Ten Decades of Oscars: WINGS (1927)

Hello! And welcome to a weekly feature I’ll be writing in the run-up to the 2020 Oscars on April 25th. I’m one of those idiots who still buys physical media—often an annual metric tonnage of it—and I’m also one of those idiots who can’t help but be swept up in the politics and the competition of the Oscar race. So, this year I decided to combine these two passions and dig into my immense backlog of Best Picture winners. Each week, I’ll watch all ten winners from a specific decade (30s, 40s, 50s etc.—in chronological order), then choose one film to spotlight for this feature. With any luck, I’ll have reached the end of the 2010s by Oscar Night. With any luck, I won’t begin to harbour any resentment against myself until at least the 1970s. If you’re a sport for masochism, why don’t you follow along with me! Or, at the very least, join me each Sunday for the next ten weeks.

Because the Academy Awards started in the late 1920s, only two films received from the decade won Best Picture, and I would be remiss not to talk about the first winner: WINGS (1927). A tale of two American lads drafted into the rickety air force of World War One, WINGS is still the only silent film to have won Best Picture. Its harrowing photography of aerial dogfights and explosive effects are as much a marvel today as they were in 1927. To me, films this ancient (we’re nearing a century since this film was released, so I use the word ancient with only the highest esteem) are more like historical documents than they are full-fledged escapism. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to be pulled into the story here—impressively, quite the contrary is the case—but the further along we progress with film chicanery, with CGI explosions and backdrops and monsters, and the more David Fincher paints tiny corners of a regular street with a different coloured sky just because he can, the more I’m taken by films before the advent of computers. When five or six of these thin planes take off in unison, there really are five or six planes taking off in unison. When they spin and spew black smoke midair, they’re really spinning and spewing. When they crash and break, well… you get it. It’s a kind of thrill that films struggle more and more to catch us in now: the reality of what we’re viewing.

This set the precedent for the Academy’s love affair for war pictures. From here out, they would be smitten with the subject matter—from ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT two years later to THE HURT LOCKER in 2009. But WINGS shouldn’t be shrugged off in this department; the film is astutely aware of its medium. There are several non-aerial shots and sequences in this film that made me say, “That is bonkers” (I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to my viewing partner throughout this Oscar-winning marathon, who hears the phrase “This is bonkers” probably more than any human deserves to). The shot gliding through separate tables at a Paris club is probably the most famous (and still splendid anyway), but the attention to cinematography is everywhere. From the opening introductions with a camera strapped to the front of a swing while to characters converse to the optical effects to the span of bloody battlefields with a multitude of actors and practical effects all happening at once. When the mighty German behemoth plane the Gotha is first trudged out of its hangar like a mighty sword first unsheathed, we’re treated to viewpoints I would be more likely to credit to films from later decades—from underneath amongst the plane’s wheels to bird’s eye views. Director William Wellman’s attention to the realism and the speed and the danger did not overshadow his attention to the artform. This is a worthy start to what would become a longstanding industry tradition, and I’m glad to have seen it.

Join me next week when I’ll be discussing a winner from the 1930s. Here are the contestants in chronological order: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, CIMARRON, GRAND HOTEL, CAVALCADE, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU & GONE WITH THE WIND.

WINGS is available on Blu Ray from Paramount, and is also available to rent or buy on most digital streaming services including Apple TV.

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