A Year: Day to Day Men: 12th of August, Solar Year 2018

Key to Life

August 12, 1927 was the release date of “Wings”, the only silent film to win an Oscar.

The American silent war film “Wings” was a romantic action-war movie set during the First World War. It starred Clara Bow, Charles”Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen. The film was shot on location at Kelly Field, a military facility in San Antonio, Texas, from September of 1926 to April of 1927 on a budget of two million dollars.

Producers Lucien Hubbard and Jesse L. Lasky hired director William Wellman as he was the only director in Hollywood at the time who had World War I combat pilot experience. Actor Richard Arlen and writer John Monk Saunders had also served in World War I as military aviators. Arlen was able to do his own flying in the film and actor Charles Rogers, a non-pilot, underwent flight training during the course of the production, so that, like Arlen, Rogers could also be filmed in closeup in the air. Director Wellman was able to attract War Department support and involvement in the project, and displayed considerable prowess and confidence in dealing with planes and pilots onscreen.

Primary scout aircraft flown in the film were Thomas-Morse MB-3s standing in for American-flown SPADs and Curtiss P-1 Hawks painted in German livery. Developing the techniques needed for filming closeups of the pilots in the air and capturing the speed and motion of the planes onscreen took time, and little usable footage was produced in the first two months. Wellman soon realized that Kelly Field did not have the adequate numbers of planes or skilled pilots to perform the needed aerial maneuvers, and he had to request technical assistance and a supply of planes and pilots from Washington.

Hundreds of extras were brought in to shoot the picture, and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming. If possible, Wellman attempted to capture footage in the air in contrast to clouds in the background, above or in front of cloud banks to generate a sense of velocity and danger. During the delays in the aerial shooting because of weather conditions, Wellman extensively rehearsed the scenes for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel over ten days with some 3500 infantrymen. A large battlefield with trenches and barbed wire was created on location for the filming. Wellman took responsibility for the meticulously-planned explosions himself, detonating them at the right time from his control panel. At least 20 young men, including cameraman William Clothier, were given hand-held cameras to film anything and everything during the filming.

On May 16, 1929, the first Academy Award ceremony was held at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood to honor outstanding film achievements of 1927–1928. “Wings” was entered in a number of categories and was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; Roy Pomercy, the special effects artist for the film, won Best Engineering Effects for that year. For many years, “Wings” was considered a lost film until 1992 when a print was found in the film archive of Cinémathèque Française in Paris. It was quickly copied form nitrate film to safety film stock and is shown again in theaters, sometimes accompanied by Wurlitzer pipe organs.

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