- Wings, William A. Wellman
- The Racket, Lewis Milestone
- Seventh Heaven, Frank Borzage*
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F.W. Murnau
- Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
- The Crowd, King Vidor
One day in 1927, Louis B. Mayer got the other studio bosses together and they decided to form the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a little while after that, they thought that the best way to make directors, writers, and actors make money was to give them awards. That, in a nutshell, is how the Academy Awards came to be.
The first ceremony was completely different from the one we all know and hate today: the winners were announced three months beforehand; there was a meal; the acting awards were given for the performer’s entire year’s work, not just a single film; the whole presentation of the awards lasted 15 minutes; and, most intriguingly for my purposes, there were two categories of Best Picture. There was Outstanding Production (which the Academy decided in retrospect was the equivalent of the modern Best Picture), and Unique and Artistic Quality of Production, a category that was immediately dropped.
Having watched the films, I think that those nominated for Unique and Artistic Production more closely fulfill the mission of awarding the highest achievement in filmmaking, in that they not only each told a better story than the ones considered for Outstanding Production, but their creators attempted to advance the medium as both an art form and a source of entertainment. So, the three films nominated for Best Picture (Wings, The Racket, and Seventh Heaven) were crowd-pleasing, accessible, and undemanding, while those nominated for U&AQoP (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Crowd, and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness), while flawed and more than a little dated, were not only technically innovative but presented stories that challenged traditional values (at least, traditional 1920s WASP values). What else can be said of them?
Seventh Heaven was one of three films, along with Sunrise and Street Angel, for which Janet Gaynor won the Academy Award for
Being Strangled Best Actress. Seriously, she gets strangled (or nearly strangled) in all three movies…I guess it was her “thing” as a performer. Anyway, the story is sentimental and hokey, focusing on two lovebirds whose perfect world is only slightly inconvenienced by World War I and the loss of the fellow’s sight (somehow, the horrors of combat combined with blindness convince him of God’s love; I guess this was as close as a movie could come to depicting PTSD in 1928). It won Frank Borzage the Best Director (Drama) award, although there didn’t seem to be much direction beyond “Look adorable, Janet,” and “Remember, there’s no way any of this can really go wrong for you two.”
The Racket, I don’t have a lot to say about. It’s pretty subpar gangster fare, with performances hammy even by silent era standards, and what should have been a bleak ending (a mobster is killed, but the “legit” system that put him in power is still thriving and can never be defeated) is undercut by a heavy-handed focus on Our Hero the Cop’s piety and his desire to stay up all night to finish his paperwork before going to Mass. Yes, he is powerless against the monolithic corruption that will foil him at every turn, but he’s a churchgoing man who always fills out his forms properly, so he’s won…I guess?
Wings was the winner, and it’s easy to see why. It was a huge success, running in theatres for over a year, because it showed audiences something that they’d heard about but likely had never seen. The aerial combat sequences are quite harrowing, with planes falling out of the sky and crazy action that, I imagine, left children gasping for air and grown men fainting in the aisles. I would say this film encapsulates what cinema was for audiences as the silent era came to a close: a fun novelty that was good enough if it showed them an entertaining story coupled with things they’d never seen before. The story, of two pilots in love with Jobyna Ralston (completely believable), is almost an afterthought, as if the studio decided to hang a well-worn narrative on the exciting airplane footage they knew would bring in the punters—especially for poor Clara Bow, who herself said that her part was wedged in to what was essentially a “man’s picture.” (Speaking of Clara Bow, it’s a shame that It, one of my favorite silent films, was released before the eligibility period for the first awards.) Still, of the three films considered for Best Picture, it is the clear standout.
Unique and Artistic Production
Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness is a semi-documentary that tells the story of a Thai farmer who tries to make it in the unforgiving Jungle (always capitalized in the highly-stylized titles). The film is interesting in that it was filmed in Thailand (then Siam), and the players were actual farmers and villagers. What’s more, much of the film focuses on the community’s attempts to cull the tiger and leopard populations that are threatening their livelihoods, and since this was a time before safety was a big concern in Hollywood, these sequences were captured by simply wandering into the animals’ territory and filming their attempts to eat the cast and crew. Exciting stuff, but as far as advancing the medium it doesn’t do much, and its treatment of the native population is more than a little condescending. It was unique in its ambition and certainly represented a world hitherto untapped by film.
King Vidor’s The Crowd, by contrast, must have been a devastating film for audiences in 1928. It’s the story of a young man who thinks he’s different, only to find out the hard way that he’s just…not.
I can only assume they nominated it for this instead of Best Picture only because it was not a straightforward “be good and pure and you’ll get all you ever wanted” kind of story—in fact, it’s downright depressing and remains relevant to this day, because people still move to New York City with dreams of standing out from the Crowd. This film had the most balls of any of the nominees, and Vidor refused to kowtow to studio pressure for an illogical happy ending (a bold move for the time, even before the Code demanded it), but at the time the Great Depression was picking up steam and it didn’t go over exceptionally well with audiences who were still flocking to Wings.
For all that, I have to say the story is pretty forced at points (even by the standards of the time, five hours between meeting and proposing marriage seems fast) and there are elements that seriously undermine the “ground into the dirt by Life and the Crowd” message (such as our hero’s daughter’s demise by the most common cause of death in movies: being a plot point). Still, nice film.
Finally we have Sunrise, the first Hollywood film by F.W. Murnau (coming from Germany, whence he gave us Nosferatu and Faust), the winner in the category. It’s another Janet Gaynor vehicle, as she plays a Wife about to be murdered by her Husband so he can run off with a Woman from the City. This film was certainly the best choice for this short-lived category: the cinematography, mise-en-scene, lighting, and camerawork were all magnificent and innovative (and clearly influenced The Crowd). The narrative is wonderful, too—the story avoids the sentimentality of Seventh Heaven by giving Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien an actual emotional arc, so even though their characters are nameless (the better to elevate them to archetypes) they are relatable as human beings. Hence its subtitle, A Song of Two Humans. It is definitely the best film out of the six nominees.
Janet Gaynor later said that she was thrilled to attend the Academy Awards, but that it had less to do with winning than the opportunity to meet the host, Douglas Fairbanks. Obviously, it was the first ceremony, so the awards didn’t have the prestige they would come to enjoy in later years. Still, it didn’t take long before filmmakers started craving Oscars, and based on the winners I have seen so far in my life (roughly 40 of 86), I think Wings set a pretty clear precedent for the kind of film that would typically take home Best Picture in the years to come.
Well, aside from The Racket, I enjoyed all of these films. It would be too optimistic to expect such a high percentage for every year, but it’s a good start. To 1929!
 Pronounced “ū-and-ā-kwop”.
All photos are from www.wikipedia.com.