"The Artist," a modern-day silent film, is a favorite to win Best Picture at tonight's 84th Academy Awards. With Barry Petersen now we'll remember the silent film classic that won Best Picture on the very first Oscar night:
It soared, and roared . . . movie magic unlike anything America had ever seen. Paramount's 1927 World War I epic "Wings" had the usual aerial duels . . . and then came the unusual.
Director William Wellman wanted as much reality as possible: "He didn't want any fakery," said his son and biographer, William Wellman Jr.
He recalled his father's words to the two male stars: "He said, 'I'm gonna do this right.' And he told Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers, 'You're gonna take flying lessons and you're gonna fly the planes while you're being photographed.'"
The actors were up there with nothing but a camera and the blue sky!
They flew with barely a few hours training, and a button to turn on the mounted camera.
Wellman wanted it right because he was a fighter pilot in WWI. As a B-movie director after the war, he was an unlikely choice to helm the studio's big picture of that year.
Studio boss Jesse Lasky asked why Wellman thought he could do the job: "My father said, 'My war record does,'" said Wellman Jr. "'And I'll make you the best damn picture this studio's ever made.' And I think he did."
It was more than dives and dogfights. Clara Bow was the studio's top box office star of the day. Before "Wings," she starred in the film "It," giving rise to the term "It Girl."
Shapely and sensual, she hated her role as small-town girl and battlefield ambulance driver, with that modest military costume that came with it.
"She was constantly tightening the belt on the uniform to accentuate her curves," said producer and author David Stenn. "And the costume designer Edith Head was always chasing after her and try to get her to loosen the belt which she refused to do. And in the film you can see, [Bow] won."
Stenn wrote a book on Bow, who proved that sex sells. "There's a famous moment in the film where she appears briefly topless, and that brought many people into the theatre than perhaps would have gone without that scene," he said.
With her thick Brooklyn accent, Bow's career did not survive into the era of talkies.
But this new kid's did. Gary Cooper had one scene, and with only the power of his presence, a star was born.
Wellman's demand for reality cost two million dollars, almost twice the budget.
But he turned out a blockbuster, rolling in money for the studio, running for years . . . and winning the very first Academy Award for Best Picture.
Paramount's main gate is one of the last original structures still on the movie studio lot from the time "Wings" premiered. Paramount was careful to preserve it over the decades.
But the movie that won it such acclaim? It was left to disintegrate.
Like many other films of that era, the nitrate stock decomposed.