Before The Artist took home Oscar gold in 2012, the last time a silent film won the Academy Award for Best Picture was at the very first ceremony in 1929. The movie, Wings, was the only silent film to date to take home the prize and it would likely have remained so were it not for Michel Hazanavicius' soundless sleeper hit.
The Artist is unique on many levels. It's a black-and-white silent film about Hollywood by a French director staring two French actors (Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo).
Dujardin and Hazanavicius are household names in France, but were virtually unknown in America before The Artist opened in theaters last year and began its long victorious road to the Oscars. The film went into the ceremony Sunday night as the clear favorite with 10 nominations. It left with five big wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Score.
Wings and the First Academy Awards
The Academy held its first ceremony at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood to honor outstanding film achievements of 1927 and 1928. Wings was entered into several categories and, with an estimated budget of $2 million and several large battle scenes, took home the Academy Award for Engineering Effects in addition to the evening's top honors.
Starring Clara Bow, Charles Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Gary Cooper, the Paramount Pictures release was an effects-heavy blockbuster, thick with patriotism and sentiment. The film follows two young men who become fighter pilots in World War I. One is rich and the other is middle class, but they are both in love with the same woman.
When Wings won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 (then called Most Outstanding Production) it too was an oddity for its time.
Wings broke many taboos: It was not only the first film to depict two men kissing (a fraternal moment during the deathbed finale), but was also one of the first widely released films to show nudity. Bow's breasts appear on screen momentarily as soldiers barge into her Paris bedroom while she changes clothes. There's also male nudity as men undergo physical exams.
The Oscar winner hit theaters just months before the MPPDA established its list of Don'ts and Be Carefuls.
Though shot in black and white, Wings release was color tinted and had sequences in an early widescreen process known as Magnascope. Ariel shots employed the Handschiegl color process used for flames and explosions and some prints even had synchronized sound effects and music using the General Electric Kinegraphone sound-on-film process.
When looked at in this respect, The Artist could be seen as the first true black-and-white silent film to take home the Oscar, though it too employs effects.
Hazanavicius used new technology for his 21st century silent. Despite what you saw in the theater, The Artist was shot in color and later converted to black and white. The art director and costume designer have both mentioned in interviews that they paid close attention to color when filming, even though they knew it would later be altered.
The last silent movie produced by Hollywood was Legong: Dance of the Virgins in 1935. The last silent film released internationally was Mel Brooks' spoof Silent Movie in 1976.
If anything, the win for The Artist in 2012 was a reminder to protect our film heritage. Nearly 80% of the silent archives were destroyed or lost when silent film was superseded by talkies. Wings, for example, raked in millions of dollars, won awards, and then vanished much like The Artist's George Valentine. It was silent, old, and nobody took the time to take care of the reels that had circulated for decades.
Wings was officially considered lost until the 1960s when someone discovered a fragile nitrate print in the Cinematheque Francaise film archive in Paris and made a copy. Today, Wings is back from the dead, but in a fragile, cut-down state.
In 1997, the Library of Congress selected Wings for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
Ironically, the restored and remastered version of Wings -- presented in high-definition on DVD and Blu-Ray -- was released just one month before The Artist won the Oscar on Jan. 24, 2012.
The Artist is a testament to the achievements of a bygone era and the industry is once again in transition - this time from celluloid to digital film-making. One can hope that the old analogue archives will not be treated as shabbily as the silents were once this transition is complete. One need only look to the troubled history of the first Oscar winner and only other silent victor for a reminder that our cinematic history must be preserved.