"The first thing was I had to learn to fly," said Charles (Buddy) Rogers, star of the 1927 film epic "Wings."
"We didn't have process shots in those days, of course. When you see me in the cockpit careening around in the sky, that's real sky. I'm really up there.
"The guy who was teaching me was a second lieutenant named Van. He was pretty good. When I was supposed to do something complicated in the cockpit he would get in too and squeeze down out of sight to work the controls."
Years later, Rogers added, he realized that Van had turned out to be Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, namesake of an Air Force base.
Rogers is 83, and he came to the Library of Congress this week to help launch a program honoring the 10 earliest movies to win the Academy Award for best picture. "Wings" was the first. That original Oscar presentation, Rogers recalled, was made at a quiet dinner without any press at all.
Those were great days at Kelly Field in Texas, the actor said. "We had to have clouds for continuity, and sometimes there wouldn't be a cloud in sight. Once we went 17 days without a cloud, so we phoned all around, California, everywhere, to ask if they had any clouds we could fly in."
Rogers didn't mind the delays: He was getting $75 a week, less only $10 for payments on a suit he was buying. The film took nine months to make and cost a staggering $900,000, more than any picture to date.
One expense was plane crashes. Stunt flier Dick Grace would do a crash to order for $500.
"We had five crashes. There would be 12 cameras on him. On the last one he crawled out of the plane and played the scene, but the minute they called 'Cut!' he dropped. He had a broken neck and broken back."
Rogers, who was married for 44 years to Mary Pickford until her death in 1979, brought his wife Beverly to the screening, which featured a sharp new 35-mm print and a special piano version of the original score, resurrected, arranged and synchronized by the library's brilliant Gillian Anderson and played by Christine Niehaus, a specialist in silent-movie accompaniment.
The series, featuring the other nine earliest Oscar winners from "Broadway Melody" of 1928 to "The Life of Emile Zola" of 1937, runs through Nov. 25 at the Library's Mary Pickford Theater. It includes "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Grand Hotel," "It Happened One Night," "Mutiny on the Bounty" and other classics.
"Wings," directed by William Wellman and costarring Clara Bow, has a forgettable story but some of the greatest aerial combat scenes ever filmed. The giant World War I battlefield panorama probably couldn't be duplicated today, using as it did some $16 million worth of government war materiel.
The movie is also famous for the poignantly brief appearance of Gary Cooper. The lean, 6-foot-4 figure, the sculptured face, the piercing eyes and, in the last moment, that quick, flashing, shy smile: This is star quality. You feel you're discovering him yourself.
Rogers said he rarely sits through the picture anymore, though he did this time.
In the first shot, the boyish Buddy Rogers is lying on the grass daydreaming, his 23-year-old face absolutely unlined, his eyes utterly innocent of pain. The audience applauded, and the grizzled actor nodded and smiled in the dark.
Then he turned to the screen again to watch the young person up there that used to be him.