First of the best pictures, 'Wings' flies again

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 - 9:06 AM

The 1927 Oscar-winning silent epic is being released on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday for the first time after a two-year restoration.

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The 1927 silent film "Wings," which won the first best picture Oscar, starred, from left, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen. Credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

Tuesday brings a nifty double feature from Hollywood. Not only are the 84th annual Academy Award nominations being announced, but the first film to win the Oscar for best picture, 1927's "Wings," also debuts on digital video.

"Wings" did more than win a gold statuette. It also blazed trails in aviation cinematography and drew crowds as one of the first big-budget blockbusters.

Released as part of Paramount Pictures' 100th anniversary, the video version of "Wings" ($25-$30) exists today thanks to the latest digital-restoration tools, which reversed decades of decay.

"The original elements we used to restore the film were in such a compromised condition that restoration technology really had to mature to actually make this possible," said Andrea Kalas, Paramount's vice president of archives. "Some of the tools we used -- scratch removal, nitrate deterioration -- literally, we couldn't have even done it two years ago."

The silent "Wings" tells a now-familiar story of friendly rival fighter pilots falling in love with a woman against the backdrop of thrilling air combat. (The makers of films such as "Top Gun" and "Pearl Harbor" obviously thought the plot worked.)

"It" girl Clara Bow lights up the screen as a fetching lass, while Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen play American aces during World War I. Amid the romance, fighter planes race through the skies in breathtaking aerial displays that were new to moviegoers.

Director William Wellman, a former WWI pilot, insisted on realism, so the filmmakers re-created entire squadrons of fighter planes and took their cameras to the air. Stunt pilots, shot from a distance, were intended to do all of the flying. But the tremendous shaking of the biplanes limited how much footage could be used from handheld cameras taken aloft.

So Wellman mounted rear-facing cameras directly in front of the cockpits and made his lead actors learn how to fly. That wasn't a problem for Arlen, a St. Paul native who served with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during WWI, but poor Rogers would throw up when he returned to the ground, according to one of several retrospectives on the Blu-ray.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," Rogers told the Star Tribune in 1987 as part of a Twin Cities showing of "Wings" for Paramount's 75th anniversary. "We didn't have the ability to make it look like we were flying when we weren't, like they do these days, so we had to be in the air for every shot."

That realism came at a tremendous expense, with the film's budget doubling during production to $2 million at a time when most films were made for a fraction of that sum. That doesn't include massive support from the Army, which -- seeing an opportunity to promote the U.S. military -- offered land near San Antonio plus the manpower and equipment needed to re-create the Western Front.

All of that money couldn't save the film from the ravages of time, though. The best surviving copy bore physical blemishes and frames where part of the image had disappeared. Digital technology reversed those blights, re-creating missing parts of an image from neighboring frames. Some shots took a week to fix as part of a two-year restoration, Kalas said.

Returning each frame to its original condition was just one element of the makeover. Black-and-white silent films actually were a fine platform for sound -- even if the actors didn't speak -- and they often used a splash of color, too.

Like other epics of the day, the nearly 2 1/2-hour "Wings" enjoyed the accompaniment of a full orchestra and live sound effects when it played in major cities. Paramount pulled the original sheet music from the Library of Congress and recorded it anew, following script prompts that still exist in the archives. Then Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Wars") did the final mix and added sound effects.

"The result is really spectacular," Kalas said. "It stops being a 'silent film' and becomes a war film."

Home viewers also have the option of hearing a re-creation of the original organ accompaniment.

The use of color in the "Wings" restoration follows original notations for wholesale tinting of scenes to convey mood -- say, purple for nighttime.

But its most dynamic inclusion comes from re-creating the "Handschiegl process," in which hues were added by hand to certain scenes. When a plane is shot down, orange-yellow flames burst from the smoke trail in the otherwise monochromatic scene, for more drama and spectacle.

"We did all of this academic research of what color we wanted," Kalas said. "Then we finally saw it on the screen, and thought, 'Wow! That really worked!'"

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