The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1927-1928
(Note: THIS CATEGORY IS NOT FINISHED. I still need to watch one of the nominees. I still have not been able to find The Noose in any cheap/acceptable format. If anyone has it or knows where it can be procured, let me know, so this category can be finished.)
Ah, the very first Best Actor category. Talk about a completely different set of rules than normal. These were the first Oscars ever. The winners were announced in advance and the awards were given at a small dinner event. And there were only like three nominees in each category! Two here! It’s crazy.
Anyway, the Best Picture for this year was — well, there were two. The “Outstanding Picture, Production” award, went to Wings, and the “Unique and Artistic Production” award went to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (I love using that subtitle). Most people call Wings the first Best Picture winner, mostly because — between art and business, Hollywood always chooses business.
Best Director this year was split into two categories as well. First was for Comedy, which went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights, and the other was for Dramatic, which went to Frank Borzage, for Seventh Heaven. And then Best Actress went to Janet Gaynor, for Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise (talked about here). I rank that decision a top ten decision for all time.
So then we have this one. This was a no-brainer, because Emil Jannings was considered the best silent film actor working (remember, actor and comedian are two different things in 1928). Of course he was gonna get the first Best Actor Oscar. It’s like if they created a “Most Universally Liked” actor award today, and your top finishers would be Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney. What a surprise.
BEST ACTOR – 1927-1928
And the nominees were…
Richard Barthelmess, The Noose & The Patent Leather Kid
Emil Jannings, The Last Command & The Way of All Flesh
Barthelmess — Two films here. First, I’ll say that I can’t find The Noose anywhere, and I’ll update this once I do.
Second film is The Patent Leather Kid, and I have to say — it’s a good film and a great performance. It’s long, too. Like two and a half hours. Marathon performance. Barthelmess plays a boxer who is adamantly against fighting outside of the ring, even though he’s really cocky about it inside. And the first half of the film is about him getting involved with the wrong woman and it affecting him. But the second half — that’s where the real money is. He is drafted during World War II and has to fight, which he doesn’t want to do. And we see all the terrible stuff he encounters in the trenches. And eventually he saves another guy and is wounded, and there’s a big romantic ending.
It’s the kind of film that would have been a masterpiece to audiences in 1927. It’s still a damn good film. I love that these two that were nominated were the top silent actors of the day (dramatic actors, anyway). If Emil Jannings weren’t so damn good, Barthelmess would win this hands down. He’s really good here. But Emil Jannings winning this first award would be like Laurence Olivier winning the first Best Actor BAFTA award. He didn’t, but you get the point. (Trivia: Ralph Richardson did. And that works just as well.) Emil Jannings is considered the best silent film actor, so him winning this award really helps legitimize the category.
Jannings — The Way of All Flesh is a lost film. One of only like three in this Oscar Quest. This, The Patriot and most of The Rogue Song. Everything else is mostly in tact. So we’re only gonna talk about The Last Command here.
The Last Command is a really strong film. Jannings plays a former Russian general who is now destitute. And he’s homeless, desperate for money, and is making money by appearing as an extra in films. And William Powell (love that he’s in this) plays a former soldier of Jannings’ who recognizes him, and casts him in this film he’s putting on. And the film is sort of about Powell getting even with Jannings for what he did to him during the war, and throughout the film, Jannings has all these flashbacks to his days as a general, and he starts to lose his mind, and by the end, he starts shouting and believing that he’s in battle, even though he’s on a film set, and eventually dies (because you know he has to). It’s a really good film, and a great performance by Jannings.
If you’ve seen him in The Last Laugh, you know how good of an actor he is. This is just as good, this performance, and totally deserved this award. I couldn’t think of a better actor for them to have given this to (not named Keaton or Chaplin, since apparently the Academy decided comedy is not okay).
My Thoughts: Yes. I mean, there’s really not all that much to say. Jannings was great. And he was the silent film actor of the day (who wasn’t named Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton). So, tops dramatic silent actor. Of course he was the one to vote for. Barthelmess did a good job, but come on, now. If you’re establishing a category, how could you not go with your tops?
My Vote: Jannings
Should Have Won: Jannings
Is the result acceptable?: Yes.
Performances I suggest you see: Well, you can’t see The Way of All Flesh.
Honestly, most people would not like The Patent Leather Kid. It’s like two and a half hours. And a silent! Silents are never more than like, 100 minutes, tops. And this one’s two and a half hours. It’s not even a Griffith film. Which is just weird. But most people would be bored to death by that. Only watch it if you’re really dedicated to Oscars or silent films. Otherwise, you’re just torturing yourself. It is a really strong film though. So if you’re not a little bitch and are serious about film, this is a great one to watch. (This is how film buffs bully one another.)
The Last Command is actually a good film and is worth watching for many reasons. If you’re not big on silent films, this is one of the ones you should watch to at least have a crash course on them (you can’t just watch a Chaplin or a Keaton and call it a day. That’s not how it works). Plus it’s the first Best Actor winner, and all that. Plus William Powell is in it. But, you also get to see what was considered a great silent performance. There are a lot of reasons to see this one, so I recommend that you do.
4) Jannings (The Way of All Flesh)
3) Barthelmess (The Noose)
2) Barthelmess (The Patent Leather Kid)
1) Jannings (The Last Command)