It is my plan to watch a selection of winning films from the Oscars, starting at the beginning of the awards show (I had hoped for all but there are a lot of categories and few hours in the day). I’d like to breakdown the history of the Oscars for the year, go through the winners, and then follow with a few of my own selections for the year. On this journey, I will be guided by Academy Awards®: The Complete Unofficial History , in the event that you’d like to embark on your own journey through time.
So without further ado…I give you…
The first award ceremony was actually held in 1929, to recognize works created in 1927 and 1928. Tickets to the show cost only $5, or $69 by todays standards, and the ceremony lasted only 15 minutes (Wikipedia), laughable compared to today’s 3 hour affair. The effects of WWI are waning, but WWII looms in the distance. Mickey Mouse makes his first appearance, Amelie Earhart becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin, Japan and China are at ends, and both Che Guevara and Shirley Temple are born.
Best Picture: Wings (1927)
“Oh, Jack”, indeed.
Sepia, Silent, and Sentimental are all words that come to mind when thinking about Wings. While the film may not be entirely unique in it’s story, that doesn’t take away from it’s ability to be enjoyed. Clara Bow is amazing, though an understanding of over-acted performances as a result of a legacy in theatrical acting is needed in order to properly judge any actor of this time. One point of interest, and perhaps discomfort, is the role of the German-American volunteer, mostly used in the film as a comic relief in the form of physical humor. His patriotism is in doubt by the others, and then proven with the showing of his very American tattoo.
Aesthetically the movie was pretty spectacular. The fighting sequences were something to be awed, though they may not compare to the cinema of today they definitely show the innovation that was commonly employed in early film. The use of sepia in the film is also quite wonderful. My favorite shot (below) is of David and Sylvia [David and Jack’s shared love interest (besides each other, but more on that later)], watching the film this was the moment that I could feel my eyes widen, and my interest pique. In the background we see Jack’s car, but we view it as if we were on the swing with Sylvia and David. This is particularly interesting when we consider that we’re arguably meant to identify with either Jack or, on some smaller account, Mary (played by Clara Bow). And, if he’s so in love with Sylvia, why does David look absolutely miserable in this shot?
Because this movie is super gay.
Affectionate relationships between men in no way necessitates a sexual relationship, but these two just seemed to always be all about each other. Are you really fighting over Sylvia, or is your unrealized passion for one another the reason for you competition? In any case, this is the first time Hollywood features a man-on-man kiss.
Watch or wait? For this movie, watch.
Other Awards won for work on this film include: Roy Pomeroy for Engineering Effects.
Best Actor: Emil Jannings, The Last Command (1928)
To preface, I had a hard time with this one. I had to watch it twice because the nap monsters held me ransom during my first viewing. None-the-less, in comparison to Wings this film is much more emotionally and intellectually substantial. How strongly can we hold someone to the past? How important is intent over consequence? Also, the opening score is bomb.
Jannings plays plays a General under the Tsar, before the people’s revolution, who has miraculously escaped his home country, albeit with a physical reminder in the form of a tick, and has found himself making money by acting as the man he once was. We go one to learn (SPOILERS) that the director he’s working for was once whipped by him for his revolutionary tendencies, and that he escaped Russia because of the love of a well known revolutionary actress, who dies moments after saving him. The director, knowing the General’s past, makes a point to bring it up, and uses this as an opportunity to explore his long held resentments for the man, whom he (presumably) comes to respect by the end of the film.
The film questions forgiveness, but also the extent to which a woman is willing to follow her ideals. The actress Natalie Dabrova, played by Evelyn Brent, is renowned for her ideologies, and yet saves the life of a man who represents everything that she finds wrong with her country. In fairness, she does struggle to come to her conclusion, as at one point she plans to kill him, and we do hear her reasoning for loving him over following her political aspirations, which is that he loves his country more than any other Russian.
I never realized Hollywood had anti-communist sentiments this early.
Watch or wait? For this movie, wait.
In addition to his performance in The Last Command, Jannings was nominated for his work in The Way of All Flesh (1927).
Other Awards won for work on this film include: NOMINATED Best Writing, Original Story Lajos Biró
Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
This movie is sort of F-ed up, but in an enjoyable kind of way. In general, the movie is an interesting portrayal of a man who is stepping out on his wife, and is convinced by his mistress to murder his wife. Things don’t go as planned, and his wife is made aware of his attempt to harm her. They spend the day in the city, and he ends up falling in love with her again. (SPOILERS) On their return trip there’s a storm, which capsizes the boat, and the man looses his wife. Convinced she’s drowned, the man storms off and finds his mistress , in a murderous rage he begins to choke her, only stopped by the distant call that his wife’s been found. He goes to his wife, just as she’s waking up, and they embrace as the sunrises.
Janet Gaynor’s face portrays a sense of honesty in the film, and overall the kind of sensibility that I can imagine was desired in this time. BUT, I was living for Margaret Livingston, the mistress. Her acting was sublime, and the way the film portrays her against the dark of night at the beginning of the film is so beautifully shot. I imagine the type of role she portrays in the film kept the Academy from rewarding her, giving a high accolade to a woman portraying a mistress probably wouldn’t have gone over well in 1920’s America.
Lastly, is this film where ‘the dog knows all’ gets its start?
Watch or wait? For this movie, watch.
Other Awards won for work on this film include: Best Unique and Artistic Picture, and Charles Rosier and Karl Struss for Cinematography.
Special Award: Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer (1927)
Guess who did a dumb and rented The Jazz Singer from 1980? Ah, well.
I honestly cannot stop wondering if the person who pitched said “SAY, I got a swell idea, how about we fight racism, with a different kinda racism? Whaddaya say, boys?”
Jolson plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a song of a Jewish Cantor, who wishes to sing for public audiences and not in the synagogue. This movie is well known as the first ‘talkie’, or movie with sound to those of us living in this century, which is why it was extended this award. While the use of sound must have been groundbreaking, and one can see how folks would be super amped (and perhaps terrified) of hearing someone talk on the big screen, the film seems to be too heavily consumed with the new technology. It’s not particularly breathtaking in its aesthetics, and its storyline is thoroughly problematic.
This movie acts as a great piece to talk about race in early 20th century America. One thing that I am constantly fascinated with is how race is a human construct, there is no actual differentiation between the races we recognize today, and if you don’t believe that you can just look to history. This film refers to Jews as their own race, which is of course something that has been present throughout all of history and is still very important to the Jewish community today. However, when filling out government forms “Jewish” is not on the list, in the same way we wouldn’t see Irish or Italian, even though these were considered their own races in the early twentieth century. In fact, it’s thought that Latinxs will be going this way as well. With the growing number of Latinos, Latinas, and Hispanics in the country growing, in order to remain the majority, the term white is extended to groups that threaten the idea of a primarily white society.
Or so I’ve read.
Watch or wait? For this movie, watch.
(if only for it’s importance to cinema, and not necessarily it’s quality)
Other Awards won for work on this film include: NOMINATED Best Writing, Adaptation Alfred A. Cohn
Honorary Award: Charlie Chaplin, for The Circus
If I could have a conversation with one person from the past, it would be my father, but Charlie Chaplin is a close second (if there’s Internet in the afterlife, not that close pops).
Chaplin seems like such a genuine soul, and recently I was reminded of this from a clip that circulated Facebook that I now know was from The Great Dictator (1940). Beyond the impression that I get from him, his performance ability is fantastic, with his work he inspires Dadaists, and Federico Fellini said of him that he’s “a sort of Adam, from whom we are all descended”.
The control Chaplin exhibits over his body is unimaginable. He is a true performer in his ability to completely absorb the character he portrays, and the Tramp is equal parts entertaining and relatable. I enjoy that while his antics mirror (or rather are mirrored by) the Three Stooges, he doesn’t go so far as to mock his character, there’s no degradation of the Tramp in the same way that ‘the fool’ is often exposed to.
Perhaps even more noteworthy is Chaplin’s credits as director, writer, and producer of this film. The story itself is so wonderful in this film, it’s crazy to think of all the comedies it must have inspired. Chaplin is credited as one of the first true film artists, and he’s thought to make the first ‘sophisticated comedy’. This film is a delightful testament to both of those claims.
Sadly, in 1952 Chaplin is exiled to London, after the House of Un-American Activities Committee decided he made films with anti-capitalism sentiments.
Watch or wait? For this movie (and anything with Charlie Chaplin), watch.
Other Awards include: NOMINATED Best Writing and Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Great Dictator (1940), NOMINATED Best Writing of an Original Screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux (1948), Won Honorary Award 1972 “for making film the art form of this century”, Best Music Original Dramatic Score for Limelight (1952) awarded in 1973 after the film’s late release
And with that, my study on the Oscars of 1927-1928 comes to a close. My favorite film from this selection is hands down The Circus, and if you could only see one film from this year I would recommend it be that one. 🎬
This post is apart of my series on Oscar winning and nominated films, and you can find all the related posts here.
Have you seen these films? What did you think? In the spirit of ciné clubs, let me know, in the comments below!