The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 to help promote advances in film making, which lead to the formation of the yearly Academy Awards. The first award presentation was made on May 16th. 1929, it was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and it was attended by 270 people(!). Movie star and Academy president Douglas Fairbanks handed out the 15 awards (!!), and, in stark contrast to today, the audience already knew the winners; the results had already been posted three months earlier in the Academy's trade publication. All films that played in LA between August 1, 1927 and August 1, 1928 were eligible. (THE JAZZ SINGER was excluded; it was thought that, because it was the first talking film, it would have too much of an advantage over other films). The big winner was the WWI adventure film, WINGS, directed by William Wyler.
Ironically, it was Douglas Fairbanks who had gotten Wyler's start in Hollywood, befriending him when Wyler was a flying Ace in the war, which would, of course, make him the natural director for this film. (He even did some stunt flying for the film himself). His perfectionism in shooting the flight scenes pushed the film way over budget, but the result was a big box office hit. Although this was not the first big budget feature to be about WWI (King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE had come out two years earlier), it was the first to feature exciting aerial battle scenes, and they were shot without the virtue of miniatures or special effects. Yes, over 80 years later, the shots of the planes swooping and barrel rolling through the sky are still striking, even if at times it's hard to know who exactly is shooting at whom. Unfortunately, when the film is on the ground, it slows to a standstill. The story is very simple (too simple); 2 young men, Jack and David (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen), rivals for the love of the same woman, join the army, bond during boot camp, and have adventures in the war, and, well that's it. Wyler winds up pulling this simple plot like taffy over two hours, and it leads to an interminable scene where one of our heroes gets drunk on leave in Paris, and staggers around for what seems like hours.
Even worse, this is a film that was made only 10 years after the end of the war, and it has no point of view about the politics behind the war; Jack and David go off to fight without questioning the wisdom of the enterprise at all,(when they go on their first combat mission, they are excited and not scared at all, as if they know that they're the heroes in a movie and therefore invulnerable!) and the humanity of the soldiers on the other side is almost completely ignored. This is an an action film first and a war film second; at times it feels that the war only exists as an excuse to get to the flying scenes.
It is not surprising that the only part of the film that truly works dramatically is one that takes place up in the air: David, shot down behind enemy lines, steals a German plane and makes his way back to the allied side. While flying, he inevitably runs into Jack in another plane, who, naturally thinking he's an enemy, starts to fire on him. Up until this moment the film has been mostly fun, but here it truly takes a dark turn, one that catches the viewer unaware. Will we really see one best friend shoot another by accident? This a truly suspenseful scene! The fact that it ends not only with Jack shooting David's plane, but then David literally dying in Jack's arms, casts a dark shadow over the rest of the film, a shadow that is not totally dispelled by the sappy "love conquers all" ending. It's a shame Wyler didn't try to have this more serious tone throughout the film; that plus some judicious editing could have made this a great WWI movie, (like Vidor's aforementioned THE BIG PARADE), instead of a near miss.
One thing I kept thinking of while watching this movie was how much it was like Tony Scott's 1986 film, TOP GUN. Both films have training scenes with macho heroes, both films show male bonding over sports (boxing in WINGS, volley ball in TOP GUN), and, sadly, both films contrast exciting flying scenes with dull scenes on the ground. The fact that both films were both enormously successful just goes to show that some things never change: if you give your audience lots of whiz bang excitement and show some attractive people in love, you can make money without much story!
Gary Cooper (right)
2 more quick notes on WINGS: This movie is famous being the first substantial role that future star Gary Cooper ever got. At age twenty six, Cooper looks great and already has his macho swagger down, playing a doomed pilot who doesn't believe in luck, but he only gets one scene! Actually, he shows more screen presence here than either of the male leads, and I think he would have been a better choice for either of their roles, but he was just getting started.
The It Girl
Also, this film features Clara Bow, one of the most famous silent screen stars; it was released shortly after her star making role in the film IT, which was so popular that she was forever known as "the IT girl" (a term still sometimes used to describe a female star that's hit it big). In WINGS she plays a tomboy who has a crush on Jack, who shows no interest in her throughout most of the film. In other words, she's utterly miscast. Here is a woman often described as "the first female movie sex symbol", and who epitomized the image of the sexy 20's flapper, stuck in a role where she carries a torch for a guy who pushes her away, both verbally and physically. It's like having a movie with Marilyn Monroe in it, and having all the men ignore her! Not surprisingly, Bow seems bored in her love scenes, but the few scenes she has where she isn't with Jack show some of the sprightly charm that made her a star.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
In another odd quirk about the early days of the Oscars, WINGS was not the only film to be awarded best picture that year! It was awarded "best production", while F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE won for "artistic quality of production"; over the years, WINGS has been credited for winning best picture and SUNRISE's win has been forgotten. This is a shame, since I believe it to be the far better film. SUNRISE is a lovely, moving film that is truly one of the jewels of silent cinema.