• James Kunovski

1920s Best Picture Winners: Reviewed

Three films, or two if we’re being technical were awarded the Academy’s top bill in the 1920s, a decade which saw the end of the silent era and the beginning of an unsteady but sure time for sound. In their limited span, these films, two classics, the other not so much, roused the interests of the new Academy’s wishes, cemented themselves in Hollywood legacy and laid the groundwork for Best Pictures to come.



Wings, 1927 (1st Academy Awards)

directed by William A. Wellman



Setting out to watch the Academy’s crème de la crème, especially when the cream is sometimes spoiled, is a daunting task, so you could imagine my relief when the first Best Picture winner turned out to be a solid watch; a film suspended by a deceivingly simple tale, brimming with imaginative and revolutionary visuals. Wings tells the story of two small town rivals turned World War I fighter pilots, Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) who vie for the courting of Mary Preston (silent icon Clara Bow). Lauded upon its release and noted for its extraneous and remarkable aerial feats, Variety wrote in its original review, “Irrespective of the wave of interest in aviation that is currently sweeping the world, add Wings to the list because its flying is vital.” Strip away its vivacious energy, and you are left with a highlight reel courtesy of Wellman and his company’s prowess — the dogfight sequences, the swing scene, that emotional kiss, the pioneering café dolly shot and an etched reference for future stunt-work.


The Academy’s creation was propelled by a desire to polish Hollywood’s increasingly scandalous image and an opportunity to showcase the industry’s “smart” and “talented” workers. The patriotic themes of Wings, and its wholesome, grounded love story would have boosted that sanitisation. They would have found a similar message with fellow Best Picture nominee 7th Heaven, a melodramatic romance between an unlikely couple in gritty Paris, but less likely with the third nominee, The Racket which was scrutinised for its depiction of police corruption in Chicago. We all know about the workings of Oscar-bait so does Wings tick those boxes? It would be correct to say it painted the first strokes in that model. For starters, the Academy’s predilection with war films started on the right foot. Twenty-two Best Picture winners have featured war as a forefront subject, some more primary than others. Nevertheless, the appeal of a World War I film still remains popular merit insofar as nominees go, as last year’s 1917 would suggest. Similarly, though it has become a dated trope, Wings ushered in admiration for the epic genre — the Academy has awarded their highest honour to twenty-seven likeminded films and they adore it all the more when a tragic love story takes centre stage. The Academy favoured Wings for its message, a trend that has not gone out of style. As luck would have it, their decision landed on the right film — a potpourri of stunning composition, state-of-the-art stunts, a classic love story and a gold precedent for silent cinema’s greatest heights on the dawn of an industry-changing discovery.



 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927 (1st Academy Awards)

directed by F. W. Murnau



Murnau’s revered work is the only film honoured under the ‘Best Unique and Artistic Picture’ badge, so I might be cheating by adding it. At the time, it was equal to the similarly positioned ‘Outstanding Picture,’ or our modern-day Best Picture. In retrospect, the Academy has determined that Wings won the ‘higher’ award. Sunrise’s category intended to award arthouse films outside of the commerciality that the ‘Outstanding Picture’ nominees fulfilled. Sunrise is steeped in a fabled structure and an allegorical premise, one that concerns itself with a despicable farmer (George O’Brien), his dainty wife (Janet Gaynor) and the temptations of seduction and sin brought on by a vacationing city woman (Margaret Livingston) — the result is a film that still packs a punch decades later. If we’re going to approach the notions of ‘unique’ and ‘artistic’ with the most literal intentions, Sunrise flexes its artistry with timeless power. Murnau’s direction attacks an emotional and dramatic maturity bold of the era, and the camera balances an effortless presence with avant-garde effects.

The criterion behind the one-off category aligns with the current Best Picture-nominated films, namely those in arm’s length recency. Until the 1970s, most Best Picture winners were box-office hits. The Academy’s current nominating trend usually favours films that resemble the ‘unique’ and ‘artistic’ measures of Sunrise; think Moonlight, 12 Year a Slave and Roma. Those films competed alongside La La Land, Gravity and Black Panther; the latter trio holds a collective gross of $2.5 billion.


It’s bizarre that Sunrise’s relevant ‘Best Picture’ win has been erased from Academy history. Sunrise boasts its indelible legacy — it is often cited as a silent classic, and in some circles, the greatest silent film of all time. Which one of these two victories stands the test of time?



 

The Broadway Melody, 1929 (2nd Academy Awards)

directed by Harry Beaumont


The first talkie to win Best Picture is more indebted to the technology that likely granted its win and less the entertaining affair that the lobby cards promise. Hollywood and MGM’s first musical follows a fairly standard setup — a vaudeville sister act, (Bessie Love and Anita Page) strive to make it on Broadway but love troubles complicate their effort. Amongst the ostensibly tepid musical numbers, there is a lot of fighting over mediocre men, the strangest of climaxes and dreadfully histrionic acting where recitation precedes memorisation. The acting, which often holds these early sound films back from modern re-appraisal, can be forgiven — behold, the awkward transition that actors felt, once parodied in Singin’ in the Rain and sentimentalised in The Artist. Page struggles, but Love has that little more pizzazz that saves the pair from tanking the storyline — a moment where she masters an early version of the manic cry/laugh scenery-chewing is both campy and precise. Within an enthusiastic industry eager to embrace the advent of sound, despite its practical burden, The Broadway Melody might have become a convenient choice for an Academy keen to bestow its highest honour to their first talkie. A ratio of silent to sound features was split almost fifty-fifty by all nominees, whereas the previous year held an almost ninety-per cent silent film presence.


Maybe the most ironic anecdote to befall The Broadway Melody’s legacy is a nervous adoption of the technology it wishes to gloat. The camera is almost always fixed and static, as is the chemistry between most characters, and the pacing is abysmal — the sisters are once in danger of losing their spot in a big-name revue because of pacing issues, though was the film self-aware enough to already start making jabs? Upon its release, critics pointed out its revolutionary content, box-office prospects (it did become the highest-grossing film of that year) and the sweet, or depending on who you ask, borderline saccharine sentiment. René Clair writing for “Film Sound: Theory and Practice” embodies the excitement of filmgoers at the cusp of new technology and a new decade, “the talking film has for the first time found, an appropriate form: it is neither theatre nor cinema, but something altogether new. The immobility of planes, that curse of talking films, has gone.” The Broadway Melody is completely devoid of the famous MGM musical charm and even if then-contemporary audiences might have marvelled at the exhibition, viewers today might be left feeling cold. See it as an important aspect of film history rather than a slice of entertainment and you might find a glimmer of satisfaction. Unfortunately, for the majority of modern-day audiences, the appeal of “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” fanfare, especially one that has been succeeded by hundreds more superior does not strike with the same tempt of that 1929 slogan.