Monday, April 15, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1927-1928

The Contenders:

The Racket
Seventh Heaven
Wings (winner)

What’s Missing

In the first Oscars ceremony, there were essentially two different Best Picture categories. One was called “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” which evolved into awards like Best Cinematography. What was originally called “Outstanding Picture” is what we think of today as Best Picture. Interestingly, there is no crossover between the awards, which seems to make Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, The Crowd, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (which won for Unique and Artistic) would all be viable contenders for Outstanding Picture. I’d support adding The Crowd and Sunrise. Metropolis and Napoleon would seem to be clear possibilities here, and I’m constantly surprised that The Jazz Singer was ignored simply because of the impact (although I agree in terms of quality). The Last Command seems like it might belong, too. Oscar has rarely liked comedy and horror, which explains why we’re not talking about Speedy, Steamboat Bill Jr., and Laugh, Clown, Laugh. And before you ask, The Man Who Laughs would have been eligible the following year.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. Of the three movies actually nominated for this award specifically, The Racket is the one that I didn’t really like at all. It’s cool to see an early gangster film get this kind of respect, but as far as early gangster films go, it’s just not that good. I’d have liked to have seen pretty much everything in the paragraph above here before this one. Sure, in a way, it helps to validate that sort of drama, but if we’d had Metropolis or Laugh, Clown, Laugh, would that make science fiction or horror more valid for Oscar today? I’d rather have those validated.

2. Seventh Heaven is a film where I understand the nomination, but I also wonder if perhaps it should have been in the other category. After all, there is a sequence here where a camera moves up the entire height of an apartment building, showing us the lives of the people inside as they go about their day. It’s an unimpressive shot today, but in these early stages of the movies, it’s absolutely astonishing. It’s not a bad story, either, even if it does eventually fall into the sort of melodrama that the age seemed to love.

1. Based on the three actual nominees for this award, I’m satisfied that Wings was the right choice. In fact, if we combined the two categories into one (something I briefly considered), I would still put Wings on top, albeit with a much closer second and third. The story is a good one, even if it’s a bit melodramatic and even if it shoehorns Clara Bow into the narrative. The dogfighting sequences seem a decade or more ahead of their time, though, and are absolutely the reason this won…and based on the nominations should have. My ultimate choice, though, is different.

My Choice

Of the movies that I think were eligible for this award, Metropolis is the one that I think remains the most worth seeing today and the one that has carried over to the modern age the best. Sure, it has its soupcon of melodrama, but it also is technically a wonder, especially for its time. That, and the story is pretty great and still relevant. It’s also possible that this, because of Oscar’s weird rules, wasn’t really eligible. If that’s the case, my favorite from the “year” of 1927 through the first half of 1928 is Laugh, Clown, Laugh.

Final Analysis


  1. Out of these three Wings was the right winner and I think even if all those others you mentioned were blended in it would still be my top choice. As you said those aerial shots still impress today. I didn't have a problem with the makers finding a way to get Clara Bow in there, but I'm always happy to see her. She's one of my favorite silent stars, always so vividly ALIVE and immediate on screen in a way that few others were.

    Metropolis is astonishing when you consider when it was made and the impact it's had but I enjoyed Wings more, I was surprised how much.

    My close second of the available films is actually Sunrise. I like that suggestion of The Last Command, another film I liked far more than I expected. I can see what you're saying about The Jazz Singer being a possibility considering its impact but it's one I'm glad didn't get a nomination. Outside of the sound revolution it started it's a lousy movie.

    The only other title I'd throw into the mix is The Unknown with Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford. It came out in June of '27 which I think makes it a qualifier (these first years are hard to judge) but it's horror so it probably didn't stand a chance. Good film though.

    1. Wings is a really good choice, honestly. For me, Metropolis is very much a sentimental choice. As a budding film nerd, it was my first silent, so I'll always have a soft spot for it. That said, I can't complain too much about Oscar's choice. Wings, while it's not my choice, is not an undeserving winner.

      My issue with Sunrise is the middle section of the film, which always seems to me to be tonally off with the rest of the movie. It's like suddenly everything becomes a comedy before becoming deadly serious at the end. While it's a beautiful movie, I find that jarring.

      I honestly don't like The Jazz Singer much as a movie, but I'm surprised at its lack of nomination given just how insanely popular it was at the time and the impact of the technology.

      As for The Unknown, it's one that I like a great deal, but I like Laugh, Clown, Laugh more. Length might be a consideration, too, since The Unknown barely scrapes over an hour, and the version I watched was a mere 49 minutes.