I consider this to be my life’s work, a full-service series of articles detailing each and every year of the Academy Awards from the first awards right up to the present offering my choices in the top three categories. So, here at the blog I’m going to share it with you, one week at a time. I hope you’ll stick around. This gets interesting, I promise . . .
Armchair Oscars – 1927-28
Wings (Directed by William Wellman)
The Nominees: The Crowd, The Racket
Metropolis (Directed by Fritz Lang)
My Nominees: The Crowd (King Vidor), The General (Buster Keaton), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dryer), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
With all the media hoopla given to today’s Oscar telecast, it is a little hard to imagine that the first Oscar ceremony was a simple private industry party at a hotel with only 250 guests. Given the infamous length of the telecast today, it is also hard to believe that at that first ceremony, it took only five minutes to hand out all the awards. Yet, on May 16, 1929, that is exactly how the Oscar ceremony was born.
That night, no one could have understood the institution that was being inaugurated nor the massive industry changes that were about to happen.The Academy Awards ceremony was born at a time when the film industry was in a state of rapid change. Almost overnight, the new innovation of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry. Many actors who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies” would soon find themselves out of work. Talking pictures were becoming a reality thanks to a new innovation called “The Vitaphone Process” by which the projector was interlocked with a phonograph so that a spinning audio disc played in sync with the film and produced sound through an amplifier.
The Jazz Singer, a heavy-handed passion play about a Jewish boy (Al Jolsen) who defies his father’s wishes for him to become a cantor and instead becomes an entertainer, was the first film to use the process to incorporate both sound and dialogue. Other films, like the 1926 John Barrymore vehicle Don Juan, had used the process with music and sound effect but no dialogue. Needless to say, The Jazz Singer was an enormous hit.
During the induction of the first academy awards, the central board of judges of the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a decision that The Jazz Singer had an innovation that would give it an unfair advantage over the other nominees in the category of Best Production (later “Best Picture”) which were all silent. It was therefore disqualified although it was given a special Oscar.
I’m not too thrilled about any of the films that were nominated in that first year, especially the film that the academy chose as its first Best Production. William Wellman’s Wings, like The Jazz Singer, was also a technological innovation with its incorporation of state-of-the-art special effects and color tinting. This film, about two war buddies vying for the same girl, was celebrated at the time for its World War I aerial dogfight scenes but, truthfully, I can’t get excited about any of this stuff because the story is thin and the continuity in those dogfight scenes is hard to follow.
Wings and The Jazz Singer, while being technological milestones, were not great films in and of themselves. In fact, nineteen twenty-seven was not a good year for movies at all. Very few films from that year had a long-lasting impact and the only film that really fits that description is my choice for Best Picture, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a movie for which the word “landmark” was invented. I could not imagine the academy awarding the first Oscar to a German film but since they gave the first Best Actor award to a German actor, I think my selection is justified. With that logic in mind, and for many other reasons, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis gets my very first Armchair Oscar.
Metropolis is a film that has effected a long-lasting impact on the face of motion pictures by creating entire genres. This was the movie that invented movie science fiction and heralded the “doomed future” of H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come, George Orwell’s 1984 , Planet of the Apes, Oblivion and The Hunger Games. Fritz Lang set in place science fiction elements that are so familiar to us today that they have become the standard of the genre: an oppressive urban hell ruled by the upper-class and operated by slave-like poor; a city that seems to touch the heavens; the mad scientist giggling in his lab as he plays God; the lone hero who discovers the diabolical machinations of the villain and tries to throw a monkey wrench into his plan. These elements can be found in this film’s ancestors: Frankenstein, Batman, Gattaca and the cities of Blade Runner, Star Wars and Minority Report. Each of these films contain elements that were inspired, in one way or another, by Lang’s work.
Metropolis has gone down in history as one of the most influential films ever made, certainly one of the most studied of all silent films and yet the movie languishes. After its success in 1927, the film has had an uneasy time. The fact that it is a silent film turns off the usual science fiction audience. Heavy censoring and editing through the years has left the film in pieces, with some scenes lost to history. Over the years and there have been numerous attempts to restore the original print based on all usable remaining footage. Some of the restorations work and some do not. The restored version released on DVD in 2001 was based on a digital restoration at 2K resolution from all available sources. It is the best version that I’ve seen. The worst is a 1994 print released through GoodTimes Video which contains no restoration at all. The film in grainy and thus difficult to see, and doesn’t even have a soundtrack. I dub that one the worst because I’m still a little ambivalent about the 1984 restored version by Georgio Moroder with color tinting (good!), sound effects (not so good!) and a soundtrack that includes songs by Loverboy, Freddy Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and Pat Benatar (abomination!). That version filled in the gaps using still photos and some odd editing, the result was hit and miss – mostly miss.
Yet, even with some pieces missing, the film is still an incredible achievement. Those who study the film (myself included) find the story impenetrable. Metropolis has a plot that is so maddeningly erratic that it is hard to pin it down as a whole. Many conceded this as a fault but I think it adds to the film’s grand chaotic narrative.
Metropolis takes place in the future (title cards suggest that it takes place in the year 2000) in an overcrowded city with immense skyscrapers built out of a strange, grotesque architecture. The wealthy inhabitants of Metropolis are content with their lives, dancing in their penthouses and spending their money. The poor work as slaves beneath the city like cogs in a machine. Lang choreographs the scenes in the subterranean levels magnificently so that the workers are never out of step. They don’t so much work as toil under oppression like Ramses’ slaves building his pyramids (the biblical parallels are not subtle). The rich and poor of Metropolis are ignorant of one another, except for the ruthless Joh Fredersen (Alfred Able), a businessman who rules Metropolis from his office high above the city.
Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) partakes of the wealth of his father, blissfully unaware of the tyranny taking place beneath his feet. When we meet him, he is happily enjoying the Pleasure Gardens until he notices a woman rising from the underground caves with a group of the worker’s children. Curious, he follows her to the depths and is aghast at the tyranny in motion there. He witnesses the massive machines that belch forth smoke and flames and the workers who are employed to keep the machine running, lest it explode in their faces. The work is relentless, the men strain to keep up.
The woman that Freder has followed is called Maria (Brigitte Helm), a revolutionary who holds sermons to remind the workers that a peaceful resolution can and must be found – she’s a sort of Gandhi with false eyelashes. Added to that, he also uncovers an insane plot by the mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robotic duplicate of Maria that will replace the real thing and inspire the workers into a riot. The scientist kidnaps the real Maria and sends the robotic version to convince the workers to rise up and then sends her to taunt the rich men and drive them into a sexual frenzy. That’s when all Hell breaks loose. A riot breaks out in the streets. There is a fight on the rooftops between hero and villain. The masses burn the robot at the stake. Joh Frederson’s hair turns white when he thinks he has led his son to his death. And finally, there’s an odd negotiation between rich and poor and some fortune cookie advice from the real Maria about love and understanding.
Lang based the film on the book written by his wife Thea Von Harbou. In the book (which I have read), the story is about as chaotic as the film, the difference is that Lang has the visuals to suggest the chaos where von Harbou strain to explain it in words. He uses every technical tool at his disposal to visualize the Hell of the subterranean machine run by the workers. At one point Freder, disguised as a worker, witnesses one of the huge machines explode and visualizes it as a horrendous monster swallowing workers by the dozen. Another suggests an odd device, a giant dial in which the worker is made to keep the arms in the same place as the light bulbs go on and off around its edge. The machine doesn’t seem to have any purpose until Freder imagines it as a giant clock and tries to pull the arms forward to end the merciless day.
The film is one of the pinnacles of German Expressionism, astonishing in its use of light and shadow. One of the best examples is the scene in which Rotwang pursues the real Maria through the caves using only a beam of light to strike terror as he closes in. Another brilliant moment comes with Maria’s erotic dance as the men gawk, the camera filled with their moist eyes. This scene was completely removed after the initial release and not restored until home video.
More obvious are Lang’s biblical references – the rise of the city parallels Marie’s retelling the story of the Tower of Babel; the giant unholy pentagram in Rotwang’s lab as he plays God; the breathtaking image of the plague-bringer who comes wielding an obscene scythe during Freder’s hallucination; the very heaven-and-hell nature of Metropolis itself with the paradise above and the damnation below. Maria even has a Christ-like quality when she gives her sermons and reinforces that indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. The robotic version of Maria is somewhat of an anti-Christ.
These elements and images are brought to life through Lang’s infamous demand for no less than absolute perfection. He was known as a cruel taskmaster, working his cast and crew like a dictator. He cast some 20,000 extras (1500 of them for the Tower of Babel sequence alone) and worked them from morning till night. The water that covered the set for the climactic flood was ice cold. Many of the extras were soaked through from morning till night. Actress Brigitte Helm was nearly killed several times, once by a fall and another by the fact that the bonfire scene was real! Helm was so rattled by her experience working with Lang that she thereafter refused to make another film with him.
I could go on and on, since this film, like all great films, invites lengthy discussions. It can be seen in at least a hundred different ways, as a foreshadowing of fascism or the tyranny of communism or just capitalism boiling over. But when you get down to it, the best way to view Metropolis is not as a film to pick apart but simply as a film of its time. In the decade between two world wars, when the real-world machinations were being put into place that would lead to the Nazi era, Metropolis is a warning of things to come. Lang created the story of a world gone mad while the world around him was, in fact, going mad.
Emile Jannings (The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh)
The Nominees: Richard Barthelmess (The Noose), Richard Barthelmess (The Patent Leather Kid)
Buster Keaton (The General)
My Nominees: George Bancroft (Underworld), Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis), George O’Brien (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)
Emil Jannings was a heartthrob in his homeland of Austria and made no less of an impression when he came to America. At the time that the first Academy Awards were presented, he had become a legend in his own time. He was hailed as one of the best actors of his generation and during the inaugural awards, when actors were rewarded for a year’s worth of work rather than a single performance, two of his most popular performances won him the very first Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
The first was for his work as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander in Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Last Command, based on the true story of a former Czar General who experiences the communist revolution and eventually finds himself reduced the lowly position of a dollar-a-day extra in Hollywood. The other was for the role of August Schilling, a good man who falls for a bad woman in Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh. I have seen The Last Command, in which he plays the kind of character that Jannings was famous for – a nobleman who experiences the depths of despair. Sadly, no print of The Way of all Flesh, is known to exist.
Jannings was given his Oscar three weeks before the actual academy awards ceremony after he had told the academy’s central board of judges that he was going home to Germany and wouldn’t be able to attend. What no one knew at the time was that this would be the last highpoint of his career. He would struggle in his attempts to make the transition from silent films to talkies (due in part to his thick accent) and his career more or less faded. Furthermore, his reputation was forever tarnished when he returned to Germany and joined the new Nazi Party and began making propaganda films for the cause. For his efforts on behalf of the Nazi party, he was awarded a medal by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels. This, more than anything, is probably one reason that he has fallen out of common knowledge.
I want to make it clear, however, that this is not why I disliked his performance in The Last Command. I have seen nearly all of Janning’s films (at least, the ones that are available to me) and watching his performance, I feel as if I am seeing him play notes he displayed much better in his earlier work.
While Jannings has become a footnote in film history, Buster Keaton is more popular now than he was in his heyday. Many of the films he made during the silent era, even initial flops, are beloved even by audiences who don’t like silent films. For me, his best is the Civil War action comedy The General. Here is the best film of his career and one of the best examples of a director directing his own performance. He does a brilliant job on both counts and it makes me happy to give him my very first Best Actor award.
Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a lad from the Confederate side of the Mason/Dixon line, whose heart is filled with love for two things: his locomotive and his girl Annabelle (possibly in that order). He pines for Annabelle’s heart, but she won’t have him until he proves himself. She informs him: “I don’t want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform,” and quickly shows him the door.
Johnnie is the engineer of The General, a locomotive owned by the Confederacy. Yankees steal The General out from under Johnny with Annabelle onboard, and he spends the rest of the film trying to get it back. He chases the thieves on foot, then with a handcar, then on a bicycle, and finally with another train, called The Texas.
Logically, it is impossible to make an exciting chase between two trains since they are both on the same track, but Keaton makes it work. At one point, the bad guys fight with Johnny on top of the train until, eventually, Johnny has commandeered The General and the bad guys are at the controls of The Texas. Later, Annabelle is rescued from the clutches of the bad guys only because Johnny is now at the switch of The General.
Keaton never allows the film time to slow down for a moment. Once the film gets rolling, it is high-energy all the way to the end. During the chase between the two trains, for example, the bad guys throw lumber onto the tracks to derail Johnny’s train. Sitting on the cowcatcher, Johnny picks up the pieces of wood to knock the other pieces of wood off the tracks to clear the way.
Another great scene has Johnny dismounting The General so that he can bend the track in order to slow down the progress of the bad guys. When he turns around to board his train again, he notices that it has left without him. He chases his train on foot and until it disappears around a corner. Thinking fast, he heads the train off by running down a steep hill and jumping on board just as it comes around the other corner.
The action scenes usually dominate conversations about The General. Keaton’s sheer inventiveness has made the film a classic, but what is never discussed is Keaton’s performance. He is an action star, here performing his own stunts. We can clearly see that no stunt man is involved, even in the scenes in which he required to hang from the side of a moving train, mere inches from death. He used no stunt men – Keaton was his own special effect
It says something about Keaton that he would write himself into scenes that required him to risk his own neck for the sake of making a movie. As director, writer, producer and star, he had complete control over the content of his film. It allowed him to make his own legacy and allowed him to be able to keep the glorious moments for himself. For example, take the now legendary moment when Johnny is rejected by Annabelle and sits on the wheel rod of the train. He is too sad and dejected to even notice that it has begun moving up and down.
Keaton’s films were loaded with moments like that. They were like watching a wind-up toy. You never knew what direction they were going in. If there is an overriding theme in his films, it is that his characters always represented the working-class. His chief rival, Charlie Chaplin, represented the down-trodden who lived on the fringes of society, but Keaton’s Stone Face (as he is called) worked within society and had to deal with the insanity of the work-a-day world. He was the little guy who didn’t get revenge by getting knocked down but rather used his ingenuity to keep from getting knocked down in the first place.
Janet Gaynor (7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)
The Nominees: Louis Dresser (A Ship Comes In), Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson)
Maria Falconetti (The Passion of Joan of Arc)
My Nominees: Brigitte Helm (Metropolis), Janet Gaynor (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)
In 1927, Janet Gaynor was a top box office attraction and a very lovable star. Moviegoers fell in love with her and the new academy voters didn’t love her any less. At the first Academy Awards, actors were selected for a year’s worth of work and I think that Janet Gaynor’s name alone made her the winner. I’ve only seen two of the films for which she won Best Actress (I haven’t seen 7th Heaven) and the best is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in which she plays the dutiful wife of a man who strays into the arms of an evil seductress. Street Angel, an adaptation of a Monckton Hoffe novel called “Cristilinda,” was a vehicle that the studio rushed into production to cash in on her stardom. In that film, she played a poor waif who turns to prostitution in order to afford money for her sick mother and is arrested (before she can pick up her first customer!) and sent to a workhouse. She escapes and joins up with a traveling carnival and wins the heart of a painter who doesn’t know about her past.
Sunrise is a wonderful picture, displaying the best of what Gaynor could do as an actress, but Street Angel undermined her skills by binding them in a stupid, predictable melodrama that runs the cliche playbook from A to Z. Janet Gaynor’s win was based on timing; in 1927 she had everything audiences wanted and everything studio bosses could sell. She was young (21), she was pretty, she was virginal (she still lived with her mother) and she was being hyped as the first great star of the talking picture. Today Gaynor is a footnote in Hollywood history, mostly noted for her later performance in A Star is Born uttering the famous closing line: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” She didn’t do anything in that film that Judy Garland didn’t do better in the remake 27 years later.
My choice for my first Best Actress prize has gone down in history as one of the greatest, most studied, most admired performances in the history of film. Maria Falconetti would give only one substantial screen performance in her life, but it was a completely wordless performance of such lingering impact that it still resonates today.
In the title role of Carl Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Falconetti plays the maiden of Orlean beginning somewhere in the middle of her trial. Condemned, vilified and punished by accusations of being a heretic, she kneels upon the stone floor while accusing eyes and ugly pox-marked faces bear down upon her. Dreyer’s canvas is shown mostly in close-ups with hard, washed-out light so we get a sense of Joan’s agony.
We see her through the process of several trials, interrogations, humiliations, tortures and finally her agonizing execution. Through it all, our narrative focus is rooted in Falconetti’s eyes as she registers the depths of despair, hopelessness and confusion while trying in vain to defend herself against a court of religious judges who glower at her blasphemy. She believes that she has heard the voice of God commanding her, but her jailers think that this unholy act makes her a vessel of the devil. The tragedy of Joan comes from what we can read in her eyes, the suspicion that she has been commanded by God and then abandoned. From Falconetti, the eyes convey a world of emotion.
Most of Falconetti’s performance comes from Carl Dreyer’s unconventional direction. He did away with all the normal conventions of filmmaking, of editing, makeup, set direction and screenwriting so that we get a sense of chaos and confusion and a sense of how the trial must have been seen in Joan’s mind. The film often seems like a series of disorganized memories. In every other film, the editing establishes placement of characters and how they interact. We are often given establishing shots to place us in small or large rooms, or in buildings or a house. In conversations, the editing allows us to understand the placement and perspective of everyone and everything in the room. Dreyer’s work is different. Here we aren’t sure from one moment to the next where one wall begins and another ends, where characters stand in conjunction to one another. Men enter Joan’s holding cell and assault her verbally but often we aren’t sure when that character came in and how that character stands in conjunction with Joan. This may seem lazy to the casual viewer, but if you follow the film from Joan’s point of view, it takes on the qualities of a nightmare where one images flows to the next and we aren’t sure where we stand.
The convolution of narrative is born out of Dreyer’s refusal to work from a screenplay. Instead he creates the film from the transcripts of Joan’s trial so we get a sense of the reality coming out of the nightmare. The effect is a feeling of being an eye-witness to an event in history, the sparseness of the film and the choice to eliminate anything sleek and pretty gives it a documentary feel.
What the film always comes back to are Falconetti’s eyes. Here she gives her only screen performance of any significance and yet it is a performance that is said to have been the greatest ever put on film, her face roots us in the heavy burden that she is carrying. She has witnessed an exchange by a heavenly being that is so far beyond human understanding that it is impossible to convey in simple words. Her eyes are a window to the despair and confusion of the agonizing feeling that she has been commanded by God and then abandoned in her hour of need. Joan is told that her life depends on confessing to her crime, but she holds strong to the faith that God has spoken to her. She is worn down, tired and shivers from the cold.
Dreyer uses tight close-ups of Falconetti’s face against those of her interrogators. Where everything else in the film is erratic and non-linear, our emotions are rooted in what she is able to convey in her face. Falconetti was obviously an attractive woman, but Dreyer resisted the temptation to make her look the least bit glamorous. She wore no make-up and was put through the torment of spending painful hours on her knees and long periods without food or sleep. The effect is that she is able to convey the torment of a woman who simply cannot cash in her faith in an effort of self-preservation. She believes that she has been instructed by God to lead the French in an uprising against the occupation by the British and cannot find it within herself to relinquish her faith in an effort to satisfy her interrogators.
What we are left with is one of the most effective uses of pure filmmaking in the history of the medium. Dreyer set out to make a film that used only what was needed to tell the bare bones of a story that we already know. The sparseness of this film sets off beautifully against those haunting eyes – eyes that allow us to peer into a haunted soul.