman threw out all the flying scenes on the basis that they didn’t look real. Arlen and Rogers would have to learn to fly. The film is a testament to Wellman’s passion for realism and is reflected in the incredible aerial battles that take place in the film.

Wings Poster Art

Besides the hijinks normally associated with Clara Bow and her paramours, one of the stories I love most from the filming of Wings is about Clara’s distaste for her costume. She found the costume shapeless, and would constantly (to the horror of the wardrobe mistresses) add a belt to it, which would also constantly be taken off her as well.

In May of 1929 the first ever Academy Awards were held, with Wings winning for Best Picture. Clara Bow accepted the Oscar on behalf of the producers from Douglas Fairbanks.

The First Oscars Held in 1929Last year saw the release of a stunning remastered, high def version of Wings now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and also has seen the films resurgence in cinema screenings as well I’m very glad to say. Be sure to check it out, Wings is an incredible piece of work which gives one a fascinating insight into the world shortly after the great war and how it viewed the horrors of World War I less than a decade later. Plus, Clara Bow!

Scenes from Wings (1927)

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