Oscars flying high: From ‘Wings’ to ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

After Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” soared with both critics and audiences last year it scored with the academy last month earning six Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The Tom Cruise blockbuster is in a dogfight for this top award with the likes of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “The Fabelmans” and “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

Turning the clock back over nine decades, the very first Best Picture winner in Oscars history was another high-flying Paramount release, 1927’s “Wings,” which also claimed the prize for best engineering effects. Directed by 30-year-old World War I vet William A. Wellman, who was snubbed, “Wings” revolves around two young smalltown men Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen, who become fighter aces during the Great War.  “It” girl Clara Bow plays Mary, Jack’s neighbor who secretly loves him. She joins the war effort becoming an ambulance driver. And a young Gary Cooper made the biggest impression in a tiny part as a doomed pilot with a penchant for candy bars.

Made for a then-hefty $2 million, “Wings” took flight with it’s still breathtaking aerial and battle sequences that featured real soldiers as extras. And remember those sequences were done decades before CGI. William Wellman Jr. related in a 2002 L.A. Times interview just how groundbreaking “Wings” was for its time. “No one had done aerial work before. They had to figure out how to mount cameras on planes.” His father, known as “Wild Bill,” was “getting himself further and further in trouble with Paramount. They thought they had made a terrible mistake by hiring him.”

Wellman had helmed 10 films before coming to Paramount including “B” Westerns and “The Boob,” a poorly received 1926 comedy with a young Joan Crawford. However, another of those “When Husbands Flirt,” impressed producer B.P. Schulberg who signed Wellman to a contract. When Schulberg became head of production at Paramount, he brought Wellman with him. “Once he was there, he kept pushing my father to direct ‘Wings.’ Jesse Lasky, the president of the studio, wanted to have the best talent available because this was going to be the most expensive picture of all time.”

What sold Lasky on Wellman was his own experience during World War I. Wellman, said his son, was a “juvenile delinquent and in trouble with the law. He joined the French Foreign Legion and transferred to the Lafayette flying corps. That ten months in the world colored the rest of his life and every movie he ever made.”

Wellman had a lot of fights with the front office. He dumped the original leading men and then tossed out several weeks of footage he had shot on location in San Antonio. “The studio went crazy,” said his son. “It was aerial stuff and looked horrible. [He said] we are not going to cheat and shoot on the ground and pretend it’s the air.” He even went so far as to order Arlen and Rogers to take flying lessons.

So just how did Wellman get that incredible footage of the stars flying the planes? Cameras were bolted onto the plane so when it was time for their close-ups, Arlen and Rogers would simply hit a button in the cockpit which would start the cameras. “There was a safety pilot, but he would duck down,” said Wellman Jr. “They, in a sense, would fly the plane for maybe 500 feet. So, they were their own directors. They also had other planes with assistant directors flying nearby so they could give directions. My father went up as well. It was a whole new way of making films.”

“Wings” opened in New York City on Aug. 12, 1927 and played for 63 weeks straight at the Criterion Theater and arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1928. The original Paramount release had color-tinted sequences, as well as some scenes in an early wide-screen process called Magnascope. Some aerial sequences used the color process Handschiegl to augment fire and explosions. Besides having a full orchestra, first-run theaters also presented the film with live sound effects.

The film changed the life of A.C. Lyles, who would eventually work at Paramount for decades.  He saw “Wings” on his 10th birthday. “The picture meant so much to me,” he told me in a 2002 L.A. Times interview. “Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen – I felt like I knew these people when I saw this picture. They felt like my friends. Gary Cooper, in that one part when he was killed, I felt like a member of my family had been killed.” Lyles went to work that year as a page at the Paramount-owned theater in Jacksonville, Fla. where “Wings” was screening. A decade later, he came to Hollywood and got a job at the studio. And the film’s stars became his friends.

Twenty-seven years after “Wings,” Wellman scored another huge success in the sky with ‘The High and the Mighty.” This time he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

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