First of a series of articles on Best Picture winners as the countdown to the Oscars begins. Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen the movie.
Aviation epic Wings (1927) was the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It was directed by William Wellman (Wild Bill as he was often known) who had been a flier himself and went to great lengths to make the flying sequences authentic consuming lots of time and film in the process.
It worried Paramount executives who went to the set. Otto Kahn the main backer got a flea in his ear from the abrasive Wellman who was determined to get the battle scenes photographed in the best possible conditions. Eventually the executives pretty much gave the director a free hand in the production and it was worth it. The flying scenes in Wings are probably as exciting and impressive as those in any movie.
Out of the cockpit though the movie for me isn't as strong. Its greatest asset from an acting point of view is the irrepressible Clara Bow who lights up the screen like a light bulb. Charles "Buddy" Rogers is a bit of an idiot not to see that Clara is the gal for him if you ask me. Most of the time he's pining for Jobyna Ralston here beautiful as ever but a fairly colourless mannequin compared with Bow. Richard Arlen of course is her real beau and keeps it from Rogers when they become buddies. I've never really been moved by this love story and feel the film would work better without it.
The other problem for me with Wings (1927) is it lacks the extra dimension of anti-war feeling you get in say other silent war films like What Price Glory ? (1926) and The Big Parade (1925). It feels rather gung ho and tries to rather add this in a contrived way by having Rogers kill Arlen by accident : that all seems rather convenient and against the odds. Arlen's survival to go back through the lines after his plane is shot down is a minor miracle in itself never mind having him killed by his best friend. I think his demise (if he has to die) could have been achieved much more effectively and movingly. Its just an excuse for Arlen's mother to say to Rogers that "I wanted to hate you but you didn't kill my son - it was the war." Well yes.
The version of Wings (1927) I viewed was the Photoplay (Kevin Brownlow company which restore silent films) Carl Davis one from the early 90s. This was shown on UK TV in the days when old films got in the mainstream schedules more than occasionally. I had seen the movie in an inferior print with an organ score.
The impact of silent films is so often down to the quality of the score and this is a good example. Davis' score and the print certainly made Wings a much better experience than before. Davis I feel has particularly nailed the flying sequences and the Folies Bergere sequence in Paris where Rogers gets drunk. He later recalled that it was Wellman that got him drunk and made him believe he saw bubbles which were later animated.
Wings wasn't the only best picture in 1927 though technically the winner F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) got an award as Best Artistic Production a category abandoned the next year. Wings does have brilliant battle scenes and flying sequences but in terms of characters apart from Clara Bow it doesn't do a lot for me. Sunrise (1927) probably deserved the Best Picture Oscar more.