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VOTE: Was 'Sunrise' really Oscar's first best picture?

April 15, 2008 |  9:09 am

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?

The comments to this entry are closed.


You have had a lot of well-written and reasoned responses to your initial article stating why Sunrise is so highly regarded. Surely it is your duty to respond to these posts and not just to a tiny minority that you feel are insulting. Can you please explain (without calling me a nazi or suggesting I have some sort of agenda) which of the following explanations is valid?:
1) You were simply not aware of the artistic acomplishments that Murnau made with Sunrise when you wrote your piece
2) You are aware of the overwhelming critical consensus but disagree and don't think Sunrise was artistically shot and don't believe it was an insiration to generations of the greatest film-makers of the last 80 years
3) You agree that it was beautifully shot and it was artistically pioneering but you think that these facts are unimportant compared to the plot, which you feel is cheesy

If the Mayer anecdote is true, seems like "Oscar Nazis" should be stumping for "The Crowd" to be belatedly recognized as the first Best Picture winner. But I don't get how any of this is a "controversy." The Academy chose to honor two pictures in similar but separate categories. Historical accuracy (which was apparently thrown out the window upon the "Wings" rerelease in 1930) should dictate that the original distinctions be preserved. From a marketing standpoint, the DVDs for both films should just say ACADEMY AWARD WINNER, with the exact name of the category in parentheses or something. You know, the truth.

FWIW, I agree with the majority that "Sunrise" is one of the greatest films ever made, and I think "Wings" is a hellaciously entertaining movie that also holds up well. Seems like the Oscars have been torn between popcorn and prestige since the beginning. I'm kinda surprised they stopped separating the two after only one year!

Do us all a favor and stay away from a little French movie called L'Atalante.

Tom's replies are awesome if you imagine him hurling confetti and cackling each time he clicks "post".

We're in To Be or Not to Be? Drat, to be stuck in a remake of a masterpiece. But what you did to Murnau we are doing now to Poland (not David).

Evan: How can you say that I "failed in both your original posting and your subsequent responses to acknowledge Sunrise's artistic and historical impact." Not true. Check out the original blog item. There I not only quote the initial positive review it got in Variety, but I note that it's now so highly regarded by film authorities that it ranks on the AFI Top 100 list. Personally, I don's eee its artistry, but I have fairly acknowledged that others endorse its greatness. Why are you blind to that?

My dearest Dellamorte: When we cast the Mel Brooks film adaptation of this melodrama of ours here, OK, you get to be Himmler. As long as I get to be Peggy Sue.

Ignoring Godwin's Law for a second (hard, that), Der Fuhrer would have to be Pauline Kael, right? I was surely a Kael youth, though in this analogy, I'd love to be Himmler.

Kent nailed it, it's about the fact that if you're going to take on a sacred cow, you have to bring some A game. I would love to read your analysis of Peggy Sue. And then I can consult with the hive mind collective and see what I think about what you think. I've always thought you have to meet most films on some halfway ground, you have to be lulled into their cadence, and it appears that you didn't let Sunrise work it's magic on you. The best viewing I had of the film was in a theater, but that can be said of most films. I'm not going to invoke lists, or anything like that, they're a silly measure of what is good, but I think what people are flipping out about is that most people who've actively sought out Sunrise appreciate its language of cinema, the command, and that you didn't enjoy that and feel the need to use Titanic or Peggy Sue to belittle it is the height of - to tweak your term - cheese wizary.

Tom, although it is true that many of the people on this board have perhaps unfairly attacked your taste and credentials, they have also raised a number of relevant points regarding Sunrise's artistic merit and place in film history. In response, you have ignored all of these arguments and responded solely to a segment of posters who have questioned your professionalism, grouping everyone under the label of "Film Nazis". You also mentioned in one of your posts that your objective in writing this article was to state your opinion strongly, which you certainly did. Correct me if I am wrong, but I was always under the impression that the role of an editorial is not simply to express yourself strongly but to convince people why your opinion is correct. Hence, if Sunrise is the subject of your piece, it is in fact crucial that you provide a social and critical context, if only in passing. This does not mean that every film you reference, in the interest of parity, should receive equal treatment. It means actually doing justice to the film you have chosen as the subject of your appraisal. But to return to my first point, you have failed in both your original posting and your subsequent responses to acknowledge Sunrise's artistic and historical impact. Many people have cited its virtuosic, groundbreaking use of camera movement and expressionistic art design. I will add to this its use of depth of field, which in scenes like the famous bus ride, creates the sense of a world that extends beyond the realm of the narrative. What are your thoughts on these points, Tom? Unfortunately, it seems you are more interested in stating your opinion "strongly"--an opinion that now groups everyone on this board under the childish heading of Film Nazis.

Well, I sure am happy you're enjoying your five-star food, Dellamorte, though I'm sorry for you that you must squirt it out of the nozzle of a can purchased at Kwiki-Mart. Very inconvenient. Someday when I am not so weary of dodging Nazi bullets I must regale you with my expanded theory about why "Peggy Sue" is a masterpiece -- and it is. But that's probably a waste of time since the Fuhrer told you THAT is Cheez-Whiz.

I am totally a hipster. And of course I disagree with you. What I think is great about this article is how proud Mr. O'Neil is of his aggressively pedestrian taste. You're basically saying "F**k this five star food, I'm going to McDonalds. FACE."

As I was talking to my girlfriend (she's a model for American Apparel) in our cloud of perpetual Parliament smoke, we were talking about how Oscars, Box Office, and Best Of lists are the bane of true film lovers. Then we bought some ironic T-shirts, watched Mouchette, Deep Red, and then The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. And then we played Rock Band and had sex. She got 100% on Gimme Shelter.

I would like to see mroe articles about films that are overrated by you. Please do Grand Illusion next.

Well, film Nazis have not disappointed me, that's for sure. As usual, you must come out blasting at someone personally if they don't goosestep behind your opinion. You can't just keep the focus on the movie and a discussion of clashing opinion. You have to make it personal. You have to get petty, hostile and hysterical --- because, well, that's how thugs operate and that's how their party orthodoxy is maintained. That behavior reveals a lot about the film Nazis and it tells us how seriously we should take their opinions.

I wouldn't be so hard on Tom if he hadn't (1) asked us to vote and comment on this piece, and then (2) personally attached us as snobs and Nazis.

Having called us Nazis (simply for explaining which of the two films we preferred, which is exactly what he asked us to do), he then complained about the "vile" language and hysterical attacks that were made on him. I guess calling someone a Nazi for liking one movie over another is not vile and hysterical.

Tom applies one set of rules to himself, and a different set of rules to others. He deserves all the criticism he gets.

DON"T BE SO HARD on Tom O'Neil. We ALL have bad days. Talk about tragedies: I am still haunted today by the knowledge that I once turned down one of gay porn's most famous and HOT stars–and now I'll never have that opportunity again! No matter how many other hot gay porn stars (and wannabes) I console myself with as often as I can–will the pain NEVER go away?!

This article is full of factual misinformation.
Murnau is NOT "chiefly remembered today for the silent Nosferatu". His most famous films are "The Last Laugh" and "Sunrise". These films are famous for showing the film world what could be done with the moving camera. They have influenced nearly every later film in which a mobile camera plays a leading role.
Murnau is NOT the subject of a growing modern "cult". Murnau became famous in the 1920's, when his films electrified filmmakers around the world. John Ford wrote an article saying that Sunrise was the greatest film ever made, and took a trip to Germany to meet with Murnau. Filmmakers like Frank Borzage, King Vidor and Alfred Hitchcock were directly influenced by Murnau. We wouldn't have "Rear Window" and its moving crane, it if weren't for "The Last Laugh". Fritz Lang was the chief speaker at Murnau's funeral. "Sunise" was treated essentially as the "How To Make a Film Manual" for a generation of directors.
Why is the Los Angeles Times spreading misinformation about film history? Isn't the film industry of vital importance to Lose Angeles - and the United States?
This article is a disgrace to journalism, and the reputation of the Times.

One point that may have been missed... if you've only just seen Sunrise, it seems to me unlikely you've EVER seen 7th Heaven and The Last Command (which I'm sure you'd find at least as "schmaltzy"), and yet you have no hesitation in proclaiming The Jazz Singer to be superior. I wonder what your powerful media employers would think of a critic who opines on films without seeing them. I'll go further. I see no evidence from this piece that you've actually seen Wings. If you have, then the total lack of original insight you offer is to be condemned. If you haven't, then your entire article is dishonest as well as asinine. (If you'd seen it, I don't see how you could fail to have noticed that IT'S A WEEPIE TOO!)

Wow!! Why is anyone evn bothering to comment on Mr. O'Neil's post? When a person is so clueless about the artistic merits of films and is so off the mark, one can only feel pity for said person. And anyway, the man calls Peggy Sue Got Married and Titanic two of his all-time favourite films !!??? This is definitely not a person to be taken seriously in any artistic critical aspect whatsoever. Sunrise is one of my five favourite films and though I silently scoff at those who disagree (everyone is entitled to his/her opinion and just the fact that everyone has different opinions is a wonderful thing) to so callously dismiss Sunrise why simultaneously toting a film as commonplace and pedestrian as, I am blown away. But then, like I stated above, why should anyone even bother commenting on all this? Perhaps I just can't help myself.

Tom, are you even an adult? This piece is childlike in its shrillness and reductive, simplistic thinking. And don't wave your resume around like it means anything, because upon closer inspection of said resume you are closer to a hired mouthpiece for Hollywood product than someone who deeply, generously loves cinema.

By the way, Tom -- I have some trouble with your characterization of Sunrise fans as "Oscar Nazis".

You introduced a debate about which of two films recognized by the Academy in 1927-28 really deserves to be called Oscar's best picture for the year. Both films were recognized by the Academy. You ask us to comment on which we think is better, and then when we do, WE get called Oscar snobs because we disagree with your choice of the OTHER film???? Huh?????

How are you NOT an Oscar snob when you choose the film that, for 80 years, has carried the designation of the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar?????

For people who don't like Tom's opinions, just take comfort in the fact that he uttered this shudder/gasp inducing line: "On my top 10 list of fave pix of all time are "Peggy Sue Got Married" and "Titanic." "!!! So don't take him so seriously. By just looking at 2 movies in his top ten list makes you realize that he isn't someone that everybody should hold in high esteem - especially about movies. Okay? He LUVVS Dreamgirls for Godsakes! Jesus! And I won't be surprised if he mentioned it again once Oscar season starts. So again, don't take Tom's word on what is a Great movie seriously. Cheers!

Wow. Scott, I'm with you. Defensive, anyone? This isn't about disagreeing with your opinion, Tom, or about personal attacks on your character. It's about the cavalier way you've dismissed a landmark film that you didn't bother to check out until now. If you make callow comments about a treasured film to a bunch of cinephiles, you can't cry as if someone stepped on your tail.

You've written some embarrassingly low-brow and cringe-inducing stuff before, Tom, but this article reaches a new low of stupidity for you. (And how a self-proclaimed "Oscar expert" has managed to go all these years without even bothering tos ee Murnau's masterpiece is beyond me.) By the way, Tom, the film is a fable -- it's narrative elements are intended to be simple.

Yoiu should read this article, although it's probably over your head.

This only happens with movies...because they're such a "democratic medium," I guess.

Any comment on the (basically non-existent) value system used by the writer to render his judgment of SUNRISE is suddenly an "attack" by "film Nazis." And the only reasonable response, according to him, is to either agree or disagree, and keep the rest to yourself. A strange way to make a living.

Let's say that there was a literature blog. And that someone decided to write an opinion piece about MOBY-DICK, which he had recently read and found to be overrated. "Like, what's the big deal about MOBY-DICK?" Would anyone be surprised if he were eviscerated, piece by piece, with a deluge of responses? Of course not. But with movies, which are always getting this kind of "lighten up" treatment in the news media - when they're getting any treatment at all - it always seems to be good sport to offer up a blatant provocation like this one and then cry foul when the "elitists" attack.

I don't care what anybody thinks of SUNRISE, or WINGS, or what was or wasn't the Best Picture of 1927-28 or any other year. What I do care about is that the response is thought out and carefully considered. Which, any way you slice it, this one isn't. And I'm sorry, but anyone can respond any way they want.


Seriously, film is more than just Box Office and fake awards. It's a visual language more than anything. Sunrise happens to represent a quantam leap in that language at the TIME IT WAS MADE. I personally think movie musicals are fairly idiotic as entertainment, however I can appreciate why some classic musicals are legitimately "great" films. No one is demanding you become a "cineaste" film snob, but for crying out loud, before you write something, make sure you know what you're talking about. Especially if you're writing about film history.

Sorry, but SUNRISE is one of the great visual and technical artistic achievements of the silent era, probably the last truly great one. And sorry, not all fans of this film are "Oscar Snobs", I frankly don't pay attention to the Oscars anymore, I just happen to know a great film when I see one, and SUNRISE is a great film, whereas WINGS has been largely forgotten for a reason.

Tom -- The position of your post of 7:47 am right after my post of 6:22 am makes it sound like you were responding to me.

For the record, I never posted any vile or hysterical messages or had anything deleted for that reason.

You should clarify who your message was directed at.

I agree it is possible to have arguments, challenge someone's views, tease and taunt each other a littie, etc. without being offensive or personally insulting.




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