This begins a new blog about old movies. How old is “old” I suppose is a matter of opinion, but any discussion on classic films boils down to opinion. The movies are subjective. They are filmed and acted and written in a subjective manner, and we watch them with our own viewpoints. For this blog, “old” is probably going to mean before 1960, give or take.
I’m pretty much going to resist reviewing the films or giving synopses of plots. Any serious old move fan has probably seen these films; and any newbie can find the synopses in any variety of sources far better than me. Instead, I’d like to discuss singular moments of film, particular scenes or events, technical aspects, context or consequences. If you have anything to share, please do.
Since we’ve just passed Oscar season, it is interesting to look back on the first Oscar ceremony and winner of the first award for Best Actor. Emil Jannings had a long and prestigious career in German cinema, and in the US, Paramount studio billed him as “the greatest actor in the world.” Not much about Hollywood could be considered modest, even back then. He won for his work in two silent films that year: “The Last Command” and “The Way of all Flesh.”
The award voting was tallied and announced in February 1929, but the celebratory dinner was not held until May. Jannings was not only the first actor to with the Best Actor award, he was also the first no-show at the ceremony.
Jannings, wary of sound film in the near future crippling his ability to get and play good roles with his heavy German accent, cut his Hollywood career short before anybody could get rid of him, and headed back to Germany where, after filming the classic “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich in her debut role, he flourished in German cinema, now controlled by Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Whether the desire to work as an actor or the desire to support Hitler’s ideology was stronger in him, or a combination of the two, his choice was a disastrously ironic one in light of the fact that he was Swiss, and his father reportedly American. After the war, it was useless to try and revive his career in a Hitler-free world.
Compare his actions with those of Conrad Veidt, probably best known for his role as Major Strasser in “Casablanca.” Though he played an evil Nazi (more than once his career), he was vehemently against the Hitler regime. Veidt also began his career in German cinema, but he left Germany in 1933, continued his career in Great Britain, became a British citizen, and eventually came to Hollywood to be a Nazi. More irony. Like Jannings, many of Veidt’s best and most creative roles, like in “The Man Who Laughs,” occurred in the silent film era, but if he feared that sound would probably limit his options in English-language films, he nevertheless embraced the new language and the new medium. A courageous move. For some people, there is no going back.