The Best Picture Winners: Wings (1927-28)

| September 6, 2022

Five years ago, on Oscar’s 90th birthday, I did an overview of Every Single Movie that was ever bestowed the Oscar for Best Picture.  So, here we are again, approaching Oscar’s 95th.  Every other day, from now until Oscar night, I will take a look at each film through fresh eyes (I have seen them all again) and see if they’re any more worthy or unworthy than they were the last time I saw them.  It’s a long journey, so let’s get started . . . 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not to hand out awards.  Its original intent -micro-managed by studio executives – was to create an organization that would prevent the onrush of unions.  Awards were never were never part of the plan.

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 little doorstop would have on the industry or on the culture.  At the first awards ceremony, the winners were announced in advance, and the ceremony was a private party held at the Roosevelt Hotel for only about 200 people who were changed a hundred bucks per plate to dine on squab perigueux and lobster eugénie.  Alarmingly, 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 nominees for the first “Best Production” were no big deal either.  The first five nominees were a roster of films that only go to show what a sorry year 1928 had been at the movies.  Even still, 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 whatever and crowned Wings as 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.  There was even an early attempt at widescreen called Magnascope, which used a wide-angle magnifying lens system attached to the projector, and a screen of variable size.  Some theaters even installed large fans to blow air around during the aerial dogfight scenes.

So what about the film itself?  Well, the story is moronically simple – two American joes played by Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers are in love with the same girl, played by an irresistible Clara Bow.  Then World War One happens and they get called up.  Their adventures aren’t exactly gripping, but no one at the time was complaining.  Audiences were moved to tears (one of the buddies bites the dust) and today the technical merits are the only reason anyone revisits the film.  Well, that and a brief three-minute cameo by Gary Cooper.  And the fact that one of the boy’s mothers is played by a 42 year-old bit player named Hedda Hopper.

Admittedly, the 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.

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.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.