At the second-floor entrance to the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences there is a one-sheet poster of Wings, the first-ever Oscar winner for Best Picture and to date the only silent film ever to win. Next to it is a one-sheet of the most recent Best Picture winner (The King’s Speech) which remains in that place of honor for a year. How ironic then would it be if major contender The Artist were to win, creating a never-dreamed of Academy bookend for two black-and-white silent movies separated by 84 years of Oscar history.
There was no mention of The Artist Tuesday night at the Academy during introductions to the premiere screening of the restored Wings, but the feeling that history could repeat itself this year was definitely something felt in that room. The Academy program was the kickoff to Paramount’s yearlong celebration of its 100th anniversary, and in addition to screenings of its first Best Picture winner Tuesday and Wednesday the Academy is displaying posters and memorabilia from the studio’s storied history in its Grand Lobby through February 6.
It’s a big year for studio 100ths with Universal also celebrating a centennial and promising yearlong events and restorations just like Paramount. In fact Academy President Tom Sherak announced last night that the Acad will also be hosting a similar event for Universal later in the year. But this night belonged to William Wellman’s masterful Wings which at a cost of $2 million in 1927 was the most expensive movie to date in Hollywood. In addition to its Best Picture Oscar, Sherak noted it won an Engineering Effects award and was a true blockbuster — “the ‘Star Wars’ of 1927 that had actors doing their own flying stunts” he said in his opening remarks.
At intermission I ran into Paramount chairman and CEO Brad Grey who was very impressed with the film, one that was done without the benefit of CGI or other technology that makes things so much easier today. “I think I am gonna show this film to Michael Bay. We can save a lot of money, ” he joked (I think). Grey said he too was just seeing this magnificent print for the first time. It was jointly restored by the Academy and Paramount. He was particularly taken with the color tinting that restored the orange “spouts of flame” on the back of the vintage planes for the dogfights just as they were originally seen when the film premiered at New York’s Criterion theatre August 12, 1927. It ran for 63 weeks before moving to the Rialto. The live organ accompaniment by Clark Wilson playing the score was also a major treat for the crowd which included numerous industry members and several of Wellman’s grandchildren.
Earlier Sherak (who is also working as a consultant on Paramount’s centennial) introduced Grey who said he was only the eighth Chairman in Par history. He noted that Wings was one of the greats in Paramount’s first 100 years and has never looked better. He was especially happy to have bumped into Carl Reiner who turns 90 next month. “Carl said he remembered seeing the film with his parents when it first opened at the Tremont theatre in the Bronx. How many other people here tonight can say they saw it when it came out in 1927?” he asked the audience. No hands went up. “Okay Carl you are the winner!”
Grey also brought Sherak up in order to donate the original score of Wings and all its cues to the Academy Archive and its upcoming museum “where it belongs. It should be with the Academy.”
Before the film unspooled Grey introduced William Wellman Jr., son of the movie’s director who gave background on the making of what Paramount pioneer Jesse Lasky called “the last great silent picture.” Certainly this World War I spectacular lived up to its reputation, particularly with its thrilling aerial sequences. And although it starred Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen, the one scene cameo by Gary Cooper brought applause and clear evidence of a screen legend in the making.
But with the unexpected situation of having another silent film in the hunt for Oscar’s most coveted prize more than eight decades later Lasky’s prediction that Wings is the last great silent picture may not be quite the case. What is clearly true is thanks to The Artist and the rebirth of Wings (which comes out on Blu-ray next week) the silents are suddenly making a whole lot of noise again in Hollywood.