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Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.

A man and his story

The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»
LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).
During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morgan tried to convince Lasky to drop the «propaganda element» from the story, but the producer would not agree to simply doing a combat picture. Nevertheless, when the writers submitted their synopsis of «The Menace» in March 1925, Lasky became worried about the propaganda nuances and decided to shelve the project. Undeterred, Morgan continued to work on the story, and a few months later rediscussed it with Lasky. He told him that it remained a good idea and said that if he could find a director who «was thoroughly enthusiastic» about the story, the studio would be willing to revive the project.
Morgan then took his idea to Victor Fleming, a director under contract with Famous Players-Lasky and an aviator. Although he liked the story, Fleming questioned the value of a war film at that time and doubted that the studio would spend the money necessary to acquire the number of airplanes a major movie would require. As a result, the project was shelved yet again.

A new man, a new story, and the War Department

Meanwhile, King Vidor's World War I drama The Big Parade (1925) became a great critical and commercial success. After seeing the film five times, Morgan wrote to Lasky saying he was «more convinced that ever that there is a great picture to be made around the air service during the war.» He thought «The Menace» could be as great as The Big Parade, and added that director Sam Wood was «more than enthusiastic about the possibilities it offers
The Big Parade was considered by Photoplay magazine the best film of 1925.
In February 1926, another writer, John Monk Saunders, presented Lasky with his own idea for a World War I aviation movie, pointing out that Hollywood still had not filmed «the war-in-the-air.» Lasky liked the picture Saunders described, but expressed concern about the cost. Since Saunders knew about the military assistance extended to The Big Parade, he felt that the War Department would also provide men and equipment to make an Army Air Service picture. Lasky said that if the military agreed to put up some of the necessary supplies, he would commit the full resources of the studio to the production of the film.
Looking to secure the support from the military, Saunders and producer Lucien Hubbard travelled to Washington D.C. to discuss the project with Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis. The War Department agreed to support the project, but established several conditions: Paramount Pictures would be liable for any damage done to government property during filming; each military man would be insured for $10,000; and the studio would have to provide legitimate training for any of the troops who worked on the movie. Lasky pleaded his case to Paramount chief Adolph Zukor, who then allowed pre-production to finally begin.
LEFT: John Monk Saunders (1897-1940). RIGHT: Adolph Zukor (1873-1976).

The final script and a director is hired

In the months that followed the project's approval, married screenwriters Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton were brought in to develop a script based on Saunders's original story. Morgan contributed some of his own story ideas, but he was uncredited on screen.

Wings, as the film was renamed, followed two young men, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, who enlist in the Army Air Service just as the United States enters World War I. They became close friends and, upon graduating, they are both shipped off to the Western Front to fight against Imperial Germany. During the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, David is shot down and presumed dead. However, he survives the crash landing, steals a German biplane, and heads to the Allied lines. Jack spots the enemy aircraft and begins an attack, intent on avenging his friend's death. He successfully downs the plane, not realizing David is the pilot. Just before he dies, David forgives Jack, who returns home after the war to a hero's welcome.
Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton are credited with writing the final script for Wings.

Paramount had a large roster of acclaimed filmmakers, but none of them had combat flying experience, which was considered essential to make Wings as realistic as possible. During a casting meeting between Lasky and producer B.P. Schulberg concerning the candidates for director of the studio's «most important film of the year,» newcomer William A. Wellman was appointed as the most suitable person for the job.

In World War I, Wellman enlisted in the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps to serve as a driver in Europe. While in Paris, he joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned in December 1917 as a fighter pilot to the Lafayette Flying Corps. In March 1918, he was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire and the resulting injuries left him with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. After being medically discharged from the Foreign Legion, he returned to the United States and soon found work as an actor and director in Hollywood. Some time in late 1925, Schulberg signed Wellman to a contract and brought him to Paramount.
William A. Wellman during the making of Wings.

The cast is assembled and filming begins

To play the two young pilots in Wings, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, Paramount cast Charles «Buddy» Rogers and Richard Arlen. Like Wellman and Saunders, Arlen was a World War I veteran, having served in Canada as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

The role of the female lead, Mary Preston who is madly in love with Jack and decides to join the war effort by becoming an ambulance driver was given to Clara Bow, Paramount's biggest star at the time. She had been discovered by Schulberg in 1923 and signed to his own production company, Preferred Pictures. When Schulberg filed Preferred Pictures for bankruptcy and became a producer at Paramount in late 1925, he took Bow with him and she became an overnight sensation thanks to the success of Mantrap (1926) and It (1927).
Charles Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in publicity stills for Wings
Gary Cooper was assigned to the small role of Cadet White, who ends up being killed in an air crash. After the success of The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), Cooper had signed a five-year contract with Paramount for $175 a week. He had struck up a friendship with Bow while filming It, in which he briefly appears, and she helped him land the part in Wings.

The cast also included El Brendel as Herman Schwimpf, a German-American whose patriotism is questioned when he joins the Army Air Service; and Jobyna Ralston as Sylvia Lewis, a pretty girl with whom both Jack and David are in love. Ralston and Arlen began a romance during the making of Wings and got married when the film finished shooting.
LEFT: Gary Cooper as Cadet White. RIGHT: Charles Rogers and Jobyna Ralston.
Production on Wings began in September 1926. At the Army's suggestion, the action sequences were filmed at the military bases at Kelly Field and Camp Stanley, as well as other locations around San Antonio, Texas. As previously agreed, the Army provided not only pilots and aircraft, but also equipment such as artillery, tanks, wire and high explosives.

From the start, Wellman got along with the Air Corps and their officers, but he frequently conflicted with the Army personnel the War Department had brought in to supervise the picture. He explained, «We had the Army too, thousands of them, infantry, artillery, the works, and in command a general who had two monumental hatreds: flyers and movie people.» 
LEFT: Charles Rogers at Camp Stanley. RIGHT: Filming a scene at Camp Stanley in September 1926. Aircraft flown in the film were mostly Thomas-Morse MB-3 biplanes.
The company's first two months in Texas produced little usable footage. Wellman had not yet developed techniques for shooting close-ups of pilots as they were flying, or for capturing the sense of an airplane's motion and speed on film. He also realized that the facilities at Kelly Field did not have enough fighter planes or skilled pilots to perform the dogfights and other aerial maneuvers that were essential to the picture. Consequently, Wellman had to request technical assistance and a new supply of aircraft and experienced pilots from Washington. Since Arlen had been a military aviator, he was able to do his own flying in the film. Rogers, a non-pilot, received flight training so that he could also be filmed in close-up in the air.
Some of the aerial sequences in Wings.
Even with all the flying and technical aspects of the picture going smoothly, the shooting of the aerial scenes dragged on for most of the company's stay in Texas. Because the air battles required ideal weather to film, they once had to wait 18 consecutive days for the sky to clear. The early flying footage shot on cloudless days had lacked any visual excitement since the scenes had no background that would enhance the plane's movement. Wellman explained, «motion on the screen is a relative thing. A horse runs on the ground or leaps over fences or streams. We know he is going rapidly because of his relation to the immobile ground

Eventually, Wellman realized that he could get the proper sense of height and speed by shooting the planes in front of or above the cloud banks. According to the director, this new technique allowed them the realism the battle sequences required. «Against the clouds we could see the planes dart at each other,» Wellman explained. «We could see them swoop down and disappear in the clouds. We could sense the plummet-like drop of a disabled plane.»
LEFT: Richard Arlen and William A. Wellman on location. RIGHT: The production crew of Wings in front of a Martin MB-2 bomber in 1926.
During the delay in the aerial shooting, Wellman prepared for the climatic ground sequence, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. A large battlefield with barbed wire and trenches was built on location, and over 40 cameras (both manual and remote-controlled) were positioned around the set so that no angle would be uncovered. To guarantee the split-second timing needed to coordinate the planes, special-effects explosions and troop movements, Wellman rehearsed 3500 infantry men and five dozen aircraft for ten days. The director also decided that he himself would operate the control panel that detonated the explosions in front of the advancing men.
LEFT: The trench complex built at Camp Stanley. RIGHT: One of the low-level air battle scenes in Wings, also filmed at Camp Stanley.
As shooting dragged on from month to month, the predominantly male cast and crew had a lot of idle time between shooting sequences, and nowhere to waste it. «San Antonio became the Armageddon of a magnificent sexual Donnybrook,» Wellman recalled. The company stayed at the Saint Anthony Hotel for nine months and, according to the director, by the time they left all the elevator girls had become pregnant. Wellman also stated that Bow openly flirted with the male cast members and some of the pilots, despite being engaged to Victor Fleming.

During the making of Wings, Arlen, Rogers and Cooper formed a close friendship. According to Rogers, the three of them were very anxious about the transition to sound pictures and «made a pact to protect one of us that we figured  would turn out not to have a voice; the other two would give him a certain segment of our salaries until he could find something else to do
LEFT: Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper. RIGHT: Clara Bow.

Filming ends and Wings is released

Whereas most Hollywood productions at the time took about a month to shoot, Wings took around nine months to complete, with an astronomical budget of $2 million. The delays in filming and the expanding cost of production were points of constant concern for Paramount. At one point, the studio sent an executive to San Antonio to complain to Wellman, who swiftly gave the man two alternatives: «a trip home or a trip to the hospital.» Shooting finished in April 1927 and Wellman spent another six weeks editing the picture and preparing it for release. 
Wings premiered at the Criterion Theatre in New York City, on August 12, 1927, and eventually opened in Los Angeles on January 15, 1928. The original Paramount release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen process known as Magnascope. The flames and explosions in the aerial sequences were enhanced using the Handschiegl colour process, which had been developed a decade earlier at Famous Players-Lasky. Some prints also had synchronized sound effects and music, using the General Electric Kinegraphone system.
Original theatrical release posters for Wings.
Wings was an instant success upon release, running for a year and a half in New York City and six months in Los Angeles. Critics praised its realism and technical prowess, despite the superficial plot and sentimental ending. One reviewer wrote, «Nothing in line of war pictures has ever packed a greater proportion of real thrills into an equal footage. As a spectacle, Wings is a technical triumph. It piles punch upon punch until the spectator is almost nervously exhausted.» The Army Air Corps was also satisfied with the final product.

The 1st Academy Awards and the aftermath

At the first Academy Awards ceremony, held on May 16, 1929 at the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, Wings became the first ever winner of the Oscar for Best Picture as «the most outstanding motion picture production» of 1927-1928. The statuette was presented to Clara Bow on behalf of the producers, Adolph Zukor and B.P. Schulberg. Roy Pomeroy received the award for Best Engineering Effects (a now-defunct category) for the thrilling aerial sequences in the film. He added the roar of the planes' engines, the firing of guns and even the scream of a German aviator killed in a dogfight.
LEFT: The first Academy Awards. RIGHT: Original lobby card for Wings.
With the success of Wings, «Buddy» Rogers and Richard Arlen became bona fide stars, and Clara Bow became an even bigger sensation. The film itself jump-started a whole new genre in moviemaking. For the next six years, studios churned out pictures about the «chilvarous knights of the skies,» several of them with World War I as a backdrop. These included Wellman's own The Legion of the Condemned (1928) and Young Eagles (1930), Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930), and The Eagle and the Hawk (1933).

Although most of these films were successful, both critically and financially, none of them managed to reach «the artistry, tecnhique, or excellence» of their predecessor. Contrary to all expectations, Wings became «the yardstick against which all future combat spectaculars have had to be measured in terms of authenticity of combat and scope of production.»

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (Cooper Square Press, 2000)
Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Press Square, 2001)
Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film by Lawrence H. Suid (The University Press of Kentucky, 2002)
The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture by William A. Wellman Jr. (Praeger, 2006)


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