VIDEO ESSAY: Who Would Have Won the Oscars 90 Years Ago?

Video
by Kevin B. Lee
January 19, 2013 12:17 PM
1 Comment
  • |

The Oscar race for the films of 2012 is officially in high gear, with the nominations announced just yesterday. Now the onslaught commences for prognostications of who will win and pitches over who should win. But before we look ahead, why not resolve some long unfinished Oscar business? With the Academy Awards initiated in 1927, there’s a good decade-plus of feature filmmaking left without with the coveted golden statues to designate their finest achievements. Let’s turn the clock back a good 90 years and hand out some Oscars to the best filmmaking of 1922.

Lending a big hand in this enterprise are the ever-invaluable film scholar tandem of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. Each December for the past several years, they’ve channeled all the year-end best-of hoopla into creating their own top ten lists for films made 90 years earlier. This past New Year’s Eve, they came through once again with their top ten of 1922, a list loaded with remarkable canonical titles. As a companion piece to their annotated list, I’ve made a short video (above) highlighting clips from their list, set to one of that year’s top hits (I suppose it was the “Gangnam Style” of its time?).

With all those films in mind, plus a few others of note, I’ve come up with my own personal ballot for which films and talents should have won Oscars in 1922.  Looking at the field of contenders, there were no obvious choices, especially for Best Picture, Actor or Director. I could have easily gone for Foolish Wives, Dr. Mabuse the Gambleror Nosferatu in any of those categories. Through the mirror of hindsight, Nosferatu would appear the towering choice given its stature and tremendous impact on atmospheric filmmaking, especially horror. But Mabuse is possibly the most contemporary film of the lot, virtually projecting its multi-faceted, sinister worldview upon the likes of David Fincher and other systemic storytellers. And Foolish Wives, reportedly the first million-dollar movie, is a staggering vision of opulence and corruption, with an observational subtlety offsetting its visual splendor that a film like Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Gatsby is almost assured of lacking.

But there’s plenty of room for debate (I admit I don’t have the freshest memory of some of these films) as well as discovery (there are many other films not mentioned that I haven’t seen). Please chime in with your own ballot and winners in the comments, and let’s see if a consensus emerges for these categories. And this won’t be our only Oscar coverage: starting next week we’ll return to 2013 to weigh in on who should win this year’s Oscar races.

And now… the nominations and winners (in bold) of the 1922 Academy Awards.

Best Picture
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
Foolish Wives
Nosferatu
Orphans of the Storm
La Roue

A super tough call between the extraordinarily complex Mabuse and the haunting, dreamy Nosferatu, but I have to go with the latter. It’s a testament to Murnau’s artistry that his images can still chill the blood.

Best Actor
Douglas Fairbanks, Robin Hood
Maurice de Féraudy, Crainquebille
Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Max Schreck, Nosferatu
Rudolph Valentino, Blood and Sand

Valentino or Fairbanks probably would have won in real life, as they stood at the very top of Hollywood royalty at the time. But Klein-Rogge was arguably the most talented actor in Weimar Germany and his personification of a larger-than-life villain is much more complex than even Schreck’s iconic turn as cinema’s first vampire.

Best Actress
Leatrice Joy, Manslaughter
Aud Egede Nissen, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Dorothy Gish, Orphans of the Storm
Lillian Gish, Orphans of the Storm
Anna Mae Wong, The Toll of the Sea

This may be wishful thinking on my part, but Wong’s fresh-faced, from out of nowhere performance deserves it – transforming a slight colonialist fairy tale into an experience as lyrical as Madame Butterfly.

Best Director
Germaine Dulac, La Souriante Madame Beudet
Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North
Fritz Lang, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu
Erich von Stroheim, Foolish Wives

Murnau announced himself as a major director with the perfect fusion of technical innovation and poetic vision. His lighting, staging and editing effects in this film took a great leap forward in the state of the art and still hold sway over horror and experimental filmmaking today.

Best Supporting Actor
Bernhard Goetzke, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
Cesare Gravina, Foolish Wives
Joseph Schildkraut, Orphans of the Storm
Gustav von Wangenheim, Nosferatu
Morgan Wallace, Orphans of the Storm

Best Supporting Actress
Clara Bow, Down to the Sea in Ships
Mae Busch, Foolish Wives
Maude George, Foolish Wives
Greta Schröder, Nosferatu
Anna Townsend, Grandma’s Boy

Best Original Screenplay
Fritz Lang, Norbert Jacques, Thea von Harbou, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler

Best Adapted Screenplay
Henrik Galeen, Nosferatu

Best Documentary
Nanook of the North

Best Cinematography
William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds, Foolish Wives

Best Editing
Marguerite Beauge, La roue

Originally published on Fandor.

Kevin B. Lee is Chief Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter @alsolikelife.

  • |
You might also like:
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

1 Comment

  • Edward Copeland | January 22, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    Not to be overly technical about a fun game, but most of the films -- especially the foreign classics -- wouldn't have been eligible if the Oscars had started earlier since most of those didn't arrive on U.S. shores until long after their original premieres. While Germans got to see Nosferatu in 1922, it didn't show up in the U.S. until 1929 (and if it played for a week in L.A., that means it presumably was eligible for Oscars, but ignored, even though they didn't have foreign categories.) Also, if we wanted to be really strict, their early acting categories only had three nominees, not the five now, and the supporting categories didn't pop up until 1936. How about including the categories they only used the very first year? Where there was a separate best picture (Wings) and artistic quality of production (Sunrise)? Also, categories for comedy direction (which went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights) and Title Writing (which I don't recall the winner off the top of my head).

Follow Us

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Most "Liked"

  • A Video Essay On Jim Jarmusch: Dead ...
  • David Gordon Green on Challenging the ...
  • Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films ...
  • Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films ...
  • Days Like Lost Dogs: In Support of Loose ...