The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1927-1928

Ah, the first Oscars. There’s a lot to say here. Let’s see how quickly we can get it in. The Oscars began when Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM, and the second M in the title) thought to have an organization that would honor those people in the industry and also help improve the industry’s image (since at that point, there were a lot of labor disputes. There weren’t really any of the guilds as we know them today. They were still working to be formed. Plus film had a negative connotation to it. The industry had this reputation for putting smut on screen and was just attacked all around). Basically — it was a way to promote the good of the industry, rather than what the perceived opinion of it was. And it just stuck. But it’s important to note that the Oscars were originally more about AMPAS than the ceremony.

This first ceremony happened in May of 1929, and wasn’t even about the ceremony. They announced the winners three months earlier, and it was basically a reception for people to pick up the awards. Kind of like they do now with the Kennedy Center and AFI Awards. It’s about honoring the winners. They kept up the tradition for the first decade, handing out the names of the winners to the newspapers at 11 pm the night of the awards all the way until 1941, which is when they started with the whole envelope and the “and the winner is…” thing. Also of note, the reason the first five ceremonies have two years attached to them is because, until 1934, there was no set ceremony. Starting in 1934 was when they pushed the ceremony to the end of February/March like we know it to be. The 1927-1928 awards were given out in 1929, and they basically spend the nest few years playing catch up. The next two Oscar ceremonies happened in 1930, and then they caught up by 1932-1933, which allowed them to have the 1935 ceremony purely for the films of 1934. (Which also continues to piss me off that people constantly misquote what year it is. For instance, they call them the 2012 Oscars, meanwhile they’re for the films of 2011, just because the ceremony happened in 2012. It’s very infuriating.)

Let’s put the break here, since I have a lot more to say.

So, at the first ceremony — things were very different than they are now. There were twelve categories, two of which were, essentially, Best Picture categories. We’ll be dealing with both of those here. Before I get into that, though, I want to point out what the twelve categories were and what/who won. There were both Best Picture categories, then Best Actor and Best Actress. Emil Jannings (considered the greatest silent film (dramatic) actor) won Best Actor for both The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh (talked about here), the latter of which is lost, and Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (talked about here). The former makes perfect sense, and the latter, when you see what she accomplishes in those films, is one of the top five or ten best Best Actress decisions of all time. They also gave out two Best Director Awards, one for Dramatic, which went to Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven, and one for Comedy, which went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights (both of which were talked about here), both of which were very deserved. They also gave out Screenplay awards (called “Best Writing”) for Original and Adapted, Original going to Ben Hecht for Underworld (Hecht probably the most respected writer in Hollywood at the time) and Adapted going to Seventh Heaven and Benjamin Glazer. Then Best Cinematography went to Charles Rosher and Karl Strauss for Sunrise, and Art Direction went to William Cameron Menzies (the production designer of the era) for The Dove and Tempest. And the other two awards were Best Title Writing (meaning intertitles), which went to Joseph Farnham (it was a general award, not for any film), and Best Engineering Effects, which went to Wings. Also, Charlie Chaplin and Warner Bros. got honorary awards, Chaplin for The Circus and Warners for The Jazz Singer.

Okay, so, basically the frame of what we see now. They just got more specific as they went along. Not bad for a first time out. All of these awards are, in one way or another, still there (except for Best Title Writing, which — obviously sound replaced that). The two most interesting things there are the double categories for Best Picture and Best Director. Many people are still calling for a return to a category for comedies (which would have really helped out Chaplin during this era). I honestly don’t have much to say about that. Though I will mention that it’s weird how, with two Best Picture categories, they only went with three Best Director nominees. I mean, they chose well (well, two of three. Maybe Wellman or Murnau would have been better choices for the third nominee), but — it’s just weird how they figured out three nominees and stuff.

What’s most interesting to me is how they separated the Best Picture categories. The names of the two categories were “Outstanding Picture, Production” and “Unique or Artistic Production.” I like that they had to separate the two between, essentially, entertainment and art. And what’s even more interesting — which one they hold up as being the first “Best Picture” winner. They went with the “entertainment” one. Which goes to show what Hollywood is truly about — entertainment over art. Just some food for thought when you want to complain about the Oscars.

So anyway, here, we’re going to deal with both Best Picture categories, starting with Outstanding Picture, Production.


And the nominees were…

The Racket (Caddo, Paramount)

Seventh Heaven (Fox)

Wings (Paramount, Famous Players-Lasky)

The Racket — This is an interesting film. I wonder how it got nominated. It doesn’t seem particularly standout, even though it is a good silent film.

It’s about a couple of gangsters who have managed to buy of a bunch of the police in their city. And the film is about the police (those who cannot be bribed) trying to take them down. That’s the basic plot. It’s a simple cops and robbers film. It’s well-made and all. It’s just not very memorable as compared to the other two nominees. It never had a chance here.

Seventh Heaven — This is a film about Chico and Diane. Chico is a street worker in Paris who dreams of better things. He describes himself as a “very remarkable fellow.” Diane lives with her domineering sister who is an “absinthe addict” who constantly beats her. And one day, the sister chases Diane into the street, beating her, when they come upon Chico, who is having his lunch with one of his friends, a cab driver. And Chico stops Diane’s sister from beating her, but pretty much ignores her after that. And Diane, so sick of living the way she does, goes to kill herself. But Chico stops her, asking why she’d want to do that. And then a cop comes, having arrested Diane’s sister, and goes to take Diane in too. And Chico, in a moment of kindness, says she’s his wife. And the cop, not believing him, tells him that he better not be lying, and says someone will come visit them within the month to see if they really are married and living together.

So Chico is forced to take her in so he doesn’t get in trouble. And the middle of the film is the two of them living together, with Diane having fallen in love with Chico very quickly, and him treating her as a nuisance whom he’s doing a huge favor for. But eventually, once the month is up and they come and check up on them, Diane goes to leave, but Chico tells her that she can stay, since he’s warmed up to her. And then the two of them fall in love and get married. And then, as soon as they get married, war breaks out. And Chico goes off to fight. And during the war, Chico is wounded. It looks like he’s dead. And they come back to Diane and tell her that he’s dead, but she says he isn’t, and refuses to believe it. And then we discover that somehow, he actually isn’t dead and returns to her.

The film is amazing. I really love it. It’s so great. That middle section with the two of them falling in love is one of the most romantic sequences I’ve ever seen. This, to me, is the film that should have won this award (though it wouldn’t have held up as well as Wings, probably, especially in terms of what we consider a Best Picture to be, so I understand it not winning).

Wings — This is, as the tagline states, “an epic of the air.”

The film is about two men who enlist as fighter pilots in World War I. And we follow them throughout the war. They come from the same town and grow up as rivals. And they both have been competing for the same girl, even though one of them doesn’t realize that the “girl next door,” Clara Bow, is in love with him. So they go off to war, and we follow them as they fly planes. And then Bow also joins the war in order to be near the guy she loves. And the film climaxes as one of the men (the one who isn’t the designated protagonist of the two. The one Clara Bow isn’t in love with) flies a mission and is shot down, but manages to escape in a German plane. But then the other man shoots him down and kills him. And they have this tender scene where they forgive one another. And then the man goes home and realizes he loves Clara Bow.

It’s a great film. A lot of great aerial sequences. It’s a great example of Hollywood silent filmmaking as its finest. It’s a good choice as the first Best Picture because it has everything you’d want in a Best Picture. I just happen to like another film better, which is why I’m not voting for it. Otherwise, this was the best choice.

My Thoughts: To me, it’s Seventh Heaven all the way. I love that film so much. So much. But Wings is the better choice, historically. Just because it’s a big Hollywood production — war, planes — it makes sense that it won. So that’s a good choice. I just love Seventh Heaven so much that I have to vote for it.

My Vote: Seventh Heaven

Should Have Won: Wings, Seventh Heaven

Ones I suggest you see: If you love film, you need to see Wings. It’s quite an experience. Plus, historically, it’s a big film. It represents late silent cinema perfectly. So it’s esssential.

And if you want to be friends with me, you need to see Seventh Heaven. Otherwise I don’t take you seriously as a film lover.

And The Racket — meh, it’s okay. It’s worth a watch.


3) The Racket

2) Wings

1) Seventh Heaven

And now we move onto Unique or Artistic Production:


And the nominees were…

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (Paramount)

The Crowd (MGM)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Fox)

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness — The film is a documentary of sorts, about a family who lives in the jungle. And we see them go about their daily life while also dealing with all the wild animals who pose a threat to them. So he fights leopards and tigers and elephants and stuff. And basically the whole thing is real, even though they staged some events that they couldn’t get on camera the first time. It’s very interesting. It had no shot at winning, especially next to the next two films, but it is an interesting early film.

The Crowd — This is another of the greatest films ever made. It’s so good. Chances are, if you studied film in school, you’ve seen this.

It’s a film about the average American. We start with the man’s birth, and follow him as he grows up. His father dies while he’s young and when he’s 21 he goes to New York to make it big. And he immediately gets pushed into the uncaring big city — just one of the crowd. Then he meets a girl and gets married. They live in a cheap apartment together, and deal with the general hardships of married life and being poor. Then she gets pregnant and has a boy. And a girl soon follows. And the husband is still working his menial office job.  Then one year they win $500 when the husband comes up with an advertising slogan that is selected. But just when things start looking up, their daughter is hit by a car and killed. And the father spirals into a deep depression which leads to him leaving his job. He tries to get work but cannot, and his wife resorts to making dresses. And the husband thinks about suicide, but doesn’t, for the sake of his son. He then ends up with a job that’s better s suited to him, and the film ends with a brilliant shot, as he, his wife and his son go to a vaudeville show, still a part of the crowd, but now together, because they have the love of one another. It’s a great film. It’s a real masterpiece.

This film is just as good as Sunrise and deserved to win just as much. It’s a shame that only one of them had to win, but it happens.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans — This film is perfect. You shouldn’t need a synopsis, but I’ll give a quick one.

The film is about a man and wife. The man has been tempted by a woman from the city, who tells him to kill his wife so they can run away together. So the man takes the wife out on the lake in order to drown her, but at the last minute, can’t do it. The wife then runs away and hops on a bus for the city. And he follows her. And the two of them spend the day in the city, and, while there, fall in love again. And on the way back, they travel by boat, and there’s a storm, and the wife goes missing and is feared dead. And the city woman thinks the man went through with it, and is happy, but the man rebukes her because he is upset that his wife may be dead. But we find out she’s not dead and they’re reunited again.

It’s a perfect film. This is one of the best films ever made, and nothing else should have won this award. (My apologies to The Crowd.)

My Thoughts: Oh it’s Sunrise all the way. Apologies to The Crowd, which also should have won, but, I have to take Sunrise. It’s just so good. It’s the kind of thing where, we all agree The Crowd was good enough to win, but I think most of us would still vote for Sunrise. It’s just how things go. Either way, something good was winning here (since you know Chang had no shot).

My Vote: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Should Have Won: Sunrise, The Crowd

Is the result acceptable?: Top ten or twenty decision of all time.

Ones I sugest you see: You need to see Sunrise and The Crowd. End of story. Need to.

And Chang — well, if you want to do the Oscar Quest you need to see it. Otherwise, I can’t imagine why anyone, save those who really like silent film and/or tinting and toning, would want to see this. It’s not bad, it’s just — most people don’t care about this. And I’m already forcing you to see four of the six films. I’ll go easy on this one. So you don’t need to see it, though it is a very interesting watch. Plus it’s really short.


3) Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

2) The Crowd

1) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

One response

  1. Michael

    Wonderful job with everything you’ve written. I also just wanted to comment on The Racket. I’ve never seen it, but my guess is that it probably was nominated because it was a Howard Hughes produced film.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:12 pm

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