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Jay Weston

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Silent Films Are All the Rage... Again

Posted: 01/18/12 11:33 AM ET


wings poster

My viewing of Wings, the first Oscar winner!


The momentum is building for The Artist to take all the marbles in the upcoming Oscar awards, with its three Golden Globes and BAFTA nomination adding to the hubbub. Yes, that black-and-white silent French film is being shepherded by impresario Harvey Weinstein ("monster, God") into being a strong contender for the top prize. Personally, while I enjoyed the breezy movie about the transition of the silents to talkies, I don't feel it is of Academy Award-winning caliber, but I may be in the minority of AMPAS members... we'll see on February 26th. Incidentally, Oscar.com, the official online site of the 84th Academy Awards, is launching Oscar Digital Experience this week, with a first-look at Billy Crystal's return to the Oscar stage. Movie fans will be able to have unparalleled live behind-the-scenes access; there will be weeks of extensive coverage of the race on Oscar.com, so if you are obsessed with such doings (as am I!), then make this a regular stop on your computer viewing.

stars of wings
Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, Clara Bow, Richard Arlen in Wings. Courtesy of AMPAS.


Producer LarryGordon with Paramoutn Chairman Brad Grey

Producer Larry Goordon chats with Paramount Chairman Brad Grey before the Wings screening.


This week I had a stunning viewing experience at the Academy, where they screened a newly-restored version of the first Oscar best-picture winner (and only silent film winner), 1927's Wings, a World War I epic about fighter pilots and their women. It is now being released as a DVD/Blu-ray product by Paramount. Wow, what a movie, truly an epic masterpiece. I recently told Huffington Post readers about Paramount's celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the 85th anniversary of this film's premiere kicks off the year-long celebration. Veteran comic genius Carl Reiner, in the lobby prior to the screening, claimed that he was at the first screening. Brad Grey, Paramount's CEO, told me that the studio, which produced this classic, decided several years ago to restore the film to its pristine glory. He credited Andrea Kalas of their studio and Randy Haberkamp of the Academy for the intense effort needed, along with Technicolor and others. The screening I attended, which featured a live organ musical accompaniment by Clark Wilson (organist for the Disney Hall), showed the film with its original color tints, including some color effects for the gunfire and flames from action sequences involving the planes in aerial combat. The picture starred Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow and a very young Gary Cooper. (He's only in one scene, but made such an impression that it set off his long career. (According to Wikipedia, it was during this film that Cooper began his affair with Bow.) Some years ago I visited Pickfair, the Beverly Hills home of Buddy Rogers and his wife, film star Mary Pickford. I never met her but he was gracious, gray-haired handsome and very engaging. Clara Bow was the Lindsay Lohan of her day, daring and different, the fantasy love of millions of young men. Part of the success of the film was due to the public's obsession with flying after Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo that year.

Carl Reiner at Wings screening
Veteran comic Carl Reiner says he was at the original Wings screening.


The Academy people tell me that the picture was the Star Wars or Avatar of its day, costing Paramount $2 million. The director's son, William Wellman, Jr., has stated in the program notes that the U.S. Army's contribution totaled some $16 million in men and equipment (planes, tanks, artillery ordinance), making it the costliest film made to that date. He says that they utilized thousands of real soldiers as extras, each being insured for $10 thousand. It was filmed over the course of several months at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. It took months to prepare the locations for the film's massive battle scenes, and miles of trenches were dug. The film ends with the climactic Battle of St. Miheil and took over a month to complete, involving some 5,000 soldiers of the Army's Second Division. After moving back to the Hollywood studio, Wellman filmed the Paris' Folies Bergère scene with its stunning traveling camera shot on the new Melrose Avenue sound stage.

Director William Wellman was 30 when he was hired, and got the gig over more experienced hands because he had actually seen combat as a decorated fighter pilot in the war. Hundreds of planes were used in the film, and several remarkable crashes were staged. Wellman scrapped his first two months of aerial shots and waited for cloud cover to reshoot them. He and cameraman Harry Perry decided not to use any models for the flying scenes but actually mounted cameras on the front of the two-cockpit planes so the actors could actually perform their scenes in the air. As the director's son said last night, "This technique gives Wings a sense of realism that is as powerful today as it was to astonished audiences in 1927." When Paramount decided to restore the film, they searched the world for a good print of the picture, finally finding a dupe negative in their archives. New sound effects have been added, along with the original orchestral score. So for a real 'silent' treat, get a copy of the Blu-ray DVD and see how they made 'em in the old days. Who needs sound when you've got those gorgeous images, strong performances and well-written titles!

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