Logic would dictate that the first Academy Award for Best Picture would be given at the very first Oscar celebration. However, that was not the case.
The First Best Picture Award
While the first Academy Awards ceremony took place for the 1928 movie season, there was not a Best Picture award allotted that year. However, there were two separate awards for movie greatness: The Most Artistic Quality of Production and the Most Outstanding Production. At the time, each of these awards was meant to serve a different purpose. While the Most Artistic Quality of Production award was meant to highlight the film that most aspired to an artistic vision, the latter was meant to award the film with the best overall effect on the viewer. Sunrise and Wings won these two separate awards.
Sunrise, adapted from a short story by Hermann Sudermann, is lauded for being both artistic in its overall vision and in its adaption. The film is also known for a bit of scandal as there is an existing rumor that the head of the MGM Studios lobbied behind the scenes for the film to win over another. This film was the winner of the 1928 Oscar for Most Artistic Quality of Production.
As the story unfolds, a woman who is on vacation falls in love with a married man. Wanting his wife out of the way, she tries to persuade him to drown her and make it look like a boating accident. He resists at first, but eventually agrees to the plot.
The wife agrees to go out on the boat with him, but his strange behavior makes her nervous. Finally he stands up ready to throw her out of the boat, but realizes he can't go through with it. He takes the boat back to shore, and the wife jumps out and runs away from him.
The man pursues his wife, and ultimately pulls her to safety after she runs into traffic. She is still afraid of him, but she begins to forgive him. They ultimately reconcile, and head back to the boat to return home. A storm blows up as they are crossing the lake and the boat begins sinking. The man ties some bundles of reeds around his wife to help her stay afloat.
The boat capsizes and the couple is separated. The man wakes up on the shore, but his wife is nowhere to be found. After gathering helpers from town to search for her he believes she must have drowned, and he is wracked with guilt. He returns home.
As soon as the woman the man has been having an affair with hears the news, she heads for the man's house because she believes he has carried out their plan. When she gets there, the man is furious with her and attempts to strangle her, but he's interrupted by the maid who tells him his wife has been found alive.
The man goes to his wife and they reconcile. The woman leaves town in the morning as the sun rises.
Wings was the first collaboration between Hollywood and the Air Force. It is praised for a plot line that features World War I fighter pilots and American values, which won the film the Academy Award for Most Outstanding Production.
Plot of Wings
Two young men, Jack and David, are both in love with a young woman named Sylvia. However, Jack doesn't realize that another woman named Mary is in love with him. Both young men enlist to become fighter pilots, and they wind up serving together in France fighting the Germans.
Mary also joins the army as an ambulance driver, and she runs into a very drunken Jack in Paris. She tries to put him to bed, and is discovered by the military police who think they've found the couple in a compromising position. Mary is forced to resign and goes back to America.
David is shot down during a mission and presumed dead. Jack wants to avenge his friend's death and winds up shooting down a German plane, only to find out that David survived, stole a German plane, and was trying to make it back to his unit when Jack shot him down. Jack lands because he wants to take a souvenir, and that's when he realizes it was David in the plane. David lives just long enough to forgive Jack.
Jack returns home after the war ends. He reunites with Mary and realizes that he loves her.
A Retroactive Decision
For the next Academy Awards, the decision was made to only have a Best Production award and to add awards in other fields as needed. This resulted in the retroactive decision that determined Wings to be the best production of the first Academy Awards. Sunrise was looked over for this title as the Academy deemed Wings the stronger movie of the two. In the early 1930's, the title of the award was renamed the Best Picture by the Academy.
Aftermath and Future
In the years since the first Academy Awards show, the controversy over the Best Picture title has died down but the anticipation has not. Year after year, fans and movie buffs tune in to the nominations to see who wins this highly coveted title. Up until 2008, nominations for this category were limited to five films per year. This made the competition for the title that much more intense.
The Nominee List Increases
Many hearts have been broken over a missed Oscar nod for Best Picture. It has been said that the limitation of five films forced many films to be looked over much in the same way the Academy looked over Sunrise for the retrospective first Best Picture award. The newer format allows more films to be recognized for their outstanding achievement. This stays true to the original intention of the Academy in initiating the awards show with two separate categories for "Best Production." The new format allows for a maximum of ten films to be nominated for Best Picture.
Producers Finally Receive the Award
Up until the 24th Academy Awards show, the physical award for best picture was given to the individual movie studio that produced the film, highlighting the rise and fall of the great movie studios like MGM and Universal. Beyond this point, awards have been given to those listed on the production team. Many feel this stays true to the intentions of the first Academy Awards to honor the best productions of the year, not just the best movies.
And the Awards Go On
While Wings may have earned the nod of being the first Academy Award for Best Picture retrospectively, many films have won Best Picture over the years. The title is acclaimed, revered and certainly one of the most coveted awards given by the Academy for actor, fan and movie reviewer alike.