- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

The 80th annual Academy Awards ceremony has escaped a labor dispute and will take place as planned Sunday evening in Hollywood.

The Oscar tradition of concealing winners until the ceremony itself took a few years to evolve. A mere handful of eligible voters and a dozen awards categories sufficed for the first edition of the Academy Awards. The names of both nominees and winners for 1927-28 were printed in advance on the programs for the official celebration, a banquet on May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (not far from the current site, the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard).

By that time, Louis B. Mayer’s organizing activities for an academy and annual “Awards of Merit” had been in progress for more than two years. One of the delays was caused by misunderstandings over the official eligibility period: Aug. 1, 1927 through July 31, 1928. Many participants interpreted it loosely and voted for pictures that dated back two or three years, notably Charles Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” (1925) and Buster Keaton’s “The General” (released Feb. 5, 1927).

The prior notice allowed the first winner as best actor, the Swiss-born German specialist in crumbling figures of authority, Emil Jannings, to request his statuette in advance, since his ship sailed back to Europe before the ceremony. Mr. Jannings’ departure was also prompted by professional uncertainty about his ability to remain a prestige adornment in Hollywood after the changeover to talking pictures.

Silent movies were doomed to obsolescence just as the Oscar tradition was getting off the ground. A special award for “The Jazz Singer” at the first ceremony anticipated the wave of the future. Silents remained in contention only during that first split year of eligibility. By the 1928-29 encore, they were a fading echo. A great and invaluable tradition was shortchanged by this chance of timing.

Under the circumstances, the silent tradition didn’t make a bad showing for one round. “Wings,” William Wellman’s aerial spectacle about American combat fliers in World War I, was named the first “best production” and gets pride of place in Oscar record books.

However, there was a second “best movie” category at the outset, won by F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise,” a famously poetic, inventive, mood-shifting fable about a threatened and then salvaged marriage, made at Fox with George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor as the young co-stars. The category, intended to recognize “the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude,” was scuttled after the first year. (I wish it had been retained: The idea of movies such as “The Wind,” “Hallelujah!,” “The Blue Angel,” “Tabu,” “Freaks,” “Frankenstein” or “Duck Soup” winning the “other” best film award in the immediate aftermath of “Sunrise” is extremely appealing.)

Declining to acknowledge a distinction, Fox Video has included “Sunrise” in a recent four-disc set called “Studio Classics,” along with a trio of best picture winners from the 1941-1950 decade: “How Green Was My Valley,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “All About Eve.” I admire their willingness to stretch Oscar history in deference to “Sunrise.” I also admire the handsome, overdue DVD edition of the movie itself, augmented by a knowledgeable commentary from a top-flight cinematographer, John Bailey. It’s a shame that similar DVD restorations haven’t been afforded to such first-year Oscar classics as “Wings,” “Seventh Heaven, ” “The Last Command” and “The Crowd.”

Also a Fox classic, “Seventh Heaven” was one of the three movies that won Miss Gaynor the initial prize as best actress. “The Last Command,” one of Josef von Sternberg’s masterpieces at Paramount at the close of the silent era, showcased a great Jannings performance as a broken man; he enters as an aging, twitching Hollywood extra whose infirmities conceal a once illustrious past in Czarist Russia.

“The Crowd,” King Vidor’s semi-expressionistic fable of an ordinary man at risk in a mass society, could easily be regarded as a third best movie winner of 1927-28. It was the initial choice of voters in the category eventually won by “Sunrise.” Its chances were sabotaged, somewhat incredibly, by Mr. Mayer.

Despite being the executive producer of “The Crowd,” an MGM release, Mr. Mayer persuaded fellow co-founders to favor the prestige title from Fox. “Sunrise” was more to his liking, and he resented Mr. Vidor at that juncture for getting away with a critically admired downer.

The idea that studio loyalty meant everything was certainly contradicted by Mr. Mayer at the dawn of the Academy Awards. The ironies would have been enhanced if Mr. Vidor’s huge 1925 hit for MGM, “The Big Parade,” had been in contention for the mainstream best movie category, but it was not within the eligibility period. In retrospect, it seems the more haunting and stirring war spectacle than “Wings” in most respects.

Not that the latter isn’t an entertaining show, but its most persuasive claim on immortality is probably the brief sequence that introduces Gary Cooper as a lanky, instantly engaging, short-lived pilot. This may be the best single example of how a natural can light up the screen without seeming to make the slightest effort to be ingratiating.

Obviously, several companies have been tardy about releasing new DVD editions of the other 1927-28 movies that joined “Sunrise” as significant Academy Awards winners in the very beginning. Fortunately, the actual 80th anniversary date of the first Oscar ceremony is still 15 months away. There’s plenty of time to catch up before the 81st gala.

Major Academy Award winners of 1927-28:

“Wings” as best production; “Sunrise” for “artistic quality of production”; Frank Borzage as best director (“Seventh Heaven”); Janet Gaynor as best actress (“Sunrise,” “Seventh Heaven,” and “Street Angel”); Emil Jannings as best actor (“The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh”); Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for cinematography (“Sunrise”); “Wings” for engineering effects; special citations to Charles Chaplin for “The Circus” and “The Jazz Singer” as “pioneering talking picture.”

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