It was a nice change of pace interlude this evening, even if it was ultimately awards related in some way.
“War Horse” may be the World War I film currently in cinemas stirring awards talk throughout the season, and “The Artist” might be the black and white silent film leading the charge in this year’s Best Picture race, but for two evenings at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, William A. Wellman is stealing some of Steven Spielberg and Michel Hazanavicius’ spotlight.
Wellman’s silent, black and white, 1927 Best Picture-winning WWI epic “Wings” has been fully restored in a partnership between Paramount Pictures (this year celebrating its 100th anniversary), the Academy’s Film Archive and Technicolor. It was unveiled this evening at the Academy in the first of two screenings this week as part of the studio’s centenary and the film’s (as well as the Academy’s) 85th anniversary in advance of a January 24 Blu-ray release.
Tom Sherak took to the stage at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater after some technical difficulties to greet attendees. He moved to a pedestal holding something shrouded in a velvet cover. “Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Oscar ‘Wings’ won for Best Picture,” he said as he removed the shroud. “Oohs” and “ahhs” naturally ensued.
Sherak invited Paramount CEO Brad Grey on stage after the usual Academy fluff and puff (don’t read that as disrespect, it’s just, what can you say about it?). Grey mentioned that Carl Reiner was in the crowd, who himself saw “Wings” in its initial run while growing up in the Bronx. “Did anyone else here see the film in its first run,” Grey asked. After no hands went up, he quipped, “You win, Carl.”
Grey then announced that he’d like to present the Academy with J.S. Zamecnik’s original score and cue sheets for the film (without, I believe, even invoking the composer’s name) and passed along to Sherak a thick black binding containing the material.
Next it was on to William A. Wellman, Jr., son of the legendary director who ushered the $2 million film to the screen. Wellman’s father was a 20-something wet-behind-the-ears director in Paramount’s stable when he was suggested for the gig of helming “Wings.” When asked why he thought he could do a better job than any of the seasoned vets in the Paramount stable he pointed to his war record, with the special “Wild Bill” touch of noting that he’d make “the greatest God damned picture the studio has produced,” or words to that effect.
Indeed, “Wings” was a special picture at the time, because no one had depicted “the great war of the skies,” the aerial dogfights that were WWI’s unique contribution to warfare. The crew had to invent the technology necessary to capture the aerial footage, and much of it is harrowing to this day. With a crystal clear restoration, the practical effects work of the various sky battles and airplane crashes (many of them real) make a strong argument for that second Oscar “Wings” won (the only other one for which it was nominated): Best Engineering Effects.
A stencil color technique known as the Handschiegl process was used on the film to accentuate gunfire and flames, and that tinting survives. Film preservationist and historian Kevin Brownlow played a key role in the restoration. You’ll recall he was tapped by the Academy to receive an Honorary Oscar at 2010’s Governors Awards. And Clara Bow is as beautiful as ever, her chestnut eyes sparkling in contrast to her light visage.
Plus, having organist Clark Wilson offer up live musical accompaniment with 21st century technology employed to recreate the organ sound of the period the film was released was a wonderful touch, even if it meant the newly re-recorded score for the film didn’t get some of the spotlight.
“Wings” was the “Star Wars” of its day, as Sherak said. It had a then-astronomical price tag and was a huge success. It played in first-run theaters for two years, had some sound integrated later, and was released yet again in first-run theaters. It was magic at a time when the Academy, which last Wednesday quietly celebrated the 85th anniversary of the day a brain trust willed it into existence, was in its infancy. And it was a natural fit for a Best Picture Oscar win.
However, I always feel that it’s unfair to assume it holds that designation exclusively, as F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” won the award for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, and deserves to be spoken in that same breath.
In any case, it’s a beautiful restoration and a great way to kick off the 100th anniversary celebration of Paramount Pictures. Later this year, Universal Pictures will be celebrating its own centenary and has announced a swath of restorations to coincide with the occasion.
2012 is going to be a good year to be a classic movie lover.
“Wings” will screen once more at the Academy tomorrow night. Tickets are still available at Oscars.org. The film will hit Blu-ray on January 24.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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