Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 24, 2013
Each year the Oscars ignite arguments between movie lovers between what did win and what didn’t win, what could have won and what should have won. And more often than not, by the very next year, they’re all forgotten. Since the Oscars don’t exactly measure true quality, most movie lovers take the whole dog and pony show with a grain of salt. It’s peer recognition and we all understand that which is why it’s so disconcerting to see such hyperventilated fights each year about the winners (seriously, who cares?). But when we say that “next year no one remembers who won” that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten the movie, just the award. Even if the general public doesn’t know many of the Best Picture winners from yesteryear, most cinephiles do. However, if you go back to the twenties and thirties, you’ll find some of the nominees have been tragically lost, ignored and all but forgotten.
In 1928, the very first Oscars were announced. They covered the last half of 1927 into the first half of 1928 (this practice continued for the first Best Pictures until they went with the calendar year starting with It Happened One Night, winner for 1934) and two of the nominees for Outstanding Picture (it was not yet called “Best Picture” and was one of two “Movie of the Year” categories, the other being Unique and Artistic Production, awarded to the masterpiece Sunrise) were Wings (the winner) and Seventh Heaven. Most movie lovers have seen one or both of those and definitely heard of them but the third nominee, The Racket, is rarely heard of and seen even more rarely.
It was produced by Howard Hughes and when people hear his name in association with the movies they either think of Hell’s Angels or The Outlaw. Very few, if any, think of The Racket. The film was based on a play of the same name and dealt with corruption in the police force and government of Chicago, only it didn’t explicitly say that. The play, written by Bartlett Cormack, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, put its lead characters, thinly veiled knock-offs of Al Capone and Mayor Big Bill Thompson, in cahoots with each other. This naturally led to the play and movie being banned in Chicago because, corruption in Chicago? Why, whoever heard of such a thing? It’s an outrage! Even more amazing than that, the gangster was played on stage by none other than Edward G. Robinson, who wasn’t cast in the movie! Louis Wolheim played the gangster instead and somehow, over time, the movie disappeared. As of this writing, only one copy exists and it has been publicly shown since 1928 only on TCM.
Now if you think Howard Hughes is a pretty big name to be involved with a forgotten film, try Ernst Lubitsch on for size. His 1928 film, The Patriot, nominated for the top award at the second ever Oscars, isn’t just lost, it’s completely lost. Nothing partial here, like the one print in existence for The Racket. Nope, with the exception of a few stills and some shots taken from trailers, nothing is left in existence of this film about Emperor Paul I of Russia. Starring Emil Jannings and Lewis Stone, it won the Best Screenplay award but missed out on Best Picture to The Broadway Melody. And then, it fell into obscurity, never to be seen again.
But the lost films don’t stop there. Frank Lloyd was one of the most successful directors of the thirties and helmed two Best Pictures in that period (Cavalcade and Mutiny on the Bounty) while winning two Oscars for Best Director (The Divine Lady and Cavalcade). And yet, one of his earliest Best Picture nominees, East Lynne, is nothing more than a curiosity today. Like The Racket, only one print of the film exists and that one is the pre-edited print. From Wikipedia:
Despite the fact that the film itself sounds like nothing more than a tepid melodrama (plot description, again from Wikipedia: “The trophy wife of a stodgy man of wealth yearns for a more interesting life.”) I’d still love to see it and if I lived anywhere near UCLA (I don’t) I’d set up an appointment to watch it (as long as they let me bring popcorn into the lab). Perhaps more entertaining than the movie is this early New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall which describes the movie as an “audible picturization” and lead actress Ann Harding as “lovely and efficient” (she must have been so proud). Indeed, it was because of her performance that many a “dainty handkerchief was dabbed on a pretty face during some of the episodes in the career of the unfortunate Lady Isabella.” Well now I have to see it.
Finally, we move to The White Parade, starring Loretta Young and John Boles, and produced by famous producer Jesse Lasky (his players were famous, too). It was nominated for Best Picture at the seventh annual Academy Awards and lost out to It Happened One Night and then… well, does this sound familiar?
Only this time, unlike East Lynne, it gets worse:
Still, I’d make that appointment, wouldn’t you? Both of those are from the meager Wikipedia page on the movie, so meager that the plot description is one line, which roughly amounts to “soap opera about nurses.” I assume Loretta Young is the main interest of the plot but what she does in it we’ll never know (unless we make that appointment with UCLA).
After 1934, lost movies don’t present much of a problem for Oscar nominees. Although still early in film history, studios began to devote more attention to Oscar winners (though by no means was film preservation taken seriously for decades to come) and most of the remaining nominees and winners from 1935 onward are available on DVD, streaming or, at the very least, old VHS copies that can be dug up in a pinch. So as we go into yet another Oscar ceremony and the annual bickering that ensues, let’s remember how lucky we are that all the movies nominated, whether we like them or not, are available to anyone who wants to see them, one way or another. It’s a sentiment we should remember while we complain about this movie winning over that movie because when a movie is forever gone and forgotten, it’s everyone’s loss.
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