Friday, December 25, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong: Best Actor 1927-1928

The Contenders:

Emil Jannings: The Last Command (winner)
Richard Barthelmess: The Noose
Richard Barthelmess: The Patent Leather Kid
Emil Jannings: Way of All Flesh (winner)

What’s Missing

Normally, I can figure out exactly what the dates are for one of these early Oscar races, but for the first set of Oscars, I’m just going to include everything from 1927 through the end of July 1928. This opens up the field to a lot of possibilities. While I didn’t love The Jazz Singer or Al Jolson’s performance, I’m genuinely surprised that he wasn’t nominated. Oscar’s dislike of horror started early, leaving out Lon Chaney in The Unknown. Comedies also have a harder run during Oscar season and Oscar has never cared much about stunt work. This will leave out Harold Lloyd in The Kid Brother and Buster Keaton in both Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The General. Gustave Frohlich and Rudolf Klein-Rogge would have been interesting picks from Metropolis. I’d have loved to have seen James Murray in The Crowd in the mix, as well as George O’Brien in Sunrise.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. Only two men were nominated for Best Actor with two films each. Actually, Charles Chaplin was nominated for The Circus as well, but was removed from contention and given a special award. Anyway, I have no real hope of seeing The Noose, which evidently exists only in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I don’t have any real fondness for Richard Barthelmess as an actor, although I don’t have a negative opinion of him, either. What’s most interesting is that I can’t find a genuine critical opinion on this film anywhere.

N/A. I have less hope of seeing Emil Jannings in The Way of All Flesh, which is considered a lost film. I have a particular fondness for Emil Jannings of this period. My high school German teacher made us watch Der Blaue Engel every year. The plot of this one seems ridiculously melodramatic. I’d love to be able to have seen it, but my guess is that I probably wouldn’t have loved it too much based on what I know. But, I guess we’ll never know, given that the film doesn’t exist.

2. Richard Barthelmess overacted to a tremendous degree in The Patent Leather Kid, but that was par for the course in the silent era. Emoting was all the rage because of the desire to communicate as much as possible to the audience. In that respect, Barthelmess is right in line with just about everyone else in the era. It doesn’t translate well, but that’s not his fault and so I’m not going to hold him responsible. But I can compare him to other actors and performances of the era. Is he good to great? Not really. It feels like a standard performance of the age.

My Choice

1. I made the decision when I started this feature on this blog that the tie would always go to the Academy. In this case, I would be very happy to see Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in the mix here. George O’Brien would have been a great pick. But I can’t really disagree with the choice of Emil Jannings from The Last Command. Sure, it’s overacted, but that’s consistent with the era, and Jannings is great in what he’s asked to do. He brings real passion to this role and to the idea of the film, and while I would love a mostly-changed set of nominations, I can’t ultimately disagree with this choice.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of the actors nominated though I am with you on Buster Keaton on Steamboat Bill Jr. & The General, the men in Metropolis, James Murray in The Crowd, and George O'Brien for Sunrise.

    1. You're not missing a ton here, honestly. The Last Command is interesting, but probably not essential.

  2. I would have been disturbed if between the two actors the Academy had chosen Barthelmess whose appeal eludes me.

    Jannings was an unrepentant Nazi in real life which is tragic but he was a great actor and he deserved to win this year. Taking into consideration the difference in acting styles between now and then he is both compelling and touching in The Last Command. The Way of All Flesh was remade in 1940 with Akim Tamiroff and Gladys George and even that version is impossible to find. Must be a cursed story.

    Jannings will always be my ultimate winner but cripes how did they allow it to be only he and Barthelmess in competition when there was a wealth of choices available?

    Aside from Murray in The Crowd and O'Brien in Sunrise, who would both make my line-up, there's Ivor Novello in The Lodger (or Downstairs and The Ring), John Gilbert in The Show, Charles Farrell in Seventh Heaven, Victor McLaglen in A Girl in Every Port and above all Lon Chaney who besides The Unknown had Laugh Clown Laugh and The Man Who Laughs. You would have thought he would have gotten in for at least one of them.

    I'm not as big a fan of Keaton nor Harold Lloyd but that's personal preference both would have been deserving of nominations.

    My nominees would run in this order:

    Jannings-The Last Command
    Chaney-The Unknown
    Murray-The Crowd
    Novello-The Lodger

    1. For my money, silent horror and especially silent comedies have the best chance of still working. I think both Keaton and Lloyd were great at what they did and Keaton was a bonafide genius. His career trajectory has always been depressing to me--he was such a talent and it was never really utilized as it should have been.

  3. I've nothing to add here, other than to give you kudos for continuing with this. Great work!

    1. There are a few more to go, and then we'll see what happens.