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“Reflections” on movie history

Photo: P1007-94B – Two women and a biplane at an unknown local field, c1920s. Sophienburg Collection.

Photo: P1007-94B – Two women and a biplane at an unknown local field, c1920s. Sophienburg Collection.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

What do New Braunfels and the 1929 Academy Award for Best Production (Picture) have in common?

The answer is in Jack Kaufmann’s oral history recording for the Sophienburg Museum’s “Reflections” radio program. Jack’s father, John P. Kaufmann, Sr., owned and ran one of the early theaters or movie houses in New Braunfels. Jack could remember the switch from silent films to the “talkies.” He was a very young boy when the news that former World War I pilot, now Paramount movie director, William Wellman was going to make a film in San Antonio.

Starring Richard Arlen, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Clara Bow, “Wings” would be a movie about planes and pilots in WWI. Filming began on September 7, 1926, and ran through April 7, 1927. It was awarded the “Oscar” for Best Production (Picture) at the first annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award ceremony in May 1929. It was also the only silent film to win that distinction. “Wings” was filmed nine years after the end of WWI. Director Wellman recreated war-torn France at multiple San Antonio locations: Camp Stanley (Bullis), Fort Sam Houston, Kelly Field, the Oppenheimer Ranch off Culebra — and the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels!

Beginning with a $2 million budget, Wellman convinced the U.S. Army Air Corps to chip in the equivalent of $16 million in men and equipment to make the war epic. The U.S. Army 2nd Division used the filming as a legitimate training exercise, using 5,000 soldiers, 300 pilots, 100 airplanes, five tanks and uncounted artillery pieces. The coordination of the battle scenes also earned “Wings” the only Academy Award given for Engineering Effects.

Most of the movie was shot at Camp Stanley. The Army had pounded the ground with shells to imitate the pock-marked French countryside. Real soldiers dug the miles of trenches that were used for the recreation of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Every detail, from the landscape to troop movements, followed the actual military orders and written accounts. Wellman spent 10 days rehearsing the battle scene in order to capture the perfect five minutes of film in one take. Why? Because everything but the bullets, shells and smoke bombs simulating poison gasses, was real. Artillery, tanks, exploding mines, airplane crashes — all were real. The U.S. Army had stipulated $10,000 insurance policies be taken out on every serviceman for good reason; there were two injuries and one unfortunate fatality.

New camera techniques were developed to shoot the spectacular aerial footage. Cameras were mounted on the front of the planes in both directions so that the pilot’s face could be seen straight on and the viewer could experience the pilot’s view of the battle. Wellman even waited four weeks for the blue Texas sky to get cloudy so that the aerial maneuvers would have a better impact through a sense of scale against the clouds.

I could list a hundred interesting facts and details about “Wings,” but I want to get back to the New Braunfels connection. Two stories have been handed down through the last 90 years. In 1980, Jack Kaufmann recalled the event from Jan 1927:

“… they had a crash scene that they made at Planters & Merchants, what is now Mission Valley Mills … Richard Arlen was supposed to have been shot down. So they put an old airplane up there on a ramp, on top of this bluff, above the river. And, ah, they started that airplane up and just let it go off the ramp. And then they had cameras down below and they just filmed it when it went down into the water and crashed. Then they stopped the cameras and then Richard Arlen waded out in the water and got in the airplane and they turned the cameras back on and he crawled out … why they did that I don’t know, because they crashed many and many a plane over at Camp Bullis with pilots in them and everything.”

Well, Jack, I’m thinking that although Richard Arlen was a WWI pilot and could fly, he was also the leading man and they couldn’t take the chance of an accident. For you newer-to-town folks, Mission Valley Mills is that giant building behind the Marketplace Shopping Center.

The other leading man in “Wings” was Buddy Rogers. He was often billed as “America’s Boyfriend” and a real favorite of the ladies. On the day of filming, the seven Timmermann sisters came over from Geronimo to catch a glimpse of Rogers. Thrilled to get to see him making a movie, they joined other citizens crowding on the railroad tracks above the river. (I wonder if they were on the bridge?) When the day’s filming was over, the seven girls “worked up enough courage to introduce themselves to Buddy Rogers and his mother.” Through the next 40-plus years, Rogers, his mom, and the Timmerman sisters kept their friendship going through cards and Christmas gifts. Buddy Rogers returned to San Antonio in 1967 and he invited the brave and bold seven Timmermann sisters to a revival of “Wings,” where they were his guests at the gala for Kelly AFB’s 50th Anniversary.

So there you go — the first Best Picture Award and New Braunfels. Without the Sophienburg’s “Reflections” oral history program, stories like these would be forgotten. Our history would be lost. If you know of someone who needs to share their stories for posterity, please contact the Sophienburg at 830.629.1572 or email us at archives@sophienburg.com.

The “Reflections” program is aired every Sunday at 9 A.M. on radio station KGNB at 1420 AM. Recordings are available for purchase at the Sophienburg Museum & Archives.

Sources: Sophienburg Collections: Jack Kaufmann Reflections program #204; New Braunfels Herald and Neu Braunfelser Zeitung newspaper collections; https://www.wnyc.org/story/184071-wings-oscars-first-best-picture/; https://variety.com/1927/film/reviews/wings-3-1200409954/; ; https://www.expressnews.com/150years/culture/article/War-movie-Wings-brought-Hollywood-to-SA-6192708.php