1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

Mary Pickford Oscar

Mary Pickford with her Oscar.

As popular as the Academy Awards are, they can be a very controversial topic amongst movie lovers.  I think virtually every cinephile has their own list of movies that they think got robbed at the Oscars.  Some may even have their favorite and least favorite Academy Award years.  But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the nominees for the second Academy Award ceremony (covering 1928-1929) definitely weren’t the strongest group of movies ever nominated.

It’s not so much that 1928-1929 was a completely terrible year for movies, but the film industry had been turned completely upside down that year.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, The Jazz Singer was given an honorary award for revolutionizing the film industry.  By the following year, the impact of The Jazz Singer was undeniable.  The movies eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars were part of the first wave of movies to come out in the wake of The Jazz Singer and the nominees that year are a better reflection of how in flux the industry was at the time than what the best movies really were.

Even though studios were scrambling to hop on the talkie bandwagon, the production of silent films didn’t come to an immediate halt.  Some truly excellent silent films were produced that year, but you’d never know it by looking at the list of nominees.  However, if some of those silent films had been nominated, that year would probably now be looked back upon more favorably.

Note: To be eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars, a film had to be publicly screened in the Los Angeles area between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. I’ve done my best to adhere to that for this post.  If you’d like to take a look at the official ballot and rule list from this year, AMPAS has it available in their online digital collection.

Best Picture

The Nominees: In Old Arizona, The Patriot, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Broadway Melody, Alibi

The Winner: The Broadway Melody

The Broadway Melody

I’ve often heard The Broadway Melody called the worst Best Picture winner of all time, and while I think it was far from being the best movie of the year, I don’t begrudge it being in the Best Picture category.  It was a very historically important movie, Bessie Love was pretty good in it, and I give it major points for having relatively excellent sound quality.  Compared to other early talkies nominated this year such as Coquette and Madame X, The Broadway Melody‘s sound quality is positively heavenly.  It’s easy to see why The Broadway Melody was a huge hit with audiences and critics at the time.

The Broadway Melody is the only nominee I can defend here.  I can’t speak for Alibi  (I haven’t seen it) or The Patriot (it’s a lost film), but I can safely say that the other two Best Picture nominees leave much to be desired. In Old Arizona, despite racking up five nominations, is nothing to write home about. And the nomination of the plot-less Hollywood Revue of 1929 is nothing less than ridiculous when you consider that silent films such as The Cameraman, The Wind, Show People, Noah’s Ark, or The Passion of Joan of Arc could have been nominated instead.

Best Actress

The Nominees: Ruth Chatterton in Madame X, Jeanne Eagels in The Letter, Mary Pickford in Coquette, Betty Compson in The Barker, Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody, Corinne Griffith in The Divine Lady.

The Winner: Mary Pickford in Coquette

Coquette Poster

I don’t think the Best Actress nominees were completely terrible; most of these performances were pretty decent by early talkie standards.  Jeanne Eagels in particular was quite memorable.  But once again, there were some far stronger performances in silent films that went completely unrecognized.

Most surprisingly, Greta Garbo wasn’t nominated for her performance in anything.  In the early years of the Academy Awards, actors and actresses could win for their work in multiple films.  At the first Oscars, Emil Jannings won Best Actor for both The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command and Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise.  1928-1929 was a very busy year for Greta Garbo. She starred in four films that she could have been nominated for: The Mysterious Lady, A Woman of Affairs, Wild Orchids, and The Single Standard.  Considering what a huge star Garbo was and that she had such a prolific year, it’s really too bad she wasn’t recognized for at least one of those movies because she was very good in all of them.

Lillian Gish was also woefully overlooked for her work in The Wind, as was Maria Falconetti for The Passion of Joan of Arc and Marion Davies in Show People.

Mary Pickford wasn’t bad in Coquette, but her performance wasn’t nearly as strong as ones she had given in her silent films.  I think Pickford was more deserving of a special award for all of her contributions to the film industry.  She received one of those in 1976, but for all she achieved, she certainly deserved at least two special Oscars.

Best Actor

The Nominees:  Chester Morris in Alibi, Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona, George Bancroft in Thunderbolt, Paul Muni in The Valiant, Lewis Stone in The Patriot

The Winner: Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona

Warner Baxter In Old Arizona

Of these performances, the only one I’ve seen is Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona, but that’s enough for me to safely say that Buster Keaton in The Cameraman would have been a far more deserving nominee.

Not only was the film industry changing, the Academy Awards themselves went through a lot of changes this year.  Since the Academy Awards were still a very new concept, as is the case with many new things, there was room for improvement.

Categories became more streamlined; they dropped the categories of Unique Artistic Production, Best Engineering Effects, and Best Title Writing.    During the first Oscars, there were two categories for Best Director (one for comedy, one for drama) and Best Writing (original story and adapted story), but there was only one category each for Best Writing and Best Director the following year.

The 1928-1929 Academy Award ceremony was held on April 3, 1930 and was actually the first of two Academy Award ceremonies to be held in 1930.  The Academy was trying to move the ceremonies closer to the end of the movies’ eligibility time frame. To do this, they held the 1929-1930 Oscar ceremony in November of 1930.  1930 was the only year that had more than one Oscar ceremony.

For more Oscar related posts, please visit Once Upon a Screen Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club.

For more Oscar related posts, please visit Once Upon a Screen Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club.

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7 responses to “1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. This really would have been a strange time in the movie biz, one that I’ve not investigated enough. Am going to do more research on this year.

  2. Very interesting! Films made during the transition to sound were a bit experimental. I bet The Broadway Melody won Best Picture because it was a musical, something brand new for the time. And Mary won because she was Mary! If there were Oscars in the silent era, she would certainly grab nominations and maybe an award. I think it’d be too obvious if she was given the Oscar in the first ceremony, so she was given in the second.
    Kisses!

    • The Broadway Melody was, indeed, a very experimental movie for its time. When Irving Thalberg had the idea to make a movie like that, he just tried to have it produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. But it was obviously a risk that paid off and there were filming techniques that were invented while filming it that are still in use today. I don’t think it really gets enough credit these days for being the groundbreaking film that it was, which is another reason why I don’t object to it winning Best Picture that year.

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  4. I didn’t realize there were two Oscar ceremonies in 1930. Thanks for bringing light to this year, it is very interesting with all the changes that were occurring. While I don’t think Broadway Melody of 1929 is terrific, I can understand why it won. I can’t believe “Hollywood Revue of 1929″ was nominated. What on Earth? Maybe it was that wonderful segment of jive Romeo and Juliet with Gilbert and Shearer ;)

    • Don’t forget the classic “Lon Chaney’s Going to Get You” number! I bet that scene really brought in the votes!

      But yeah, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has got to be the most baffling Best Picture nominee ever. I can understand why it was a hit at the time, but it’s not even particularly good by early talkie standards. Since it was an MGM movie, it’s possible that it was a studio politics sort of thing. Maybe some of the voters were joking when they filled out their ballots, like when people voted for Rin-Tin-Tin as Best Actor at the first Academy Awards.

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