When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first handed out awards for distinguished achievement on May 16, 1929, William Wellman’s WWI aviation epic Wings became the first and, until The Artist, the only silent movie to ever win a Best Picture Oscar. Though only silents released between August 1st, 1927- July 31st, 1928 were deemed eligible for consideration that first year, Warner Bros.’s The Jazz Singer had already been released, heralding the incipient talkie revolution and ringing down the curtain on the silent era. By the second year of the ceremony only one silent, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot, wangled a nomination for Best Picture and among players, only veteran Lewis Stone was recognized for a non-speaking part.
Far more respect was accorded theatrically trained luminaries, including future Best Actor winner Paul Muni who made his screen debut in The Valiant and Jeanne Eagles, who would compete posthumously. Former silent stars Betty Compson, George Bancroft, Bessie Love and victors Warner Baxter and Mary Pickford also received recognition for proving themselves in the new sound medium, clearly showing that, even at this early stage, the Academy already considered silents passé. They had been thrown over for the latest innovations in talkie technology, which would be confused for a time with authentic artistic progress. MGM’s musical Broadway Melody, which succeeded Wings to the second Best Picture Oscar, for example, was ballyhooed for its memorable tagline “100% All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” That declaration really says it all. The short span of time between the first Oscars and the second encompassed a veritable sea change in American filmmaking that effectively spliced an era in two. By the time the Academy had come into its own as a respected institution within the industry, silent movies already seemed a misty memory from Hollywood’s dim, distant past, something from the previous century rather than the previous decade. They were forgotten that fast.
The rank and file of Oscar winners, slotted chronologically from the dawn of talkies to the present, can serve as a structural guideline on the history and evolution of movies. Whatever their other shortcomings, the awards can reflect the dominant trends in any given year, the latest, most exciting novelties, or capture the prevailing mood of the country, serving as a snapshot of the times. Occasionally, who lost can tell us more about the Hollywood mindset than who won. Even those who passionately disagree with the Academy’s selections still find the awards useful in gauging what the industry itself considered the best it had to offer in any given year.
Unfortunately, no comparable chronology exists for the chaotic days of early silents, making it that much more intimidating for novices to catalog and reconstruct the era, especially in the daunting face of so much missing material. Hollywood is notoriously wasteful of its own heritage, as the percentage of lost silent movies attest. And by beginning so belatedly, Oscar history reinforces the perception that quality movies somehow sprouted fully formed at the dawn of sound, which certainly doesn’t help stir interest in seeking out important earlier screen works. Consequently, the serious study of pre-sound cinema, which enjoyed a brief renaissance in the ’70s, is becoming an increasingly esoteric discipline, despite the ready availability of many once rare silent titles on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, there’s a perfectly logical reason why no governing body like the Academy existed before the sound era. The timing was just bad. The simple fact is that before the twenties, the American movie industry had not yet solidified in southern California. During the teens, the most important and influential film studios remained spread throughout the length and breadth of the country. The tony ones, like Vitagraph and Biograph, were still located on the East coast, either in New York or New Jersey, while a smattering of others could be found as far afield as Philadelphia (Lubin), Chicago (Essanay and Selig) and Florida (Kalem, also the first to make movies on location outside the country). Only independent studios such as IMP (soon to merge into Universal), on the run from Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Trust, and the Wild West shows of Thomas Ince’s Bison 101 (later under the Broncho, Domino and Kay Bee brands), picked up and migrated wholesale to the land of cowboys and Indians.
Quite a few concerns continued to maintain facilities on both coasts well into the coming decade and even beyond. Enjoying the best of both worlds, the East gave studios like Paramount ready access to popular Broadway plays and stage talent, while the West offered up an endless variety of scenery and the persistent, reliable sunshine necessary for primitive early photography. Only a colossus like D.W. Griffith dared to swim against the tide, emigrating West to East. It wouldn’t be until 1919 that 80% of all motion pictures began being produced in Southern California. With America’s film producing centers split between coasts for the majority of the silent era, a centralized voting body would’ve been impossible anytime before 1925.
The sense of community and camaraderie necessary to stir a desire in filmmakers to acknowledge excellence among their own just wasn’t in the cards before the dawn of talkies. Still, as early as 1913, there were intimations of an increasingly homogeneous movie colony. One organization that seems to have anticipated the later Academy was The Screen Club whose First Annual Ball was held at the Terrace Garden in New York City on April 10, 1913. Actor King Baggott, who served as president, and director Frank Powell, who would go on to discover Theda Bara, were prime influences in founding the Screen Club in 1912. Described in its annual brochure as “the first fraternal and social organization to be formed for the folk of the motion picture art,” this boy’s club whose membership was closed to women, included such leading screen lights of the pre-feature era as John Bunny, “Bronco Billy” Anderson, Arthur V. Johnson, Herbert Brenon, Oscar Apfel, Lionel Barrymore, Maurice Costello, Louis Gasnier, James Kirkwood, Elmo K. Lincoln, Owen Moore, Paul Panzer, Crane Wilbur, J. Warren Kerrigan, Billy Quirk, Adolph Zukor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, director Harry Beaumont, Maurice Tourneur, J. Stuart Blackton, Albert E. Smith, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum, William Fox, Daniel Frohman, Carl Laemmle, Siegmund Lubin. Disappointingly though, there never appears to have been any inclination on the part of this fascinating early organization to hand out awards for excellence among its own.
While the Screen Club may have failed to honor outstanding screen work, other bodies did. In 1920, for example, Photoplay magazine began awarding its annual Photoplay Medal of Honor, a medallion produced by Tiffany & Co., to the picture it deemed representative of the year’s finest achievement. At a time when movie magazines were as influential as most critics’ associations are now, this Medal of Honor remained the golden standard of measure until the Academy came along toward the close of the decade. To assuage silent artists who believed they’d been forgotten, in 1956 the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, handed out the George Awards, under the direction of curator James Card. As related in his book, Seductive Cinema, recipients were selected by polling living survivors of the silent era for their own choices as to the best actors, directors and cinematographers of the 1915-25 period, then again the next year for 1926-30. Though the passage of thirty years may have clouded their judgment and colored their choices, the Georges still gave many of the names that would’ve comprised the bulk of the Academy’s voting body during the silent era the invaluable opportunity to weigh in on the best representative work of their own period.
Over the years, the Academy itself has sporadically attempted to rectify its own oversights by handing out honorary Oscars. Thus some silent greats did receive their due, however late in the day it may have been coming. Movie pioneer D.W. Griffith became the first to be so honored in 1935, followed by Mack Sennett (1937), Douglas Fairbanks (1939), as members of “the small group of pioneers whose belief in a new medium, and whose contributions to its development, blazed the trail along which the motion picture has progressed, in their lifetime, from obscurity to world-wide acclaim,” inventor Thomas Armat, Colonel William N. Selig, Albert E. Smith, and George Kirke Spoor (all 1947), Adolph Zukor (1948), Cecil B. Demille (1949), Harold Lloyd (1952), Greta Garbo (1954), Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (1957), Buster Keaton (1958), Lillian Gish (1970), Charlie Chaplin (1971), Mary Pickford (1975), Hal Roach (1983).
However well-meaning, such recognition can never fully atone for Oscar’s unjustified slight of the first three decades of American cinema. These were the most significant, formative years in the development of film, years that witnessed the birth, growth, and evolution of an art form entirely unique to the 20th century. For an industry still languishing in the shadow of the ‘legitimate’ stage and struggling to be accepted as an art in itself, perhaps it would’ve seemed presumptuous to bestow awards at the time. It’s true that the medium was still in its infancy and hadn’t been mechanically perfected, but many of the sound films awarded in those early years of the Academy’s existence could hardly be regarded as technological marvels in hindsight either. The best silents on the other hand still stand up, sprinkling screen history with a trove of tantalizing early treasures that are becoming rarer than gold dust with each passing year.
If Oscars are, as the Academy claims, awarded to movies and performances on the basis of artistic merit alone, then a great wrong needs righted. History needs rewritten to rectify this unwarranted slight of silents. It is simple human nature to wonder ‘what if…,’ so I ask, what if Oscars had been handed out during the silent era? What movies and performers would have won? What movies and performers should have won? Film fantasy as much as historic fact, this corner is devoted to my ongoing list of pictures and players that I think had a shot of going for the gold during the silent period. This page was inspired by Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars, in which he proffered his own choices in the picture and acting categories year by year. My similar layout has a twofold purpose. On the one hand, in listing films and performances that probably would have attracted the attention of the Academy if it had existed at the time, I’ve taken stock of those titles that had the greatest impact in their own day. Hence my prognostications for winners and nominees each year can be taken as a cursory overview of the key films and performances of the era. Pouring over, sifting through, and factoring in an array of data, including contemporary criticism, box office performance, cultural influence, etc., I have, in effect, considered “all elements,” in the Academy’s own words, “that contribute to a picture’s greatness.” Conjecture backed up by research, circumstantial evidence, and historical hindsight, this remains an educated guess. There’s simply no way, especially at this late date, to predict with absolute certainty the influence of such variables as zeitgeist, personal sentiment, and all the other spontaneous impulses that go into handicapping movie awards. Would Famous Players-Lasky or the ill-starred Triangle Film Co. have engaged in block voting in the teens, instructing their employees to pull for a certain actor they were grooming for stardom, or a picture they were boosting at the box office, the way MGM and Warner Bros. were wont to do in the ’30s? And how much would the bias within the industry against an arty, temperamental foreign star like the critically revered Nazimova, increasingly unpopular with exhibitors, have impacted her Oscar chances? One could debate such questions endlessly, without ever coming to a satisfying conclusion.
For all my idle speculations, what can’t be fully taken into account is the precise thing that makes the Oscars so much fun to watch live each year- that unexpected element of jaw-dropping surprise. For instance, what film historian writing a century after the fact (or a year after) could have prophesied a win for Marisa Tomei in 1992 or Crash in 2005? So as to winners and losers throughout the silent era, I can only acknowledge the candidates most likely to have prevailed in any given year, and in some cases, your own guess would be as good as mine.
So many films and performances that were highly regarded and wielded cultural influence in their own day have faded in the esteem of film historians, if not been entirely forgotten over the years. Others, perhaps less heralded way back when, have gone on to become enduring classics. If I had only cited one or the other, I would have had to ignore a large number of important films and performances that helped shape our shared movie-going past. The double tiered format takes both factors into equal account to offer a more balanced view. My own selections for the year’s best work can be defended from a critical perspective. This second listing is more concerned with assessing what still remains, silents and stars whose reputations have not diminished, withstanding the test of time intact, alongside more modest, overlooked work that warrants rediscovery. Have I seen all the titles and performances included here? Not by a long shot, and what’s more, there’s no one left living who could honestly claim that they had. The silent cinema has drifted down to us in scraps and fragments. A handful of films exist in complete form, but the majority of them survive in a wide range of altered states. These can be prints heavily edited down from the original road show running times, reissues of earlier releases, prints of films missing reels here and there, or suffering from such extensive nitrate decomposition they may as well be lost. Even on video or DVD today, silents can circulate in a variety of forms, with varied picture quality, musical accompaniments, and even running times (depending on the source print used), so much so one would hardly know it for the same movie from one viewing to the next.
While the Academy’s Film museum has made efforts to preserve a copy of every Oscar film, some crucial silents still managed to evade them. These include the aforementioned The Patriot, as well as Emil Janning’s The Way of All Flesh, and the last reel of Gloria Swanson’s Sadie Thompson, which deteriorated over time. Nothing gold can stay, but it seems a pity for the first generation of moviegoers to have outlived so many of the ‘timeless’ masterpieces that so inspired and moved them and helped shape their lives during the early years of the last century, opening a window on the wider world around them to a degree unprecedented before. Far too many important movies have been lost to us for there to ever be anything like an exhaustive survey on the subject. Hence, magnificent movies and performances have no doubt escaped my radar simply because they’re no longer available for reassessment.
With so much material gone forever my lists can in no way be considered comprehensive, and as I’m exposed to more silent films, my initial choices are subject to change, giving me a degree of flexibility in my selections I’m sure the Academy itself would envy. But truth be told, at this late date, it’s not likely there are many new masterpieces waiting to rewrite film history and alter my picks. But one can always hope…
Now on to the fun stuff. Ahem, drum roll please… and the winner is …
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