1st Academy Awards (1927/28)

Wings_poster

  • 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[1] (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?

Outstanding Production

Seventh_Heaven_1927

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_film_poster

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_poster

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.

Crowd-1928-Poster

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.

Sunrise_vintage

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!

[1] Pronounced “ū-and-ā-kwop”.

All photos are from www.wikipedia.com.

The First Post (Introduction)

Essentially, what I’ll be doing with this blog is watching every film that has ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Watching, and judging.

Watching, and judging.

Perhaps you’d like to know why, and if so, you are the perfect audience for this blog.

For some time now, I’ve been amassing Academy Awards trivia in my head, for no other reason than the pleasure it gives me (and, of course, for the ladies). I know by heart every film that has ever won Best Picture, Director, Foreign Language Film, and Animated Feature, as well as all four acting categories. From that, part of my brain endlessly forms various combinations of inconsequential but enjoyable (again, to me) trivia, such as how many films have won both Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (twelve), the only film to win Best Director and two acting Oscars but not Best Picture (Cabaret), how many people have won separate acting awards for two different Best Pictures (four), as well as various bits of random trivial flotsam scattered throughout the past 86 years. While it’s fun, and helps me out at parties when charades loses steam, it recently occurred to me that I haven’t actually seen a great many of these films, and this project is, at least partially, meant to fix that.

Aside from that, I think it will be fun and fascinating to look at American cinema through the lens of the highest award it can give to itself. The Academy Awards were founded just as synchronized sound became a thing, so to look at the history of the Oscars is to look at the history of American talkies. I think that examining the trends, and what films were nominated and winning during what period and against what historical framework, can tell us a lot about the evolution of American cinema as a whole.

I’d also like to find out whether the Oscars, as many suspect, have devolved into something irrelevant, a parody of their former glory. While I sometimes do believe that, I suspect it is not the case. I know we live in a jaded age where silly “epic” films featuring superbeings beating up other superbeings can win an Oscar if they look pretty or if they get a famous musician to sing a catchy tune over the credits. But I think that as I move along with this little endeavor, I’ll find that the Academy has always been inconsistent in its promise of awarding the best in film; like observations on the disconnectedness of today’s youth or predictions of the fulfillment of Ayn Rand’s prophecies, the good Academy Awards come and go quite often.

So this blog shall endeavor to be both an objective, rational narrative of the Academy Awards, and a highly subjective story of my experience watching each and every film.

My nights, for the foreseeable future.

Basically, this, but with fewer windows.

At first, I decided that I would watch every film that has ever won Best Picture and comment on them, perhaps review them, and write about each year in Oscar history on that basis. Then I realized that I wouldn’t be in much of a position to do so if I didn’t also know which films the winner had bested, so I then decided to watch every film that has ever been even nominated for Best Picture (as of this posting, that’s 512 films, according to Wikipedia). This, I thought, would certainly give me the context necessary to examine the Academy Awards as a whole.  And, I reasoned, as the awards progress, the other “top” categories (directing, acting, and writing) begin to merge more and more with the nominees for Best Picture—for example, for the 86th Academy Awards, only four of the 20 acting nominations and two of the 10 writing nominations came from films not nominated for Best Picture—so a coherent narrative of the Oscars would appear naturally.

Then I realized, even that isn’t enough. To truly understand how the Academy works, how they award their highest honor to films both deserving and exceptionally, mindnumbingly undeserving (this parenthetical will eventually be a link to my entry on the 78th Awards), I would have to watch every single film that came out in a particular year, and only then could I speak with any kind of authority on how they were narrowed down to five (in most years), and then of those five, how they chose the winner.  Only then could I do what I set out to do with this project: understand and tell the story of the Oscars and their place in American film history.

Then I realized, that would be really, really difficult, not to mention borderline psychopathic, requiring descent into the kind of antisocial behavior that would destroy and make a mockery of any sense of purpose in life, so I’m going to stick with the second stage: watching every nominated film and counting on the knowledge of the year’s other films that I’ve accumulated randomly these past 30 years (with three years of film school thrown in) to help me contextualize them. And what the hell, when I get to the 20th Academy Awards, I’ll also throw in the winners for Best Foreign Language Film, just to see what the American industry likes to recognize in the rest of the world’s cinema (or, for the first thirty years of the category, France and Italy’s cinema).

So, that’s the introduction. I’ll be posting the first “real” entry in a few days, talking about the 1st Academy Awards.