Just what is “The Academy”? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded on May 4, 1927. Prior to the Academy, the various branches of the motion picture industry had their own individual guilds and unions (as they still do) but no collective organization where they could all meet and discuss issues in the industry. As actress Mary Pickford put it, the Academy “is our open forum where all branches can meet and discuss constructive solutions to problems with which each is confronted…The producer, star, featured player, cinematographer—in fact, every individual can come into the Academy with any problem or proposal and feel that all barriers are leveled, that in this open court his voice carries the same weight as that of any other person, regardless of position and standing.” The first meeting and banquet was held one week later on May 11. 300 guests attended and 230 joined the Academy for a fee of $100, or a little more than $1300 by today’s standards.
At this first meeting, the idea of creating an awards system was brought up but was tabled because of more pressing matters, including a labor dispute that saw New York bankers and backers demanding that the Hollywood studios impose a ten percent salary cut on all studio personnel in order to reduce production costs. This move would have effectively shut down Hollywood. The dispute was negotiated and the salary cut proposal withdrawn. The following year, the idea of awards was again brought up, and the Academy agreed that in 1929, to commemorate their second anniversary, several Awards of Merit would be given out. For this first Academy Award ceremony, films released between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928 were eligible. This method of awarding films that spanned a period in the previous two release years would continue throughout the early years of the Academy Awards. Also, awards might be given for several achievements as opposed to just one. For example, first Best Actress Winner Janet Gaynor was awarded for her work in three films: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise. There were also no surprises at the first ceremony since the winners were announced prior to the event.
Perhaps the most interesting categories that first year were the two Best Picture Categories: Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Production. The former would be awarded to films that excelled at traditional elements, while the latter would be reserved for films that were more ambitious stylistically. However, by the second year of the awards, the Unique and Artistic category had been dropped, with Outstanding Picture encompassing films from traditional to unconventional. So, the first Academy Awards is the only time that two films actually won Best Picture: Wings and Sunrise. I point this out because Sunrise is often overlooked on lists of winners with Wings chosen as the sole representative of the first Academy Awards, even though the two categories were considered equal. In the last few years of the decade, silent films had reached an artistic peak. They were a far cry from the early actualités of the Lumière brothers. The stories and characters were complex, the cinematography breathtaking, and the pacing captivating. Wings and Sunrise represent the best of the period.
Wings is war film set during World War I that revolves around a love…quadrangle. It has elements of comedy, drama, romance, and action. The basic story is that two small town young men, Jack and David, are in love with Sylvia. Jack’s best friend, Mary, is desperately in love with him, but he’s too dumb to realize it. To impress Sylvia, who is in love with David, both men enlist in the Air Force. To impress Jack, Mary enlists as an ambulance driver. The film is loaded with now clichéd missed opportunities and mistaken identity gags. Clara Bow’s Mary elevates these scenes, and it’s easy to understand why she was Hollywood’s first “It” girl. Her girl-next-door looks, tomboy personality, and knack for comedic timing make her the star of the film. The dogfight scenes are also spectacular, which is why the film won a special award for Engineering Effects. The cinematography in these scenes as well as throughout the film is absolutely stunning, just check out the Folies Bergère scene for a dolly shot that is way ahead of its time (26:30 in the clip below). Though the film is widely available for free online, do yourself a favor and seek out the 85th Anniversary restoration released in 2012. It’s worth it.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a completely different yet equal production. Though it is often forgotten by Academy Award bloggers and historians, its legacy has continued to grow over the years among film aficionados. For example, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it #82 of the greatest films of all time. Directed by F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, 1922), Sunrise tells the story of a Man, his Wife, and a Woman from the City. The Woman wants the Man to kill his Wife, sell his farm, and come to the city with her. During his attempt to drown his Wife, the Man realizes they are still in love, and they spend the day in the city rekindling their passion for each other. On the return home, they are caught in a storm that capsizes the boat, drowning the Wife. If you want to know the rest, you’ll have to check it out for yourself. But it’s not the story that’s so captivating. Murnau’s impressionistic directing, award-winning cinematography, and mesmerizing title cards make this film a truly unique and artistic production. Sunrise shows that though the silent film industry had reached its height, filmmakers were still pushing the form, trying to create new and innovative ways to tell their stories. It’s tragic the silent film era ended just as these new areas were being explored.
The first Academy Awards recognized that the industry was changing by giving Warner Bros. a special award for “producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” Released in 1927, the first fully synchronized sound picture effectively ended the silent era. Although MGM production chief Irving Thalberg claimed, “Novelty is always welcome, but talking pictures are just a fad,” Hollywood began banking on films that had talking and, occasionally, singing. This was apparent at the second Academy Awards when The Broadway Melody, Hollywood’s first big budget musical, took Best Picture. The story is fairly straightforward—a sister act wants to make it on Broadway. It’s full of song and dance numbers, and musical fans defend it as important in the development of the genre. But it’s just dull. The entire film is stagy and the actors often seem like they’re standing around, waiting for the next cue. Gone is the brilliant cinematography of just the previous year. Gone is the acting to drive the story forward that marked the silent era. And gone is the pacing that kept audiences riveted to the screen. It was as if Hollywood thought that now they could talk, they didn’t have to do anything else to make the movie interesting. And just in case the singing and dancing weren’t enough to draw in an audience, the film also included a now-lost technicolor sequence. Though there are a few catchy musical numbers and the film spawned three sort-of sequels in 1936, 1938, and 1940, the film is a major letdown from Wings and Sunrise. Maybe the 30s will be better.