clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ahead of the Oscars, watch the first Best Picture winner online

Wings comes from an era with its own split between best and most popular picture

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Wings, a 1927 wartime romance starring Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen as Jack and David, small-town rivals who become allies when they serve together as combat pilots in World War I. A mutual friend from back home, good-hearted ambulance driver Mary, is played by Clara Bow. Wings is famous for being the first Best Picture Oscar winner. (That year, there were actually two top Academy Awards, with Wings winning “Outstanding Picture,” and F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans winning “Most Unique and Artistic Picture.”) But Wings is more than just a cinema history footnote. Director William A. Wellman made one of the most pulse-pounding films of the silent era, using inventive camera placement and daring stunts to put viewers inside plane cockpits during thrilling aerial shootouts.

Why watch now?

Because ABC will air the 2019 Academy Awards on Sunday night.

Given all the troubles the Oscar producers have had this year — from failing to find a suitable host to becoming engulfed in controversy with every proposed change — it makes sense to revisit a question that comes up over and over when discussing this particular institution. Do the Oscars really matter? Doesn’t this ceremony seem like more trouble than it’s worth, given how rare it is for either the best or the most popular movie in any given year to win the top prize?

In a way, Wings serves as a good response to the skeptics. Its enduring reputation over the past 90-plus years makes an argument for why American cinema needs this annual celebration — especially given that its success at the original Academy Awards speaks to how the Oscars have been a contentious proposition from the start. Wings wasn’t nominated in any of the acting or writing categories, nor was Wellman up for Best Director. The following year, the Academy stopped separating the “great art” award Sunrise won from the “great production” award Wings won. As a result, the Academy cites Wellman’s film as its real first Best Picture. Yet the way Wings was treated back then presages the recent debate about whether the Oscars should introduce a “Best Popular Film” category. It’s as though the voters of 1927 hailed Wings for being a whiz-bang, crowd-pleasing entertainment, while suggesting that their other honorees were aesthetically superior.

But one of the big reasons film buffs still watch Wings and debate its relative merits, is because it won the Oscar, and joined the officially recognized canon of films worth remembering. And that’s good because Wings is one of the most exciting, innovative Hollywood movies of its time. Wellman went on to direct some of the grittiest studio films of his era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was already pushing boundaries in 1927, telling a story about the dangerous lives of randy flyboys, and making sure to include a healthy amount of sex (including some very brief nudity) and a surprising amount of gore. Wings would be a landmark film even without the Oscar, but thanks to the Academy imprimatur, it’s become a must-see film — just like 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, and The Shape of Water will be for decades to come.

Who it’s for

Movie — and military — historians.

Wings’ only other Oscar went to Roy Pomeroy for best visual effects (known that year as the “Best Engineering Effects” award). Pomeroy and Wellman indulged in the kind of technical experimentation that should inspire moviemakers even today. Their crews choreographed POV shots of woozy soldiers, created crude versions of “split-screen” images, used hand-drawn animation to emulate smoke and fire, and strapped cameras onto airborne planes — sometimes with Rogers or Arlen in the pilot’s seat. Although Wings is sometimes unfavorably compared to Murnau’s Sunrise, both films are impressively expressive and incredibly cinematic.

Wings is also a fascinating document of how many Americans viewed World War I in 1927 — less than a decade after the Armistice and just a few years before the economic and sociopolitical aftereffects of “the Great War” would begin rippling across the globe, gradually intensifying into what would become World War II. Wellman and writer Julian Johnson worked with the US military on this film, which means there’s a fair amount of jingoism in Wings. Jack, David, and Mary curse the destruction and the lives lost in the war, but they also take up the cause of their fallen comrades, taking pride in fighting for their country and their friends.

Where to see it

Kanopy. Not enough people are aware of Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service that partners with universities and public libraries. Not every library has a Kanopy option, and not every local branch of the service has access to all of its available movies. Still, anyone with a library card or college ID should at least register with the site (for free) and browse a catalog that leans heavy on arthouse, foreign-language, and classic Hollywood films. Until the Criterion Channel comes online in April, Kanopy can be the best option to stream certain old movies. (For those who can’t get Wings via Kanopy in their area, it’s also available to purchase from the major digital retailers at a relatively low price.)