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A film that took flight

Times Staff Writer

Veteran movie producer A.C. Lyles first saw the World War I epic “Wings” in 1928 on his 10th birthday. He’s lost count of how many times he’s seen the Oscar-winning film over the past 75 years, but his enthusiasm and love for the picture have never waned. So he’s as excited as a youngster at the prospect of attending two screenings this week of a newly restored print at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

“This picture meant so much to me,” Lyles says. “I just thought [stars] 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.”

When Lyles was 10, he went to work as a page at the Paramount-owned theater in Jacksonville, Fla., where “Wings” was screening, and saw it twice a day. A decade later, he came to Hollywood and began working at the Paramount studio, where he’s been ever since. The stars of the epic really did become his friends; he even gave eulogies at their funerals.

Lyles knows he wasn’t the only one affected by “Wings.” “You talk to a lot of people in the early Air Force and they will tell you it greatly inspired them to get into aviation and become a member of the Air Force,” the producer says. “Every young kid wanted to be a pilot.”

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When “Wings” opened in 1927, Americans were still in mourning over the death and destruction from World War I, which had ended less than a decade before. The film’s emotional power struck a chord with moviegoers; the movie played for two years straight in New York City.

“Wings” also changed the face of filmmaking. The action-packed dogfight flying sequences were groundbreaking for their day, and the simple plot -- two friends vie for the affection of the same woman -- became a staple of war films, used again most recently in “Pearl Harbor.”

The film also became the first best picture Oscar winner, and the only silent film to win that honor. It made stars out of its three male leads and its young, headstrong director, William Wellman

The screenings Thursday and Friday -- Friday marks the 74th anniversary of the first Oscars -- represent the crown jewel of the academy’s 18-month celebration of its 75th anniversary. They are part of the anniversary screening series, “Facets of the Diamond: 75 Years of Best Picture Winners.”

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The Academy Film Archive and Paramount Pictures collaborated on the preservation of the film and the creation of the new color-tinted print. Conductor and musicologist Gillian Anderson has restored and reconstructed the film’s original score, which will be performed by a 13-piece orchestra, and composer Adrian Johnston will recreate live sound effects akin to the ones used in the special engagements during the film’s original release.

William Wellman Jr., the son of the late director, says describing “Wings” as a groundbreaking motion picture is something of an understatement.

“No one had done aerial work before, much less dogfights,” he explains. “They had to figure out how to mount cameras on planes.” In doing so, however, he adds, "[my father] was getting himself further and further in trouble with Paramount. They thought they had made a terrible mistake by hiring him. He was pretty green.”

Wellman, says his son, had done 10 films before coming to Paramount, including seven “B” westerns and an MGM turkey called “The Boob.” But it was a picture he completed in just 3 1/2 days, “When Husbands Flirt,” that caught the attention of an ambitious young producer named 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,’ ” the younger Wellman says. “Jesse Lasky, the president of the studio, wanted to have the best talent available because he knew this was going to be the most expensive picture of all time. He didn’t want a green director of ‘B’ westerns and ‘The Boob.’ ”

Wellman, however, actually had front-line battle experience. As his son tells it, Wellman “was a juvenile delinquent and in trouble with the law. He joined the French foreign legion and transferred to the Lafayette flying corps. That 10 months in the world colored the rest of his life and every movie he ever made.”

It was this war experience that eventually sold Lasky on Wellman. Almost immediately upon being hired, Wellman, who was nicknamed “Wild Bill,” locked horns with studio executives. They already had cast their top female star, Bow, along with popular actors Neil Hamilton and Charles Farrrell in the leading roles.

“My father threw [the two actors] out.... He didn’t like these decisions being made without his approval,” the younger Wellman says. “He cast Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen and Cooper, who had only a small part.”

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Cooper’s brief, tender scene as a candy bar-eating pilot was such a hit with audiences that Paramount was besieged with letters about the tall, handsome actor. When Cooper and Wellman teamed up the following year for “Legion of the Condemned,” Coop was the star.

The turmoil didn’t end with the casting. A few weeks into production in San Antonio, Wellman threw away all the footage he had shot. “The studio went crazy,” says his son. “It was aerial stuff and looked horrible. They didn’t know how to shoot aerial stuff and he said, ‘We are not going to cheat and shoot on the ground and pretend it’s in the air.’ So he had Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers take flying lessons. The studio thought he was going to kill their stars.”

Cameras were bolted onto the planes. When it was time for a close-up of Arlen or Rogers in the cockpit, says Wellman, the actors would push a button and start the camera.

“There was a safety pilot but he would duck down,” Wellman says. “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, and my father went up as well. It was a whole new way of making films.”

Although the movie went on to win the best picture Oscar, Wellman wasn’t even nominated. But he later received three best director nominations: for 1937’s “A Star Is Born,” 1949’s “Battleground” and 1954’s “The High and the Mighty.”

*

‘Wings’

Where: The Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

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When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Price: $5 for the general public; $3 for academy members and students with valid I.D.

Information: (310) 247-3600


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