The 1st Academy Awards – for the film year of August 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928 – awards held on May 16, 1929

Best Production: Wings

Wings: the first Best Picture winner (1927)

  • 7th Heaven
  • The Racket

Formerly Listed as Nominees:

  • The Last Command
  • The Way of All Flesh

Best Artistic Quality of Production:  Sunrise

  • Chang
  • The Crowd

Most Surprising Omission:  The Circus

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Metropolis

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #72

The Race: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became a legal corporation on May 4, 1927.  It took a little bit over a year before the Awards committee of the Academy came up with a voting system for its “Awards of Merit.”  “Each Academy member would cast one nominating vote in his branch.  Period.  Then a Board of Judges from each branch would count the votes and determine the nominations, turning them over to a Central Board of Judges.  This Central Board was comprised of one representative from each branch and these five people would pick the Academy Award winners.”  (Inside Oscar, p 3).  The Jazz Singer was declared ineligible for the initial two Best Picture awards as it was decided that it was unfair to make the other films go up against the new talkie (thus the reason I didn’t declare it the most surprising omission).  There were two awards that initial year, one of Best Production which would be awarded to “the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness,” and the Artistic Quality of Production which would honor “the Producing Company, or Producer, who produced the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.”  Oddly enough, though it is the second that most people think about when it comes to the Best Picture that is annually handed out, it is the first one that the Academy retroactively declared the winner of “Best Picture” for this awards year.

Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM turned out to be the most influential person that first year.  On the night the Central Board of Judges met, he kept them there for hours arguing against his own film (The Crowd), stating that it sent a message of despair and hopelessness and because he didn’t want people to think there was any collusion in picking an MGM film.  Instead, after hours of debate, they finally voted for Sunrise.  Outside of that, neither Inside Oscar nor Movie Awards has much to say about the race, about whether nominations were actually announced.  There is also the question of The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh.  For years, they were listed as nominees for Best Production but suddenly, at one point, they were no longer listed.  Both books list them as official nominees.  The Academy does not.

The Results: These years were the turning point for film as an artistic medium.  The Sound Era had begun and it would change everything.  Careers were destroyed, careers were born and in the midst of it, the movies went on.  The Academy was trying to swim through this tide.  They had categories that would soon be pointless (Title Writing) and couldn’t make a definitive decision when it came to a Best Picture or a Best Director award.  Their notion of “Best Production” clearly favored giving the award to Wings, even though they clearly thought that 7th Heaven was better written, better directed and had better acting.  On the other hand, while people for decades have complained about how The Crowd was either snubbed for Best Picture (depending on how you view the categories) or robbed of an Oscar (looking at the judging), I am not the only person pleased with the actual results.  Sunrise is universally acclaimed.

Certainly Metropolis is the best film to not get any attention and according to Inside Oscar, it was indeed eligible (its U.S. release date would seem to support that).  And while The Circus eventually had its nominations for Actor and Comedy Director revoked and a special award was given to Chaplin, it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t nominated for either Picture award (nor would City Lights or Modern Times be nominated for anything).

Wings

Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in Wings

  • Director:  William Wellman
  • Writer:  John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton, Julian Johnson
  • Producer:  Lucien Hubbard
  • Studio:  Paramount Famous Lasky
  • Stars:  Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Engineering Effects
  • Length:  141 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War I)
  • Release Date:  12 August 1927
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #18  (Year)  /  #63  (Winners)  /  #298  (Nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Visual Effects

The Film:  That Wings is considered the first Best Picture winner when the category it won was “Best Production” rather than “Artistic Quality of Production” says something about what the Academy Awards stand for.  This is why films like Titanic, Around the World in 80 Days and The Greatest Show on Earth are on the list of winners.  Because the industry is saying something about the production itself, what it takes to get a film like this made.  But is it a great film?  No.  It’s a good film, one with a solid story about two pilots who go off to fight in the first World War and the sexy Clara Bow who comes to war.  It had good effects for the time and epic war scenes, ones that feel different than war scenes today because of the total lack of sound.

But a great film?  I’m not the only one who doesn’t think so.  It’s not on the Top 1000 at all.  In spite of winning Best Picture it didn’t make either of the AFI Top 100 lists.  Even though it has great historical importance (winning the first Best Picture, after all) it wasn’t chosen for the Library of Congress National Film Registry until 1997, eight years into the project.  Its 7.9 ranking on the IMDb not only leaves it outside the top 250, but also short of the top 50 Best Picture winners (out of 81).  That even seems high to me, as it is one of the 15 Best Picture winners that the IMDb voters have actually ranked higher than I do.

The story is the kind of thing that Hollywood melodrama is made of.  Two friends, rivals for the same woman, go off to war together, with one of them not comprehending that the girl next door is not only much sexier, more beautiful and more interesting, but is also madly in love with him.  In the end, it will work out for him.  He will survive the war, accidentally kill his best friend, discover the woman he thought he loved really loved the friend and find himself together with the woman who has loved him all along.  There is a sentimental, sappy love story that is somehow made to feel larger because of the war.  But it lacks the clear direction of a Borzage or solid acting (Bow may have had It, but she was never a particularly good actress).

7th Heaven

7th Heaven - the first film with 5 Oscar nominations

  • Director:  Frank Borzage
  • Writer:  Benjamin Glazer / H.H Caldwell / Katherine Hilliker  (from the play by Austin Strong)
  • Producer:  William Fox
  • Studio:  Fox
  • Stars:  Janet Gaynor / Charles Farrell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Adaptation, Actress (Gaynor), Interior Decoration
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date: 6 May 1927
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (Year) /  #216  (Nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Gaynor), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction

The Film:  Janet Gaynor was 20 when 7th Heaven and Sunrise were released.  She would remain the youngest Best Actress winner for almost 60 years.  What she could do, at the age of 20, is beyond what most actresses can achieve in a lifetime.  Her performances in the two film are both similar and different (she was also awarded for Street Angel).  In this, she is a woman, disgusted with her family, set to be arrested, when a young man who has just gotten a job as a street washer comes to her aid.  He declares that she is his wife and they are suddenly caught in the lie, for if it discovered that she is not his wife, then they will both be in trouble.  So Gaynor moves in with him and they slowly discover that they love each other.  But then the war intercedes, the Great War, which held sway over so many lives and became such a strong part of the early films.  So Farrell goes off the war and Gaynor is left to think of him.  She is pressured at home, but stays true to him, even after learning that he is dead.  Of course, he is not dead, and their reunion scene echoes an earlier scene, the ascension up what seems like an endless staircase that leads up to their apartment.

The first shot is a masterwork, one of the best early camera shots, and the later shot that echoes it is so poetic as he is racing against time (which we know, but he does not).  The power of their love, which could have been cheesy and sappy in another film, works beautifully because of Gaynor (and even Farrell, though Gaynor is the real powerhouse).  Watching it again, I was stunned at how much better it was than I had remembered.  It’s possible that Gaynor might even be better here, where she is lovely and attractive, and meant to be a love interest, than she is in Sunrise.  Looking at her in the two performances, it is difficult to conceive how she could have played the two roles so drastically different at such a young age.

The Racket

Long thought to be lost: The Racket (1928)

  • Director:  Lewis Milestone
  • Writer:  Bartlett Cormack / Del Andrews / Tom Miranda  (from the play by Bartlett Cormack)
  • Producer:  Howard Hughes
  • Studio:  The Caddo Company
  • Stars:  Thomas Meighan / Louis Wolheim / Marie Provost
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production
  • Length:  84 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Gangster)
  • Release Date:  30 June 1928
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #36  (Year)  /  #419  (Nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  None

The Film:  For a long time this was a lost film.  Then it was discovered, languishing in a vault.  So which is the worse fate: to be lost and have people wonder what kind of film it was, or to have it discovered and discover that it was simply a standard gangster film, no more deserving of a Best Picture nomination than any other film that year.  If it weren’t for the nomination, I’m not sure that anyone would care that it was hidden away from the world anymore than people care about the other 90% of silent films that are now considered lost.  While it’s true that it was still lost when both Inside Oscar and Movie Awards were published, there was still no mention of the film other than in the list of nominees.  It was the forgotten Best Picture nominee and in many ways still is.  It makes you wonder how it even got nominated.  After all, it was the only one of the initial group of nominees not to receive any other nominations.  It’s not like Howard Hughes was a favorite among the Academy crowd, either.  And while First National, MGM and Warner Bros. all got plenty of nominations, none of them were represented in the Best Production race (as opposed to the three Paramount films), while The Caddo Company would cease to exist as a film company within a decade.  So what was it about this film about the relationship between a gangster and a cop during Prohibition?  I can’t answer that myself.  And going back to re-watch it again, I can’t find anything useful to say about it.  There’s nothing noteworthy about the acting, nothing particularly interesting about the story.  I suppose, since it was 1928, that it’s one of the earliest versions of the gangster / police friendship, but there still isn’t much more to be said for it.

The Last Command

the great silent film formerly listed as a Best Picture nominee: The Last Command

  • Director:  Josef von Sternberg
  • Writer:  Lajos Biro / Josef von Sternberg / John F. Goodrich / Herman J. Mankiewicz
  • Producer:  Jesse L. Lasky / Adolph Zukor
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Emil Jannings / Evelyn Brent / William Powell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production  (formerly listed), Original Story, Actor (Jannings)
  • Length:  88 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  22 January 1928
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4 (Year)  /  not listed but would about #218 among the Nominees
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Jannings), Supporting Actor  (Powell), Supporting Actress (Brent)

The Film:  What must people think, those people whose only idea of who Emil Jannings was is to see him portrayed, satired and ridiculed in Inglourious Basterds?  There is no question that Jannings brought that kind of degradation upon himself.  Knowing that his days in Hollywood were numbered as soon as people heard him speak, he wisely was already on the way back to Germany before the first Academy Awards were even held.  Knowing he was the winner of Best Actor in February and not wanting to wait around until May, he asked the Academy to give him the statue early so he could take it on the boat with him and they obliged.  Then he went home and eventually embraced the propaganda of the Nazi films, though of course he didn’t actually die in a hail of bullets and fire in a Paris theater, but his reputation never recovered.  Which is a shame, because The Last Command is a great film and his performance is a major part of that.  Well directed by yet another German, Josef von Sternberg, he provides the full range of emotions as the general who must flee Russia due to the revolution and ends up working as an extra in Hollywood.  The irony wasn’t apparent at the time, because he was widely hailed in the Silent Era as the greatest actor in the world, but when he died, alone, forgotten, the irony had certainly crept in.

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh - the only lost film to win an acting Oscar

  • Director:  Victor Fleming
  • Writer:  Perley Poore Sheehan / Jules Furthman / Julian Johnson
  • Producer:  Jesse L. Lasky / Adolph Zukor
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Emil Jannings / Belle Bennett
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production  (formerly listed), Actor
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  25 June 1927

The Film:  There is no rating or rank from me, of course, because this is a lost film.  It is the only lost Academy Award winning performance and it’s a shame because there is no question that Emil Jannings, during the Silent Era, was the pre-eminent dramatic actor.  For a long time (up until today, in fact), I assumed that this was a film version of the Samuel Butler novel, but it turns out it was an original story (possibly stolen by Jannings from the author and moved to a different director according to the IMDb) and had nothing to do with the Butler novel.  Certainly we have very little left of it in any form.  It’s hard to even find still shots from it.  There is one person on the IMDb who said that he saw it in the theater as a child and mentions how moved he was by the ending in which Jannings looks at his family but does not let them know who he is and disappears into the winter darkness.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise - the most highly regarded of the original Best Picture nominees

  • Director:  F.W. Murnau
  • Writer:  Carl Mayer / Katherine Hilliker / H.H Caldwell   (from the original theme “Die Reise nach Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann)
  • Producer:  William Fox
  • Studio:  Fox
  • Stars:  Janet Gaynor / George O’Brien / Margaret Livingston
  • Oscar Nominations:  Artistic Quality of Production, Actress, Cinematography, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  23 September 1927
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2 (Year)  /  #10  (Winners)  /  #28  (Nominees)  /  #51 (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Actor (George O’Brien), Actress (Janet Gaynor), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography

The Film:  It such a beautiful film, brilliantly photographed, magnificently directed, with a phenomenal performance by Janet Gaynor at the heart of it.  The only reason it isn’t my #1 film of the year is because Fritz Lang’s dystopian visionary film, Metropolis, was also eligible in the first year.  Sunrise is the first true marriage of German artistry and the studio system.  So, of course, it was a financial failure and was the impetus for Fox to clamp down on Murnau and his creativity.  But it wins over everyone.  It is in the top 250 on the IMDb with the second fewest amount of votes.  It was in the initial group of films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation.  It currently ranks #12 on the Top 1000.  And what does it say about Hollywood that in the year where it decides to start handing out awards of merit that the film it chooses as the Best Artistic Quality of Production was made by a German director (or that the one film from the year I think is better is also by a German director).  None of the books on the Academy Awards talk much about it, but there surely must have been an effort to try to close the gap between the artistic films that Hollywood was putting out and those being released in Germany.  Here we have a German director, the initial winner of Best Actor was German, the best film of the year was German, the director most closely tied to artistic triumphs (and financial failures) was another European, Erich von Stroheim.  By loudly proclaiming their importance to the world with their awards, Hollywood was trying to lay claim to the idea that movies was an essentially American product, made first and foremost (and best) by Americans.  With, of course, some European imports, but they were in American productions.

So, how much of a delight was it to re-watch this film after so much time and discover that in fact, I had under-rated it.  I remembered Sunrise as a great film with a great performance by Gaynor.  What I didn’t remember was what a technical marvel it was.  There are amazing shots, shots that seem difficult today, as the camera moves out with the boat, or as it floats above the heads of the people on the dock.  There are the great editing moments, not just the super-imposed moments, but the way that various images blur together.  There is even the amazing moment, where the City Woman suggests to the man that he drown his wife and the letters slowly drown off the screen.  I used to think of this film as perhaps the fourth or fifth best of the Silent Era, not only behind Metropolis, but also Greed, The Battleship Potemkin and possibly The Gold Rush, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Birth of the Nation.  Now, watching it again, I think it might be second only to Metropolis.  It is a film that should be required viewing for all film classes, to learn what can be done, that amazing technical effects were possible long before digital technology, that there could still be an element of story-telling.

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

Chang - the only Documentary to be nominated for Best Picture

  • Director:  Merian C. Cooper / Ernest B. Schoedsack
  • Writer:  Achmed Abdullah (titles)
  • Producer:  Merian C. Cooper / Ernest B. Schoedsack
  • Studio:  Paramount Famous Lasky
  • Stars:  Kru / Chantui
  • Oscar Nominations:  Artistic Quality of Production
  • Length:  69 min
  • Genre:  Documentary
  • Release Date:  3 September 1927
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #23 (Year)  /  #344  (Nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  None

The Film:  I’m not sure why I bothered to rank Chang or keep it on the list of feature films.  I usually don’t include documentaries in any film writing that I do.  Obviously, it has to be included here because it was nominated, but I still list it otherwise and I think it’s only because it was nominated for Best Picture.  It’s certainly interesting to watch, which is more than can be said for a lot of documentaries.  You can see in the way that Cooper and Schoedsack make the film that it would inspire them to go on and make King Kong.  They clearly were at ease in exotic locations and among different groups of people.  This is one of those films that I really think loses interest over time.  At the time it must have been new and exciting for moviegoers in the United States to see what it was like in the rest of the world, but with the advent of television and the internet, this kind of documentary film-making just doesn’t feel the same anymore.  To be sure, there is a sense of drama, but it lacks the punch of something like Nanook of the North.

The Crowd

King Vidor's The Crowd (1928)

  • Director:  King Vidor
  • Writer:  King Vidor / John A. Weaver / Joseph Farnham
  • Producer: Irving Thalberg
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  James Murray / Eleanor Boardman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Artistic Quality of Production, Director
  • Length:  104 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • Release Date:  18 February 1928
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #40  (Year)  /  #451  (Nominees)

The Film:  There might not be another film in the history of the Academy in which I so seem to go against the grain of critical opinion.  In all the “great” films, all the Academy nominees, all the Criterion films, all the films by my top 100 directors, I have so rarely been as overwhelmingly bored as I was when I watched The Crowd.  It ranks in the top 200 all-time on the Top 1000 list and I received more negative comments about where I placed it on my ranking of all the Best Picture nominees than probably every other film combined.  It actually would have won Best Artistic Quality of Production if Louis B. Mayer hadn’t so thoroughly argued against it.  But even with all the people who disagree with me on the quality of the film can’t think that was the best choice.  After all, Sunrise did win and there’s no question that Sunrise currently holds sway as the best of the nominees.  I can’t even decide what it is about this film that so puts me off.  Is it the Documentary feel?  I’ve never been particularly fond of documentaries.  Is it the lack of acting?  Or is it that while it does have something to say, it’s really quite boring?

So, having written all of that, I went back and finally watched it again, as I will do with all of the films for this project.  My opinion of it was slightly higher.  I moved it from ** to **.5.  But I still don’t see in it the greatness that others do.  I think the acting is pretty terrible.  I think the story is fairly standard and lackluster.  I suppose it is prescient in some ways, given when it was made, but for all that, it just seems more whiny.  After all, this was before the Depression, before things got truly bad.  While many people describe this as a family with bad luck, it seems they bring that luck upon themselves.  You have a main character who gets married out of impulse, quits his job on an impulse and is ready to kill himself, pretty much on an impulse.  And the ending doesn’t seem to go along with the rest of the film.  It seems to almost come out of nowhere.  They were unhappy and now, suddenly, they’re happy.  To me, the couple portrayed in this film bore so little resemblance to any sort of reality that the kind of Documentary aspect of the film made it seem even more annoying.  To apply that kind of film-making to something that feels so false just doesn’t play for me.  And even with the raise to **.5, it still sits as the worst film I have seen from the film year of 1927-1928.

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