By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While silent movie "The Artist" gathers steam ahead of the Oscars, the only other non-talking picture to win an Academy Award is getting a makeover as Hollywood falls back in love with the early days of cinema.
"Wings," a World War I aerial dogfight epic made in 1927, won the first ever Oscar for best picture. Paramount Pictures, which is celebrating its centenary, has restored the classic silent action film and will present it with live organ accompaniment at the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Wednesday, ahead of a Blu-ray release on January 24th.
William Wellman, a veteran World War I fighter pilot, directed "Wings," giving 1927 audiences a view of the world most had never seen. With cameras affixed to the flimsy bi-planes, a crew of flyers created dogfights featuring death-defying aerial stunts that continue to amaze viewers today.
"The thing about 'Wings' that's so exciting is that it was the 'Avatar' and the 'Star Wars' of its day. It was a state of the art action film," said Academy archivist Randy Haberkamp.
Set in Hollywood during the advent of sound, "The Artist" is not the only new movie focusing on early cinema. Martin Scorsese's 3D family film "Hugo" centers on French film pioneer Georges Melies, and in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" Owen Wilson plays a modern screenwriter time traveling back to the 1920s.
"I think the zeitgeist is the realization that silent films are not a dead art form because true cinema is a very visceral and visually-generated thing," Haberkamp said.
In "Wings," Richard Arlen played David Armstrong, a small-town kid with a taste for speed. Immune to the affection of Mary (Clara Bow), the girl next door, he is smitten by city girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). His rival in romance is Jack Powell (Charles Rogers), heir to a fortune.
Volunteering for service, the two men become fast friends through their wartime experience. Early on, they meet Gary Cooper playing a doomed pilot in one of his first screen appearances, a role that catapulted him to stardom.
WAY OVER BUDGET
Budgeted at what was then a record-setting $2 million dollars, "Wings" wound up costing way over that amount while Wellman spent idle days waiting for clouds, which he claimed were needed to offset the planes against the background.
Due to his bickering with studio brass, Wellman was not invited to the 1929 Oscar ceremony even though the movie was a hit. Powered by public enthusiasm for Charles Lindbergh's daring crossing of the Atlantic, "Wings" went on to become one of the top-grossing films of the decade.
Silent, black-and-white movie "The Artist", directed by Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, is unlikely to become a major box office blockbuster despite having won more than 40 awards, including three Golden Globes last Sunday.
But it is considered a front-runner for the best film Oscar in February, and it may represent a reexamination of cinema's early roots in an era of dwindling movie goers.
"Through festivals and the availability of different kinds of materials on streaming and DVD release, I think people are experimenting with different types of films," said Paramount archive vice-president Andrea Kalas.
"People listen to the Beatles and the latest thing, and maybe something similar is happening with film too, where we're appreciating all sorts of different movies from different eras," Kalas said.
Oddly, early film technique has become more relevant in the modern era where a proliferation of digital effects has resulted in spectacle-driven box office. Consequently, action scenes are becoming longer and dialogue scenes shorter.
"Most of the movies that we go to see now are based on action sequences," said Haberkamp. "If you don't know how to cut an action sequence, if you don't know how to stage an action sequence, you don't know too much. Frankly, that's where the silent era really was phenomenal."
With all the technical advancements through the years, not a lot has changed, according to Haberkamp. What continues to make cinema past and present a unique art form is the transposition of images and the ability to manipulate time and space.
"In the end, I don't care whether it's silent or sound I just care whether it's compelling and well made," he said. "I think that's why there are so many people looking at silents going, 'Wait a minute, there's something going on here that is more than just a dated technology.'"
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)