The Best Picture Winners: Wings (1927-28)

09 Sep

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not established to hand out awards.  Its original intent – which was micro-managed by studio executives – was to create an organization that would prevent the onrush of unions.  As the new academy was being established, awards were never mentioned.

Yet, it eventually came about that the Hollywood establishment decided that an award of merit would be their way of expressing the best of the year’s achievements (that was the intention anyway).  No one at the time could have imagined the enormous impact that this seemingly superfluous little doorstop would have on the industry or on the culture.  At the first awards ceremony, the winners were announced in advance so there was no suspense, and the ceremony was a private party held at the Roosevelt Hotel for only about 200 people.  It took five minutes to hand out the awards and since there was no tradition, it wasn’t thought of as a big deal.

The first awards came around at a moment when silent films were just on the tipping point of being moved out of existence, but not so much that there were many sound films around to make up a Best Picture category.  At this moment, the most monumental sound film was The Jazz Singer, but the Board of Governors decided that Al Jolson’s talking sudzer was in a class by itself and gave it a special award, disqualifying it from competing.

The nominees for the first Best Picture (then called Best Production) were a roster of films that only go to show what a sorry year 1928 had been at the movies.  Even with that, there were actually two top winners that year.  The category that would eventually be called Best Picture was divided into Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Picture – the former went to William Wellman’s Wings and the latter went to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.  A year later The Academy would drop the Unique and Artistic Picture award and decided that Wings was the winner of the year’s top honor.

And yet, looking back on it, I think Sunrise was the better picture.  Wings was lauded for its technological innovation, its incorporation of state-of-the-art special effects, and its use of color tinting.  But the film, about two war buddies played by Lew Ayers and Charles “Buddy” Rogers vying for the love of the same girl (played by an irresistible Clara Bow) is not exactly essential cinema, and its story is not exactly gripping.

The film’s once-celebrated aerial dogfights are still breathtaking but outside of that there really isn’t much to get excited about particularly when you consider that within the same three year period another, far more significant, World War I epic would win Oscar’s top prize.  All Quiet on the Western Front was a shattering portrayal of the realities of war that makes a flag-waving time-killer like Wings seem almost obscene.

Watching the film again recently I was struck by how little I cared about the story but also about those celebrated dog fight scenes.  Sure, they’re nicely choreographed but these days they’re nothing to write home about.  Wings is a nice picture but hardly an essential one.  That’s not the review you want to give the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.



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