1927/28 1928/29
* Indicates that the film/performance was not nominated for an Academy Award in this category

1927/28
Wings
Actor: Emil Jannings
(The Last Command/The Way of All Flesh)
Actress: Janet Gaynor
(Sunrise/Seventh Heaven/Street Angel)
Director: Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven)
Comedy Director: Lewis Milestone
(Two Arabian Knights)
Sunrise*
Actor: Lon Chaney
(London After Midnight/Laugh, Clown Laugh)*
Actress: Janet Gaynor
(Sunrise/Seventh Heaven/Street Angel)
S
upporting Actor: Lionel Barrymore (Sadie Thompson)*
Supporting Actress: Louise Brooks (A Girl in Every Port)*
Director: F. W. Murnau (Sunrise)*
Comedy Director: Ted Wilde
(Speedy)
 

There were actually two Best Picture Oscars handed out in the first year of the Academy's existence, with the traditional Best Picture Award (awarded to "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness") to William Wellman's Wings, and the "Artistic Quality of Production" Award (given to "the Producing Company, or Producer who produced the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to its cost or magnitude') to F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, pretentiously subtitled "A Song of Two Humans." But its subtitle is the only pretentious thing about this unforgettable tale of betrayal and reconciliation, one of the most poetically beautiful films ever made. The Artistic Quality of Production Award was discontinued after the first year because it seemed indistinguishable from the Best Picture Award, with King' Vidor's gritty classic The Crowd and the forgotten pseudo-documentary Chang joining Sunrise as the only films ever nominated in this category. In this first year when the awards were decided by small committees, the Board of Governors were intent on giving the award to The Crowd, but MGM head and Academy founder Louis B. Mayer argued into the early morning to give the award to Sunrise.

Wings, with its still impressive aerial photography and gripping storyline remains a highly enjoyable film and a creditable choice for the first Best Picture Oscar (the other nominees were The Last Command, The Racket, Seventh Heaven and the now-lost The Way of All Flesh, starting a long-cherished Academy tradition of ignoring comedies for its top prize), although it lacks the timelessness and dramatic resonance of Sunrise. Viewed today, the latter film seems the greater artistic achievement.

Charles Chaplin received a Special Oscar for "versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus," a last-minute decision by the Academy to bypass Le Charlot in the balloting for Best Actor and Best Comedy Direction (the Academy has since erased Chaplin's nominations in those categories from its official roll of honor because the presentation of the honorary award took him out of the running in the final voting for the competitive statuettes). Chaplin is unquestionably the greatest artist in the history of the cinema and (in the opinion of madbeast.com) still its biggest star, but he was going through a bitter and painful divorce during the filming of The Circus and as a result turned out by far the weakest of his silent features (although it is still a highly enjoyable film by anyone else's standards). The Little Tramp certainly deserved such an award, but it seems regrettable that he didn't receive it for the masterpieces City Lights or Modern Times (neither of which received a single nomination). Ironically, Chaplin's rival Harold Lloyd delivered a stronger and more popular film in Speedy (which was nominated for Best Comedy Direction, losing to Two Arabian Knights), but since he eschewed the Tramp's heartbreakingly sentimental dramatic edges in favor of straightforward comedy, he wasn't placed on the same artistic level by the Academy. In truth, Lloyd's talents generally weren't on the same level as Chaplin's, but he did show more versatility and genius in the first year of the Oscars than Chaplin did with The Circus. Of course it's reasonable to assume that the Academy really meant Chaplin's Oscar more as the first lifetime achievement award than to suggest that he surpassed his personal best with his The Circus, but it wasn't until 1935 (with an honorary Oscar to D.W. Griffith) that they came up with the idea of handing out statuettes for career achievement. Lloyd ultimately won an official lifetime achievement Oscar at the 1953 award ceremony and due to political controversies, Chaplin had to wait almost twenty years later for his. Of course, when Chaplin did receive his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1972, his appearance was hailed as one of the most memorable and emotional in the history of the Academy Awards.


In the only year of Oscar history devoted exclusively to silent films (with the exception of a special award to The Jazz Singer), the Academy nominated two of the greatest actors of that era in the Best Actor category. Charles Chaplin was nominated for The Circus (although this nomination has since been stricken from the Academy's official history), and Emil Jannings (who many considered the greatest dramatic actor of the silent era after his performances in such classics as Variety and The Last Laugh before he aligned himself tragically with the Nazis) won the award for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. The third slot was taken up by Richard Barthelmess (best remembered for playing the male lead in D.W. Griffith's Way Down East) in The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid. That nomination should have gone to the man whom madbeast.com considers to be second only to Chaplin as not only the greatest actor of the silent era, but in the history of the cinema: Lon Chaney. Chaney delivered two performances eligible for the first Academy Award: the smash hit Laugh Clown, Laugh (in which he played one of his gallery of older clowns in love with a much younger woman) and in the now lost London After Midnight (surviving still pictures of which indicate one of his most chilling and charismatic performances).

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1928/29

Broadway Melody
Actor: Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona)
Actress: Mary Pickford(Coquette)
Director: Frank Lloyd
(The Divine Lady, Weary River, Drag)

The Wind*
Actor: Emil Jannings (The Patriot)*
Actress: Maria Falconetti (The Passion of Joan of Arc)*
Supporting Actor: Lewis Stone (The Patriot)
Supporting Actress: Olga Baclanova
(The Docks of New York)
*
Director: Victor Sjöström (The Wind)
 
All hell broke loose in the second year of the Academy's existence, when the coming of sound (introduced with the previous year's The Jazz Singer) made even the most perceptive of critics confuse novelty with quality. In the end novelty won, with MGM's first attempt at a big budget musical Broadway Melody winning the Oscar despite a hackneyed storyline and crude production values. Ironically, the only Best Picture nominee that continues to be highly regarded is the lone silent film to be nominated: Ernst Lubitsch's The Patriot (this despite the fact that the film is lost, which is always a convenient plus for a film's reputation). But of all the films made in the 1928/29 period, the most impressive by far were Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (beginning his ultimately disastrous association with MGM) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (with its justly celebrated scene of the side of a house falling on top of the great Stone Face) and Lillian Gish's last great silent masterpiece The Wind. Both Keaton films are marvelous (especially The Cameraman, which is one of the most perfectly constructed comedies ever made), but the picture of the year was Victor Sjöström's feminist drama which featured one of the great Gish's finest performance in her final silent film. Featuring equally fine work by Lars Hanson (who returned to Sweden after the advent of talkies, becoming one of the greatest stage actors and creating the role of James Tyrone in the 1956 world premiere of Long Day's Journey Into Night), The Wind was sadly overlooked as the public clamored for talkies despite delivering an animated intensity that stilted early sound films couldn't think of emulating. Gish's character being enveloped by the unforgiving wind was a metaphor for the status of the great actress' career as well, as she was perceived as old hat as silent films went out of fashion (despite being only 35 in 1928). She appeared in films only sporadically after The Wind, concentrating on television and the stage (where she contributed a legendary performance as Ophelia opposite John Gielgud's Hamlet in 1936). But her performance in The Wind is one of the greatest achievements by one of the movies' greatest talents. She received her only nomination in 1946, for Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun. But she gave perhaps the finest performance of her career in this masterpiece - which failed to be nominated in any category - and is matched by the remarkable work of Swedish actor Lars Hanson as her husband, and her snub seems more and more peculiar over the passage of time. The film was a box office failure when it came out and despised by MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who had a personal stranglehold on what films were awarded Oscars in the first years of the awards; which seems to be the only reason for its lack of recognition.
There were a number of surprising oversights in this strange year: the failure of Steamboat Bill, Jr. or The Cameraman to receive even a single nomination signaled the beginning of the Academy's long patronizing stand towards the art of comedy, and the failure of Emil Jannings to be nominated for what many contemporary audiences considered his greatest performance in the now-lost The Patriot in favor of supporting player Lewis Stone is simply confusing. Even with all these snubs, the staff of madbeast.com would love nothing more than to make this the year that Lillian Gish received her richly deserved moment in the awards spotlight for her superb performance in The Wind. But just like the Academy passed her over in what should have been the high point of her storied career, providence also threw a monkey wrench in her Hindsight Awards chances by offering up Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, considered by many to be the greatest single achievement in the history of motion picture acting. No actress in any medium has come remotely close to capturing the range of feeling and spiritual depth in playing Joan of Arc that Falconetti achieved in this extraordinary masterpiece, and while its limited release and lack of Hollywood caché makes its omission from the Oscar race easily more understandable than that of Gish's superb work, posterity is less forgiving and the selection of anyone but the sublime Falconetti for this honor in unthinkable.

Mary Pickford became infamous in Oscar circles for wooing the Academy governors' favor for her high school-caliber performance in Coquette with tea parties at her Pickfair mansion. Pickford was desperate to change her little girl image, so she famously cut off her blonde curls for this adaptation of a Broadway stage success and gave her all to the role of a flirtatious young southern woman who has to take the witness stand to defend her father's murder of her lover. But Pickford's 'all' was nothing more than striking silly poses and hopelessly doing a weak masquerade of a role she clearly had no connection with. The final result is actually madly entertaining - a laughable fiasco that is rivaled by Pickford's horrendous attempt at Shakespeare with Taming of the Shrew (both films were directed by Samuel Taylor, who made some of Harold Lloyd's most delightful silents but then appeared to lose all his talent when sound arrived). With Maria Falconetti and Lillian Gish out of the running, the award should have gone to the nominated Jeanne Eagels (the first posthumous nominee) for The Letter. Pickford is certainly one of the greatest movie stars of all time, but her Oscar victory for Coquette is reminiscent of the Golden Globes giving an award to Pia Zadora and can be reasonably regarded as the worst selection for Best Actress in Academy Award history.

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THE TOP 10
FILMS OF
THE 1920s

1
The Gold Rush

2
The Passion of Joan of Arc
3
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
4
Way Down East
5
Sherlock, Jr.
6
The Big Parade
7
The Wind
8
He Who Gets Slapped
9
The Cameraman
10
The Last Laugh

BEST MALE
PERFORMANCE Charles Chaplin
in
The Gold Rush

BEST FEMALE
PERFORMANCE Marie Falconetti
in
The Passion of
Joan of Arc