The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1927-1928

1927-1928. The first Best Actress category ever. I’m excited.

The rest of this year is very — broad, shall we say. The Academy hadn’t honed their categories yet. For example, Best Picture was split into two separate categories. The first was “Outstanding Picture, Production,” which went to Wings, and the second was for “Unique or Artistic Production,” which went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Generally, Wings is regarded as the first Best Picture winner, which, seems strange. It should really be both films. However, the fact that they went with Wings over Sunrise is very telling. The went with “outstanding” production over “artistic” production. Perfect for explaining many of the decisions made over the years.

Similarly, Best Director was split into two separate categories, one for “Dramatic,” which went to Frank Borzage, for Seventh Heaven, and one for “Comedy,” which went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights. And then, Best Actor went to Emil Jannings, considered the best dramatic silent film actor, for The Last Command as well as The Way of All Flesh, which is a lost film.

So that’s the first year of the Academy Awards. In all honesty, I think, in every category, the best possible decision was made. Especially this one. They did the right thing by nominating Janet Gaynor for all three of the films she made this year. Because, just by watching one of them, you can see why she won this. She was just incredible. You’re in for a real treat with her films.

BEST ACTRESS – 1927-1928

And the nominees were…

Louise Dresser, A Ship Comes In

Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel & Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson

Dresser — A Ship Comes In is one of those stories that could only be told in the silent era. Or really early on, in the sound era. It’s one of those pictures Hollywood makes specifically to target an audience, and it also just reeks of a specific era of filmmaking. The film is a sentimental tale of immigrants coming into the United States. This being made in the 20s, and shown in theaters in neighborhoods that were, primarily full of immigrants. It was meant to be something they could see and relate to. Of course, it’s oozing with Hollywood exaggeration, but that’s the magic of it. People could watch something like this, and, through all the unrealistic events, relate to it.

So the film is about a family that comes off the boat, and the beginning is the family showing up, going through medical inspection, finding an apartment, getting jobs as janitors and things like that. And then, five years later, they become official American citizens, and then bad things start to happen. The oldest son joins the army, which is sad for everyone. Then the husband is falsely accused of trying to kill a judge in the building he works at, and is convicted and sent to prison — you know, things that always happen.

Anyway, the film isn’t that bad, it’s really overly sentimental, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re hardcore into the Oscars or hardcore into silent film. Or love this type of story (like I Remember Mama or In America — which, strangely, two films I love dearly. And yet, I still don’t have anything more than a passing respect for this film. Hmm…). Either way, Louise Dresser plays “Mama” (Mama is always nominated for these types of films. Just look at those other two), and she really has no function whatsoever within the plot, and really only shows up on screen in two major scenes. They have a nice moment where she cries when her son joins the army, and then a scene where she cries when her husband is sent to jail. Otherwise, the story is mostly about the husband, and she’s just kind of there in the scenes but doesn’t really do anything. It’s kind of strange that they nominated this performance.

But given that this is the first Academy Awards, you have to take into account that this, along with the first few years of the categories, were all about creating legitimacy. And a lot of times, it’s not about the performance itself, but what the performance signifies, or just simply the actor themselves. And here, this is definitely the role that got nominated and not the performance. It’s “Mama.” Of course you nominate “Mama” for an Academy Award. It makes sense.

Now, in terms of voting. No way. Come on. She’s barely in the film. This is clearly Janet Gaynor’s category to win. But, I understand the nomination and it makes perfect sense that it’s here. I actually think this was a smart play to start the category off with.

Gaynor — I love this. She was nominated for three films, so, technically I’m still talking about five like I normally would. Which to start with… oh, this is tough. Let’s go in alphabetical order, I guess.

Seventh Heaven is probably my favorite film on this list. I love Sunrise, and think it’s the best film, but I love Seventh Heaven more. The film begins with Janet Gaynor as a meek woman, Diane, living with her sister, who is addicted to absinthe. I shit you not. I guess because they couldn’t mention drugs. So she’s all whacked out of her mind and is constantly beating the shit out of Diane. And eventually Diane gets away, because she runs into Chico, played by Charles Farrell. He’s a sewer worker, who is very confident. And he has all these plans and such, about the things he’s gonna do. And here comes Diane, being chased by this woman, who is beating her with a whip. So he stops it, and chases the sister away. And there’s this brilliant moment — this is where I was fully on board with the film. It’s the perfect character moment — where, now that the sister is away, Diane has no place to go, and this guy clearly doesn’t give a shit about her, and she moves to go slit her wrists and kill herself, and he stops her from doing it. I love that moment.

And then a policeman shows up and is about to take Diane away (they just arrested the sister), when out of nowhere Chico is like, “What are you doing, she’s my wife.” And the policeman is like, “All right, fine. But we’re gonna come and check on you within the next month. If this isn’t true, you’re both fucked.” So he leaves, and Farrell is upset that he’s stuck with this woman. And he takes her in, and the entire middle of the film is literally them just getting to know one another. There’s like a ten minute scene that’s just their first night together. And, it’s just brilliantly shot. Basically, she’s really obliging to him, because he’s saved her life twice, and he’s annoyed that he has to live with her and is begrudgingly letting her stay. And eventually, he starts warming up to her. Once the people come to check on him, she goes to leave, figuring, that’s it. But then he’s like, “Well, you might as well stay.” And they fall in love and marry for real. And then the film veers a bit into the melodrama, but by that point you’re so on board, it works. He gets called off to war, and then you think he’s dead for a while, and she knows he’s alive, and everyone’s telling her, “He’s dead, he’s dead. Look, here’s his dogtags. Here’s a photo of him in the coffin. Here’s his arm.” And she’s like, “He’s not dead, he’s not dead.” And of course — he’s not dead. He’s just blind. And despite being blind, love brings him back to her and they are reunited. It’s a brilliant moment and a brilliant film.

Now, you’d think the ending to a film like this is hokey, but, the reason I don’t find it hokey like most people would is — I took a class on silent film. And I had to do a lot of reading on Frank Borzage (he directed the film, in case you didn’t know). And there are so many stories where, he’s be directing scenes like this, and actually be crying on set, because he was so moved by the material, he just started crying as he directed the scene. That kind of earnestness can never be looked at as hokey.

Anyway, I love this film so much. I really do. And Janet Gaynor is perfect as Diane. Just watching the way she expresses herself without words — that’s the thing. This film has dialogue in it, but, honestly, you don’t remember it at all. It doesn’t even matter. Because just watching how the actors perform the material, and how Borzage directs it — you don’t need dialogue. (“They had faces.”) This film alone is enough to earn Gaynor the award for me. Now let me show you how she tripled this effort.

Street Angel is definitely the weakest film in the bunch, but it’s still really good, as silent films go. It starts with Janet Gaynor as a woman with a sick mother. She badly needs to get her medicine. But she can’t afford it. So, through happenstance, she sees a woman selling herself on the street. So, she decides, she can sell herself, because it’ll get her the money to save her mother. She tries to do this, but ends up being caught by a policeman (her mother dies). She runs away and escapes because she runs into a circus (who, in the first scene of the film have one of their drums broken and a policeman refuses to do anything about it, which leads to them helping her out of spite for the police), and they take her in. And she becomes part of the circus, becoming the girl who does balancing acts (get it?), and she falls in love with Charles Farrell (he’s in all three of her films), a painter. And they fall in love, and get married, and leave the circus, and they’re happy until — the law catches up to her. The police finally come and arrest her (in true melodrama fashion, they recognize her after all those years), and she’s sent to the workhouse for a year.

But the thing is, Farrell doesn’t know what happened to her. She made the policeman promise not to tell him anything (she doesn’t want him to know she was arrested for prostitution, even though it was for a good cause). So he thinks she just ran away. And she’s sent to the workhouse, and he’s upset, and eventually, the film builds toward a moment where, she’s out of prison, and goes back to the house, which he gave up because he couldn’t afford it, and she thinks he gave up on her. So she walks along the pier at night in the fog, and he happens to be walking along the pier as well. And they run into each other, and it’s this big romantic reunion. Which, almost goes sour, because he found out why she was arrested (another woman told him because she was trying to steal him away from her), and him, unable to accept the fact that she’s a “street angel”, starts choking her. But, of course, love wins out, and they go off, happily ever after. It’s definitely the film with the shakiest morals.

The film is good on the whole, and reminds me of a weird cross section between the other two films on this list. Gaynor is good, as is Farrell, but, this one is definitely the weak one of the bunch. But, watching this alongside the other two, it works. It’s definitely only weak in terms of being next to the other two. As a film in and of itself, it’s really good. But, believe me, Janet Gaynor won for the other two, and also for this. Not the other way around.

And finally, Sunrise. This is definitely the best film in the bunch, and the one most people are likely to have seen. It’s the film that’s probably the real first Best Picture winner, but whatever. It’s about a man (Farrell, again) who lives in the country with his wife (Gaynor. Also, they have no character names. It’s just Man and Wife), and is having an affair with a woman from the city. She tempts him with all this great stuff happening in the city, and convinces him to kill his wife and run away with her. And what happens is, he takes the wife out on a boat, planning on drowning her and calling it an accident, and just as he’s about to do it, he decides he can’t and rows back to shore. And by this point, naturally, his wife is terrified of him, and runs away. And he chases her, all the way to a bus that’s headed for the city.

And the two ride on the bus, nervously, and get to the city. And there, she runs away from him, and he tries to apologize and explain. And then they wander into a church where a couple is getting married. And the sight of this makes them forget everything that happened and realize why they’re in love. And they leave the church, oblivious to the world. And there’s that great shot where they’re walking up the street, and the backdrop fades away, and it’s just the two of them walking. And then it fades back and you realize they’re in the middle of the street, and cars are all around them, honking, and they don’t even notice. And then we see a series of scenes of them falling in love again. They both go to a salon and get cleaned up. He gets a shave, and she gets a haircut, and then they go get pictures taken by a portrait guy, and then they go to a carnival — and there’s this weird interlude with a drunken pig, which is strange but also awesome — and they do all this stuff that completely makes you forget about the first act of the movie. And then they go back home, and on the way home (they go by boat this time), there’s a big storm, and it capsizes the boat. And what happens is, the man makes it back, but the wife disappears. So, in an ironic twist of fate, what the man was planning on doing earlier, actually happened now that he doesn’t want it to. And they get back to shore, and he’s distraught, and the woman from the city, thinking he did it and this is all an act, comes to get him. And he chases her away, because he really does love his wife. And then, at the last minute, when he thinks she’s dead, they find her, floating in some reeds, and the two are reunited. The whole film takes place over the course of a day. It’s perfect.

Janet Gaynor is fucking brilliant as the wife. She really nails this part perfectly. Just watching her at the beginning of the film — all it takes is two brief shots, and immediately you know everything you need to know about this woman. It’s so perfect. And there’s this shot that I love where, they’re on the boat, and he’s wrestling with his decision to kill her, and she sees he’s upset, but doesn’t know what his plans are. So she just lowers her head and is looking at him, and it’s the purest, most heartbreaking shot in the world. She really did deserve this Oscar. It’s fucking incredible what this woman was able to do with her expressions. You seriously need to watch all of these movies. When you do, you’ll understand why this is legit one of the top ten best Best Actress decisions of all time.

Swanson — And, Gloria Swanson. Aka, Norma Desmond. (See? That reference up there comes full circle.) This is back when she was a big silent film actress. This is one of those roles you knew she’d be nominated for. She’d probably be the winner if the third nominee wasn’t Janet Gaynor and was some random other actress.

Swanson plays a prostitute staying at a hotel. And she’s with a bunch of sailors, meanwhile the Christians are trying to teach people about sin and call her a whore and stuff. And she falls in lov with one of the sailors, who is the only one who doesn’t care that she’s a prostitute. And then the Christians tell her to redeem herself by repenting, and blackmail her, saying they’ll get her thrown out of town if she doesn’t. She has a past in another place, and they want to get her sent back there unless she repents. And her boyfriend wants her to go to Australia, because he’s got a friend who married a prostitute and lives with her there. And there’s this whole situation where, she can only go if the Christians let her go, but they won’t, and she’s like, “But if you send me back to where I came from, I’ll fall back into my old lifestyle, but I don’t want to, because I’m in love with this guy.” And they get her to repent, but then are like, “Haha, fuck you, we just wanted to break you. You’re still going to jail.” And then she converts to Christianity. She then becomes crazy Christian, so muh so that she breaks up with the dude, because she believes she needs to repent. And basically the Christian guy dies and she goes off with the boyfriend to Australia. Naturally.

It’s an okay film. I didn’t love it. Anything with overly religious tones, good or bad, is usually not my cup of tea. Especially old ones like this. Because they do an interesting thing back in the 20s and 30s, which is, they have immoral characters, who need to be saved. And there are the religious characters that want to do it. And, the religious characters are the real bad guys, because they’re evil, and they make you think that the film is actually a rejection of religion, because things go horribly wrong when the characters repent, but really, what they’re doing is affirming the idea of faith, and saying, “Don’t get in line with the crazy ones.” And I don’t like that. Either way, the film is okay.

Swanson does a good job with the role. It’s a bit too histrionic at times for me, but still, in all, pretty good. Like I said, if not for Gaynor, she’d have won. But no one was winning this category aside from Gaynor. She was just too good. And way more natural than everyone else. Seriously, watch her and then the other two. She really wins no matter how you look at it.

My Thoughts: It’s Gaynor by a mile. Just by being nominated for one of those three films, she’d have easily won this award. You factor in that type of year, and there’s no way she doesn’t win. That’s a Grace Kelly-type year.

My Vote: Gaynor

Should Have Won: Gaynor

Is the result acceptable?: Taking into account different time periods and such, this is one of the best decisions of all time. Seriously — Janet Gaynor was so far away the best here (in any one of the three films she was nominated for) that this wasn’t even a contest. I bet most lists of the best Best Actress winners won’t have her in the top ten, because you can’t really compare silent performances to talkie performances, but if you see what she accomplishes in these movies, you’ll see that she really belongs way up high on that list. Just watch the amount of empathy she manages to evoke for all of those characters, especially in Seventh Heaven. This, to me, is a top ten, possibly top five, decision all time.

Performances I suggest you see: Here’s your homework. You need to sit down, grab some popcorn, whatever you need to get through a movie-watching session, and watch the Janet Gaynor films she was nominated for. All of them. You must do this. I am very willing to screen these films for you. In fact, I will gladly screen all of these films to anyone that wants to see them, at separate times. That’s how much I love these films and how much I think you need to see them. There are a handful of silent films I think everyone needs to see. I think these are on that list.

Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel. In that order. That’s the order in which they are essential. Also, the bigger the screen, the better. I notice people are much more engrossed in silent films if they are watched on a big screen. Perhaps this comes from having taken a course on silent films and having seen these three films on the big screen. But, trust me, watch these three films. They’re fucking incredible.


3) Dresser

2) Swanson

1) Gaynor

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