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'Wings', Oscar's First Best Picture Winner, Screens at Paramount Celebration

The 1927 silent war movie was accompanied by a live organ Tuesday night at the Academy.

"Wings" (1927)
Everett Collection

With The Artist making waves on the awards circuit, it’s no surprise that a screening of the silent movie classic Wings would be a hot ticket.

The 1927 war movie, which starred Clara Bow, Charles Rodgers and Richard Arlen, was the first movie to win the best picture Academy Award. It screened accompanied by a live organ Tuesday night at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre as part of Paramount’s just-launched 100th anniversary celebration.

Paramount chairman and CEO Brad Grey took the occasion to donate the original score with musical cues to Academy president Tom Sherak, “to put it in your hands for safekeeping,” Grey said. “It’s a historical document, and it should be with the Academy.”

William Wellman directed the movie, which had a mind-blowing (especially by today’s standards) two-year run in theaters when it was released. It premiered at New York’s Criterion Theatre on Aug. 12, 1927, and didn’t hit Los Angeles, where it premiered at the Biltmore Theatre, until Jan. 15, 1928. It won an Oscar not only for best picture but for "best engineering effects" the following year.

Wellman’s son and grandchildren were in the audience for the screening, and his son, William Wellman Jr., recounted in grand fashion how his father, with only a few B-movie Westerns under his belt, beat out the major studios' more established contract directors to win the job by playing up his experience as a decorated fighter pilot.

“I’ll make it the best goddamn war picture you’ve ever seen!” Wellman Jr quoted his father as saying to Paramount head Jesse Lasky. He also reiterated a line from Lasky’s memoir that Wings was “the last great silent picture.”

Sherak, in his opening remarks, called the movie “the Star Wars of 1927,” and watching the movie, the comparison is apt. While not only detailing an unlikely friendship (a la Luke Skywalker and Han Solo), the way the aerial dogfights are shot is highly reminiscent of the attack on the Death Star in George Lucas’ 1977 picture.

The event brought out a wide range of interested moviegoers, ranging from hipsters to those who looked as if they were around for Wings’ first run. And as if to underscore the latter point, Grey joked that veteran comedy writer Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), sitting in the audience, saw the movie in the Bronx back in the day.

Email: Borys.Kit@thr.com

Twitter: @Borys_Kit