Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1924 (Unofficial)

Okay, so this one requires more than a little explanation. I think the consensus pick for best picture would be Erich von Stroheim's Greed, with Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. running a close second. And maybe I'll come around to that viewpoint by the time I actually write these essays. But for now I'm going with the Douglas Fairbanks's swashbuckling masterpiece The Thief of Bagdad as the best movie of the year.

Greed is a very good movie in its present form—ten reels of film about a dimwitted dentist, his gold-obsessed wife and a meddling friend who wants revenge for a wrong that only a self-entitled monster would think he was done—but I think its reputation as the best movie of 1924 rests as much on what's not on the screen as what's on it: as you likely know, Stroheim's first cut of the movie was nine hours long and film critics have lamented its loss as the number one tragedy in movie history.

Well, maybe.

I've read Stroheim's original screenplay—all 300 single-spaced pages of it—and it's either as wonderfully subtle as a season's worth of Mad Men episodes or as wordy and punishing as a nine hour silent movie threatens to be. Maybe both. I've given it the award for best screenplay, but without seeing how the actors performed their parts, how Stroheim set up his camera shots, and how the editor paced the story, I have no way of knowing how good it actually was. And neither does anybody else, not really.

As for Sherlock Jr., I'd call it the perfect summation of everything that Georges Méliès ever wanted to do on film, a collection of the most inventive trick camera shots of the entire silent era, all staged and performed by Keaton, edited together seamlessly into a very funny little comedy. If I were to treat Sherlock Jr. and Keaton's other 1924 film, The Navigator, together as a single body of work, I'd give the pair the award for best picture. But while I've done that in the past with short one- and two-reel films, I'm not inclined to do so with feature films.

Keaton wins a well deserved award for best direction, though.

Which leaves The Thief of Bagdad. I've written about it before, saying, "With the graceful and athletic Douglas Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer." I stand by that. If you're only going to see one Douglas Fairbanks movie in your life, see this one.

I don't expect you to agree, but then half the fun of an award is giving people an opportunity to complain you got it wrong. So have at it: tell me I'm wrong.

Picture: The Thief Of Bagdad (prod. Douglas Fairbanks)

Actor: Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh)

Actress: Marie Prevost (The Marriage Circle)

Director: Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr.)

Supporting Actor: Conrad Veidt (Waxworks)

Supporting Actress: Zasu Pitts (Greed)

Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim, from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris (Greed)

Special Awards: Buster Keaton (Sherlock, Jr.) (Film Editing); William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Bagdad) (Art Direction-Set Decoration)

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