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Home Classic Movies First Best Actor & Best Actress Academy Award Winners: Emil Jannings & Janet Gaynor

First Best Actor & Best Actress Academy Award Winners: Emil Jannings & Janet Gaynor

First Best Actor Oscar winner Emil Jannings
First Best Actor Oscar winner Emil Jannings in ‘The Last Command.’

First Best Actor Oscar winner Emil Jannings, first Best Actress Oscar winner Janet Gaynor on TCM

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

First Best Actor Academy Award winner Emil Jannings in The Last Command, first Best Actress Academy Award winner Janet Gaynor in Sunrise, and sisters Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge are a few of the silent era performers featured this evening, Nov. 17, ’14, on Turner Classic Movies, as TCM continues with its Silent Monday presentations.

Beginning at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET, get ready to check out several of the biggest movie stars of the 1920s – or of any decade.

‘The Last Command’: They don’t make ’em like they used to

Following the Jean Negulesco-directed 1943 musical short Hit Parade of the Gay Nineties – believe me, even the most rabid anti-gay bigot will be able to enjoy this one – TCM will be showing Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) one of the two movies that earned the Swiss-born German superstar Emil Jannings the 1927-28 Best Actor Academy Award. (The other one was Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh, of which only fragments remain. See also: “The Way of All Flesh plagiarized?”)

Now, I can’t recommend The Last Command highly enough. It’s surely one of the best silent films ever made – or at the very least one of the best silents I’ve ever seen. Jannings is superb as the former Imperial Russia army general who is reduced to appearing as an extra for a few dollars a day in a Hollywood movie that, as fate would have it, is being directed by a former Russian revolutionary (played by a pre-stardom William Powell). Sultry Bolshevik sympathizer Evelyn Brent was the woman in the general’s life. But should he have trusted her?

The Last Command boasts the following:

  • Intertitles by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Dinner at Eight, Citizen Kane).
  • “Story” (or an original screenplay) by Josef von Sternberg – supposedly from a story told him by Ernst Lubitsch – and Lajos Biró (Hotel Imperial, The Private Life of Henry VIII).
  • Cinematography by Bert Glennon (The Scarlet Empress, Stagecoach).
  • Sets by Hans Dreier (Sunset Blvd., A Place in the Sun).
  • Editing by William Shea (One Hour with You, Desire).[1]

Okay, so this 1928 release doesn’t feature The Avengers or Batman or any Transformers, and its visual effects are quite modest – but if you’re not 12 years old and you have a functioning brain, you’ll lament the fact that The Last Command is the sort of glossy, adult-oriented Hollywood studio production the likes of which they rarely make anymore.

Emil Jannings
Emil Jannings.

Emil Jannings: Career tainted by Nazi association

Unfortunately, the talented but thick-accented Emil Jannings opted to return to Germany right at the dawn of the sound era. He remained a major star in that country (e.g., The Blue Angel opposite Marlene Dietrich), but his name became tainted due to his association with Nazi propaganda films such as the anti-British Uncle Kruger / Ohm Krüger (1941) and Bismarck’s Dismissal / The Dismissal / Die Entlassung (1942) – both of which have the dubious distinction of being two of only four films selected as the Nazi regime’s “Film of the Nation” honorees.

Emil Jannings would later deny he was ever in cahoots with the Nazi party. Even so, he was prevented from working in the post-war years. After reportedly becoming an Austrian national, he died of cancer at age 65 on Jan. 2, 1950, in Salzburg.

As an aside, according to online sources, The Last Command is the only fully extant Hollywood film starring Emil Jannings. Fragments exist from both The Way of All Flesh and Ernest Lubitsch’s The Patriot, while Lewis Milestone’s Betrayal and Ludwig Berger’s Sins of the Fathers are (for the time being, one hopes) considered lost.

And finally, don’t buy into the idiocy that Rin Tin Tin was the Academy Awards’ actual first Best Actor winner. That self-proclaimed journalists and news publications would propagate the old joke as fact is testament to the state of the fourth estate in the early 21st century. Well, not that things were all that different in decades past.


Directed by German import F.W. Murnau, Best Unique and Artistic Production Academy Award winner[2] Sunrise a.k.a. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is considered by many not only one of the greatest silent films ever made but also one of the greatest films ever made, period.

I’ve seen it three times, but I must humbly admit I’ve never been able to fully “get” its appeal despite the following:

  • Rochus Gliese‘s sets – built on the Fox lot – are UFAesquely remarkable.
  • Hunky, ultra-handsome George O’Brien has a likable screen presence.
  • Margaret Livingston is just fine as the City Woman who nearly destroys the married bliss of country bumpkins O’Brien and Janet Gaynor. (So fine, in fact, that a few years ago an Academy montage honoring every Best Actress Oscar winner featured her instead of Janet Gaynor).
  • Last but certainly not least, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss’ exquisite cinematography fully deserved its Academy Award win. (From what I’ve read, careful restoration or no, no extant print of Sunrise does justice to Rosher and Struss’ original work.)
Janet Gaynor Sunrise George O’BrienJanet Gaynor in ‘Sunrise,’ with George O’Brien.

Janet Gaynor: Tacky blond wig, triple Oscar win

Yet, somehow, I’ve never been able to feel for the characters’ plight. One key problem is Janet Gaynor (best remembered for the first A Star Is Born), donning a ridiculous blond wig and looking so sickeningly sweet that I can fully understand why George O’Brien would feel like strangling her to scurry off to town with the enticing Margaret Livingston.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

But don’t listen to me, do check it out if you haven’t already. You may end up finding Sunrise one of the greatest movies ever made, period.

I should add that Janet Gaynor took home the Best Actress Academy Award for three movies: Sunrise, Street Angel, and 7th Heaven – the latter two directed by Frank Borzage. By far my favorite of the three is the least known: Street Angel, which pairs up a beautifully touching Gaynor with frequent leading man Charles Farrell.

Child stars Jackie Coogan and Baby Peggy

Edward F. Cline’s The Rag Man (1925) stars Jackie Coogan, a Charles Chaplin discovery (The Kid) that became the top child star of the 1920s. As has been the case with most child film performers, Coogan’s stardom petered out rather rapidly, though he kept on working in movies and on television all the way to his death at age 69 in 1984.

As an aside, the little boy you see in The Rag Man later on became Betty Grable’s husband, but the marriage lasted less than two years (1937–1939). About three decades later, Jackie Coogan could be seen on television as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.

Another child performer, Baby Peggy a.k.a. Diana Serra Carey, is featured in another Edward F. Cline-directed film that Turner Classic Movies is showing this evening: Captain January (1924). Now, whether you love or abhor child stars, you must check out Captain January even if only because it features one of the best actresses of that period: Irene Rich, who, as Mrs. Erlynne, steals the show in Ernst Lubitsch’s excellent 1925 film version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Baby Peggy is still around at age 96. The Captain January presentation will be followed by Vera Iwerebor’s 2012 documentary Baby Peggy, The Elephant in the Room.

Norma Talmadge Kiki Ronald ColmanNorma Talmadge in ‘Kiki,’ with Ronald Colman.

Forgotten superstars: Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge

And finally, do not miss sisters Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge in, respectively, the light comedies Kiki (1926) and Her Night of Romance (1924) – the former directed by future five-time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown (The Human Comedy, National Velvet); the latter directed by Sidney Franklin (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Good Earth).

Married to powerful producer/executive Joseph M. Schenck, Norma Talmadge starred in a series of immensely popular melodramas from the late 1910s to the late 1920s. (Kiki was a change of pace.) Although hardly a household name today – because most people are too fucking ignorant about the past (or the present, for that matter) – Talmadge was as big suffering in mink as Mary Pickford suffering in rags.

Constance Talmadge’s breezy movies were less box office friendly than her sister’s dramatic star vehicles; even so, she still had a strong following and remained active all the way to the sound upheaval in 1928, opting to quit films while the going was good.

Perhaps a sound decision – no pun intended – on her part, but a major loss to film fans who have seen her act. After all, Constance Talmadge could be an outstanding, amazingly modern-looking light comedienne, just as effective as Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, and all the others.

The end of an era

I’m assuming it’s no coincidence that Turner Classic Movies will follow its Silent Monday programming with two Al Jolson movies, both directed by Lloyd Bacon: The Singing Fool (1928) and Say It with Songs (1930). Remember that Jolson was the star of Warner Bros.’ part-talkie The Jazz Singer, the 1927 melodrama that revolutionized the art of motion picture-making.

The Singing Fool, which I’ve yet to check out, was one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade; as for Say It with Songs, it’s the sort of nauseatingly sweet concoction – daddy in prison, mommy at home, sonny boy everywhere – recommended only to those with very strong stomachs.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Jolson’s leading ladies in the former are Josephine Dunn (one of Our Modern Maidens, alongside Joan Crawford and Anita Page) and Betty Bronson (the star of Peter Pan and the Virgin Mary in the Ramon Novarro version of Ben-Hur). His leading lady in the latter is Marion Nixon, whose film career was mostly wasted in non-roles.

Among the TCM’s other movies on Tuesday, Nov. 18, are:

  • One more Lloyd Bacon-directed effort, the early talkie So Long Letty (1929), a highly theatrical – and more than a tad bizarre – comedy that’s worth a look because it features a pre-20th Century Fox Charlotte Greenwood.
  • The pre-Code, Michael Curtiz-directed, Richard Barthelmess drama Alias the Doctor (1932).
  • A trio of Jack Oakie B (or quasi-B) comedies: Navy Blues (1941), Super Sleuth (1937), and Fight for Your Lady (1938).

Travis Banton, Unique and Artistic Productions

[1] According to the IMDb, The Last Command has costumes by Travis Banton (The Mark of Zorro, Letter from an Unknown Woman).

[2] The Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Production was discontinued after the first year. The other two 1927–28 nominees were King Vidor’s first-rate social drama The Crowd and Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s pseudo-documentary Chang a.k.a. Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness.

First Best Actor and first Best Actress Oscar winners: TCM schedule (PT)

4:49 PM HIT PARADE OF THE GAY NINETIES (1943). Director: Jean Negulesco. B&W. 10 min.

5:00 PM THE LAST COMMAND (1928). Director: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Emil Jannings. Evelyn Brent. William Powell. Jack Raymond. Nicholas Soussanin. Michael Visaroff. Fritz Feld. B&W. 88 min.

6:47 PM THE GOLF NUT (1927). Director: Harry Edwards. Cast: Billy Bevan. Mary Mayberry. Glen Cavender. B&W. 11 min.

7:00 PM SUNRISE (1927). Director: F.W. Murnau. Cast: George O’Brien. Janet Gaynor. Margaret Livingston. B&W. 94 min.

8:45 PM THE RAG MAN (1925). Director: Edward F. Cline. Cast: Jackie Coogan. Lydia Yeamans Titus. Ethel Wales. Robert Edeson. William Conklin. Max Davidson. Dynamite the Horse. B&W. 68 min.

10:00 PM CAPTAIN JANUARY (1924). Director: Edward F. Cline. Cast: Baby Peggy. Hobart Bosworth. Irene Rich. Lincoln Stedman. B&W. 58 min.

11:15 PM BABY PEGGY. THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (2012). Director: Vera Iwerebor. Cast: Baby Peggy a.k.a. Diana Serra Cary. Paul Petersen. Color. 55 min.

12:15 AM KIKI (1926). Director: Clarence Brown. Cast: Norma Talmadge. Ronald Colman. Gertrude Astor. Marc McDermott. George K. Arthur. William Orlamond. Frankie Darro. Erwin Connelly. Mack Swain. Eugenie Besserer. Mathilde Comont. B&W. 97 min.

2:00 AM HER NIGHT OF ROMANCE (1924). Director: Sidney Franklin. Cast: Constance Talmadge. Ronald Colman. Jean Hersholt. Robert Rendel. Albert Gran. Sidney Bracey. Joseph J. Dowling. Eric Mayne. Emily Fitzroy. B&W. 85 min.

Tuesday. November 18

4:00 AM THE SINGING FOOL (1928). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Al Jolson. Betty Bronson. Josephine Dunn. B&W. 102 min.

5:45 AM SAY IT WITH SONGS (1929). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Al Jolson. Davey Lee. Marion Nixon. B&W. 86 min.

7:15 AM SO LONG LETTY (1929). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Charlotte Greenwood. Claude Gillingwater. Grant Withers. Patsy Ruth Miller. B&W. 64 min.

8:30 AM GOLD DUST GERTIE (1931). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Winnie Lightner. Ole Olsen. Chic Johnson. B&W. 65 min.

9:45 AM ALIAS THE DOCTOR (1932). Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Richard Barthelmess. Marian Marsh. Norman Foster. B&W. 61 min.

11:00 AM FRISCO KID (1935). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: James Cagney. Margaret Lindsay. Ricardo Cortez. B&W. 77 min.

12:30 PM NAVY BLUES (1941). Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Ann Sheridan. Jack Oakie. Martha Raye. B&W. 108 min.

2:30 PM SUPER SLEUTH (1937). Director: Ben Stoloff. Cast: Jack Oakie. Ann Sothern. Eduardo Ciannelli. B&W. 70 min.

3:45 PM FIGHT FOR YOUR LADY (1938). Director: Ben Stoloff. Cast: John Boles. Jack Oakie. Ida Lupino. B&W. 66 min.

Emil Jannings The Last Command image: Paramount Pictures.

Emil Jannings image via

Ronald Colman and Norma Talmadge Kiki image: United Artists / Kino.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor Sunrise image: Fox.

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