–Year in Summary/What Did Win–
I can only imagine what the producers and heads of the Academy at the time must’ve been thinking when they hosted the 1st Academy Awards; what the future might’ve been for such a ceremony. So what if the awards were mostly an excuse to, in Academy Head Louis B. Mayer’s words, “hang medals all over them”, them being the people & workers in the film industry he set about uniting under one banner; film was, at the time, the fourth largest industry in America, and only time would be able to tell how influential the “Oscars” would become, the very name “Academy Awards” becoming ubiquitous with the concept of awarding the best of the best in whatever metaphor it was being used in.
That said, the 1st ceremony was basic at best, lasting only fifteen minutes, and with the winners having been previously announced three months before. Honorary awards were given to The Jazz Singer and Charlie Chaplin, but it was Wings and Sunrise that took home the pair of awards that, in the first year, amounted to the highest honors the Academy would bestow. The next year, the Academy retroactively decided that Wings had been the winner of what would go on to become Best Picture, relegating Sunrise’s win to a trivia tidbit, even though time has been far kinder to Sunrise than it has been to Wings, my opinion included.
–Ranking the Nominees–
Unique and Artistic Production:
-Considering the artistic merit and value of the other two films nominated for this award, it should surprise no one that Chang is ending up at the bottom for me. Aside from the neat factor of seeing footage shot in the jungles of Siam, and the slight novelty of having a half-documentary nominated for the award, there is nothing to Chang, and it’s made even more redundant in that everything that Chang does do aside from its hooks had been done 5 years before with Nanook of the North. All this basically leaves a film with absolutely nothing to offer, and considering how hard it was to find a print of this, especially in English, should be an indication of how well-regarded it has remained in the years since its release.
–The Crowd has the unfortunate circumstance of ending up in the middle by sheer virtue of the other two films it is nominated against. It’s clearly better than Chang, but it’s not good enough to take home the prize itself; it’s a little too maudlin, especially in the script, and this takes away from the power of the aspects of The Crowd that do work, which are undoubtedly the cinematography, which is some of the strongest in the late-silent era, other films notwithstanding. I have a feeling that this placement wouldn’t have changed even if I had been as much of a fan of The Crowd as I’ve seen other reviewers be, which I wasn’t, but I still enjoyed it, especially during its strengths.
-Of course, the “other films notwithstanding” I mentioned just prior include Sunrise, the winner of this award, and rightly so; Sunrise stands as one of the crowning achievements of the silent era, and is such a delight and such a powerful watch that I rewatched it just for this segment, to make sure my initial review of the film hadn’t been too far off the mark, and it wasn’t. That the plot of the film is what it is, with how it is executed, and with the amazing strength of its cinematography, all in the year it was released, is nothing short of astonishing. Thankfully, this is one area and one award that, time since the 1st awards included, Oscar did end up getting right.
-I made it a point in my reviews of the three nominees in this category that they had been nominated for an award that at the time had been called Outstanding Picture, and not merely Best Picture, and that nomenclature played a factor in my ranking the nominees. The name of the award aside, however, 7th Heaven is getting the boot immediately, for reasons that are painfully evident in my review. I don’t know why the filmmakers decided to throw in the war angle when there had been absolutely nothing in the film up to then that had led toward it; maybe they’d seen Wings, and figured they needed it to make the film more viable, or whatever. I dunno. Either way, it basically served as a torpedo to all the good will the film had built up in me up to that point. They might’ve had something here, but they ruined it, and for seemingly no good reason.
–The Racket ends up second for much the same reasoning that The Crowd did in the complementary award category; it’s better than the film below it, but not good enough to take home the top prize. I made a point of this in the actual review, but I’ll bring it up again here: it’s that this was nominated for Outstanding Picture and not Best Picture that seems so incongruous to me. That, and the film seemed very handicapped by the decision to make it a silent picture, which seems a silly thought; that a studio’s decision to not stop the silent film in-production and convert it into a talkie at the last minute ended up hurting the film in question. Still, the plot development of this one was almost the opposite of 7th Heaven; I didn’t care what was going on in the first half, and ended up surprisingly involved by the end, so kudos for that at least.
-Given my tepid reaction in my review of the film, it might surprise some that Wings is getting the top slot from me. The reason is the same as how I opened this section, and how I stated in my review: this, if nothing else, is an outstanding picture in the sense that the film had more wow factor than any other film in the roster. The aerial sequences are what won this film the award; the rest of the film was merely a good film, albeit one that had just about everything that a film was expected to have crammed into it, which probably helped with the Academy’s decision. Rename the category and give me some other nominees, we might have a different story, but as of what it was, the Academy didn’t go too wrong.
–What Should Have Won/What I Would’ve Picked–
While the winners probably wouldn’t have changed, given the criteria for the two categories, the nominees would’ve definitely seen some adjustment. For instance, I’d ditch Chang right off and nominate Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in a freaking heartbeat. Also, while comedies have never really been too much of a thing for the Academy (they reportedly gave Charlie Chaplin his honorary award in lieu of actual nominations for his film The Circus), if it had been released the following year and thus been eligible for the 1st ceremony, I would have absolutely given some love, and possibly my vote for Best Picture of the year, to Buster Keaton’s The General.
–How Did Oscar Do?–
So, for its inaugural year, how did Oscar do? Not too bad, at least with the winners; the nominees could’ve done with some improvements, unless this really was the best that this eligible period of films had to offer, in which case the notion that sound was about to ruin films isn’t all that much of a bother if this was what filmmaking could do, a couple noteworthy and still highly regarded exceptions aside (Sunrise being the chief one). Still, it’s that this would become, to history, the 1st Academy Awards, that is of chief renown here. In an almost literal sense, it can only go up from here.