Last night I finally watched "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans," the film at the heart of a huge Oscar controversy: Does it, not "Wings," deserve to be remembered as the first best picture winner? Many — indeed, probably most — Oscar snobs and hipsters insist, "Yes!"
There were actually two best-pic awards bestowed at the first Academy Awards ceremony for the eligibility period spanning 1927-28. One was for "best production," honoring "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness." "Wings" won that — a b.o. hit about World War I aerial battles starring Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper and directed by William A. Wellman ("The High and the Mighty" and the 1937 version of "A Star Is Born"). Variety praised the film while noting that it buzzed with "bombing machines, captive balloons, smashes and crashes of all types."
However, the other, similar award was for best "artistic quality of production," honoring "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude." "Sunrise" took that prize.
"Sunrise" is an unabashed soap opera about a farmer (George O'Brien) who falls for the charms of an evil city temptress (Margaret Livingston), who urges him to drown his innocent wife (Janet Gaynor) and mother of his adorable infant. It was one of the three films that earned Gaynor the first Oscar ever bestowed for best actress. The other two: "7th Heaven" and "Street Angel."
Variety hailed the "artistry" and "dramatic power" of "Sunrise," which was helmed by F.W. Murnau, who wasn't nominated for best director (neither was Wellman) and is chiefly remembered today for the silent classic "Nosferatu" (1922). "Sunrise" flopped at the box office, but the cult around it has grown so significantly through the years that, in 2007, it popped up for the first time ever on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies ever made, ranked at No. 82. "Wings" wasn't ranked at all.
Nowadays, all Oscar Nazis insist that we should fight for "Sunrise" to get its due and reverse the common misconception that the lowly "Wings" was the first best picture winner. After all, if "Sunrise" was the most "artistic" film, doesn't that mean it's really the best? Why does "Wings" get all the credit? It was merely the "best production."
Yes, but the criteria surrounding the latter award covered "all elements" of a film's greatness, presumably its artistry too.
So . . . enough! Which one's really best? As a self-respecting Oscarologist, I had to decide for myself!
I've seen "Wings" a few times and liked it OK. But now that I've viewed "Sunrise," I must concede: "Wings" soars by comparison. "Sunrise" is paper-thin, hilariously schmaltzy. All three primary characters are cartoonish clichés and their performances 3-inch slices of honeyed ham.
Mind you, I'm the kinda guy who'd normally side with the weepie. On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." But I just can't shed a real tear when the farmer in "Sunrise" decides that he just — by golly! — can't off his sweet, dimpled wifey-pooh, after all. Nor could I cheer the scenes of the couple back together, all giddy smiles and kisses, posing for photos like newlyweds, dancing a happy peasant dance, joyous once he decided not to wring her scrawny little neck and hurl her over the side of the row boat.
What corn pone! Smothered in Cheez Whiz! "Wings" ain't Shakespeare or Scorsese, mind you, but it's better than that!
By the way, "Sunrise" wasn't the original winner of best artistic picture. No, no, no, "The Crowd" — King Vidor’s drama about an average New York couple’s struggle with daily hardships — won most votes from the Central Board of Judges, which was comprised of five cronies of Louis B. Mayer, who had created the academy as his private tool to crush the rising power of Hollywood labor unions.
But Mayer didn't want "Crowd" to win because it was produced by his own studio, MGM. That might tattle what everyone already knew: that this whole academy thing was his puppet organization. So he bullied the judges, yanked their strings, kept them up all night until they finally saw the light and ditched "Sunrise" for the alternative produced by Fox studio.
Other notable flicks up for the best pic awards included Gaynor's "7th Heaven," a romantic fantasy and b.o. smash ($2.5 million) that earned Frank Borzage the first Oscar for best director.
Two other best-pix nominees earned the best-actor trophy for Emil Jannings: Joseph von Sternberg's "The Last Command" starring Jannings as a Czarist army general reduced to poverty after the Bolshevik Revolution; in "The Way of All Flesh," he's a reputable man ruined by his sexual desires. "Flesh" is Victor Fleming's lost film, but enough reviews and descriptions survive to attest to its brilliance and justify its consideration as the best film that year.
Two other outstanding flicks were totally, and outrageously, ignored at the first Oscars. One was "The Circus" by a Hollywood rebel so loathed by Mayer and his industry cronies that the academy voided the three Oscar nominations earned by Charlie Chaplin's movie.
They also ignored what everyone really knew was the best picture of the year because they thought it had an unfair advantage over all of the silent pix nominated — that revolutionary megahit "Jazz Singer," which blasted through the sound barrier, trumpeting the future of film.
So . . . what's all this fuss about "Sunrise," eh?