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Sixteen months before THR was launched — and 91 years before 1917 entered the Oscar race — the World War I film Wings won the first Academy Award for “outstanding picture.” And in May 1929, besides not being called best picture, the award presented in the Hollywood Roosevelt ballroom wasn’t even called Oscar; that didn’t happen until the mid-1930s, after the Academy’s Margaret Herrick reportedly said that the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar.
But Wings was not an unexpected choice.
Though it cost half as much as 1925’s Ben-Hur (the most expensive silent film ever made), the 1927 release still involved 5,000 extras, a half-dozen tanks and 100 biplanes. The cost was estimated at $2 million ($30 million today). “It” girl Clara Bow starred as a woman loved by two young pilots (Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen).
William Wellman directed; he’d mostly made “B” Westerns, but the studio trusted him with Wings because he’d been a wartime pilot. (He walked with a pronounced limp from being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in 1918.) “Get a director and a writer and leave them alone,” he once said. “That’s how the best pictures get made.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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