Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jason watches WINGS

A week ago. Wow, I've been bad at updating. I'm feeling better now, so I shouldn't fall this far behind again.

Anyway, last weekend my favorite local spot, the Niles Film Museum did a special presentation on the 80th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards. On that night 80 years (and one week) ago, William Wellman's WINGS won the first award for "Most Outstanding Production" (next year changed to "Best Picture"). Not only was it the first winner, it's still (and I think safe to assume always will be) the only silent film to win.

So the Niles Film Museum played WINGS. The original aviation picture that spawned a genre, and a story of war, heroism, friendship, and romance. First the romance: Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both smitten with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), but Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack, but to him she's just the girl next door, nothing special.

Now the war: WWI, and Jack and David join the Air Force. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jack, Mary joins the Women's Motor Corps as an ambulance driver (she knows a lot about cars, helping Jack on his hot rod). In boot camp, Jack harasses David since they're still rivals, but eventually the pressures of war turn them into true friends (with the help of an ill-fated ace, a cameo by then little-known Gary Cooper). Oh yeah, that's the friendship part, and the aviation scenes (which are still thrilling) provide plenty of heroics, in particular saving an entire town from a bombing attack.

But enough of plot summaries, I'll just say I teared up a bit at the end, and I was far from the only one. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

But there was more to the presentation than just the movie. William Wellman, Jr. was there to introduce his father's film. Frederick Hodges played the piano based on what survives of the original score. And Ben Burtt was there to provide sound effects. If you don't recognize the name, you surely recognize the work--he's the sound effects man for the STAR WARS franchise, INDIANA JONES, WALL-E (he's the voice!), and most recently the new STAR TREK movie. For his work, he's taken home 4 Academy Awards, so combined with the 2 that WINGS won (Best Picture and Best Effects), this was a 6 Oscar day in Niles.

So after the movie (I saw the early show, there was an evening show as well), there was a special presentation with Shawna Kelly, author of "Aviators in Early Hollywood" presenting a slide show about aviation history and in particular her great grandfather B. H. "Daredevil" DeLay. Then Ben Burtt got up and spoke for a while about sound effects in general and in particular the sound effects for WINGS. Incidentally, Burtt is a huge WINGS fan and started his career by winning the National Student Film Festival with a WWI aviation film called YANKEE SQUADRON). And then William Wellman, Jr. got up, talked about his father for a bit, and then presented the documentary about his father, WILD BILL: HOLLYWOOD MAVERICK. It's an impressive collection of anecdotes and interviews from people who worked with him (biggest get--Nancy Reagan. He tried to get Ronnie, but didn't realize Ronnie had Alzheimers by the time he was making the film). Wellman was a brilliant director, but also charitably called cantankerous--he had a nasty temper. Despite some huge hits (not just WINGS, he also did A STAR IS BORN, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, and many others), he never got along with studio executives. Best story--when he was assigned to direct some script he hated, he filled a truck with manure and dumped it on the studio exec's desk.

Anyway, awesome day in Niles. That's it.


Brian Darr said...

Really wish I could have made it to this. Most Academy Awards books note Wings as not only the first Best Picture winner (though I believe the title of the award it won back then was "Outstanding Production"- and was subsequently retrofitted with the "Best Picture" label we commonly use today), but also the first winner of an AA for "Engineering Effects". I'd always assumed this was meant to honor the visual effects sequences, but recent research on the first Academy Awards taught me that in fact that award was meant to honor the live sound effects that accompanied Wings during its premiere engagement in Hollywood, as it was to honor the visual aspect of the film. So to have Ben Burtt there doing something perhaps similar (exactly what was it that he did do? live foley? electronic effects? you don't really say) would have been particularly fitting for an event commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Wings double-win.

puppymeat said...

Interesting, I hadn't looked into the "engineering effects" award it won. And I'm sorry I didn't write more about what Ben Burtt actually did. He did it all electronically, no live foley (BTW, when I saw live foley at BRAND UPON THE BRAIN at SFIFF a few years back, it was awesome). But the electronic effects were all (to my understanding) recordings of practical foley effects, based as close as Burtt could determine to the original effects. So it was probably pretty darn close to the original WINGS experience.