Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Best Picture 1917

Once again we come to the final award, the best picture for the year 1917. This year, since I got some of the Century Awards up early, I’m able to post before the actual Academy Awards have started, so there’s plenty of time for all of you to get to your Oscars Parties. Drink some champagne for me, and for the winners of a century ago!

The candidates this year have mostly been up for, and many cases won, other awards. Taken together, they make a good list of the best movies you can see from 1917 if you’re ever looking for one. In the course of all of the other awards, I’ve pretty much said everything I have to say about them, so let’s just get on with the award!

The nominees for best picture for 1917 are:

  1. The Dying Swan
  2. A Man There Was
  3. Poor Little Rich Girl
  4. Little Princess
  5. Easy Street
  6. The Immigrant
  7. Fear
  8. A Modern Musketeer

And the winner is…”A Man There Was!”

Once again, not an easy choice, but this was to my mind the most “modern” and successful of the movies I saw in the last year. Victor Sjöström had been on the scene for years now, and he would go on to a career that includes some of the most important movies of the twenties, and he really demonstrated with this movie that Sweden was on the map so far as the film industry was concerned. He took a poem by one of Sweden’s favorite sons, Henrik Ibsen, and turned it into a masterful example of the cinematic art. This movie was largely his effort, and with this, it now takes home three Century Awards, showing it to be a classic in the true sense of the word.

Best Director 1917

By 1917, directors were well established as the final authority on set, setting the stage for the future of “auteur theory.” Still, some directors used this power to create art, and others used it to make sure they got a bigger paycheck. The directors who are remembered today are generally the ones who fought to make something beyond a quick buck. They had the vision, if not to realize that people would still be fascinated by their work in 100 years, at least to hope to bring something to audiences besides a momentary distraction.

The nominees this year were dedicated to making film into an art form. Evegeni Bauer, whose short life was soon to end, had already made some amazing films, including “After Death,” which won him the Century Award for Best Director in 1915. This year he offered what might be seen as his masterpiece, “The Dying Swan,” a movie which has had several nominations (though no wins) this year. Charlie Chaplin is a many time nominee for directing, and this year his best work was “Easy Street,” which took home the Century Award for Production Design. His somewhat improvisational directing style was supported by the existence of a complete set of a city street that he and his actors could play on. Louis Feuillade is back once again with a serial, the superhero thriller “Judex,” which may have inspired Batman. Episodes of “Judex” have won for Best Costume Design and Best Supporting Actor this year. The best directed episode, “The Woman in Black,” is up for its first award here. Maurice Tourneur is another returning nominee to the awards. His movie “Alias Jimmy Valentine” was up against Bauer in 1915, but the Russian won over the Frenchman. This year, a movie he wasn’t entirely happy with gets the nod; “Poor Little Rich Girl” forced him into an uneasy relationship with star Mary Pickford, who got her own way more often than he did. Victor Sjöström is the only first-timer on this list, but only because this project started too late to honor “Ingeborg Holm” with a nomination. “A Man There Was” has already won for Best Cinematography and Best Leading Actor, two of the most prestigious awards, now it’s up for directing as well.

The nominees for Best Director for 1917 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer for The Dying Swan
  2. Charlie Chaplin for Easy Street
  3. Louis Feuillade for The Woman in Black (Judex)
  4. Maurice Tourneur for Poor Little Rich Girl
  5. Victor Sjöström for A Man There Was

And the winner is…Evgeni Bauer for “The Dying Swan!”

I probably gave myself away by referring to it as “arguably his masterpiece” above. Actually, I like “After Death” and “Child of the Big City” a bit better, but this one clearly was a labor of intense love for Bauer himself. I think he meant it to top his earlier work, and it may be that dedication that wound up driving him to his own early demise, a haunting reflection of the theme of the film. This is obviously my last chance to honor Bauer with a Century Award, but I’m still hoping to have opportunities to see other work by him that I’ve missed.

Best Leading Actress 1917

Women in silent movies were exotic, strong, beautiful, and courageous. Many, if not most, of the recognizable iconic images of the period are of women: Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Theda Bara. The men have no equivalents, except perhaps among the silent clowns (Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton). In Europe, an entire genre (the “Diva film”) was dedicated primarily to looking at women posing in varying costumes, and although this genre didn’t get the same level of recognition in the US, it influenced film making everywhere. To be a star was to be looked at, and women stars used their visibility to become forces of power and even authority.

Yvette Andréyor played the significant role in the “Judex” serial of being the unrequited love interest of the hero – and the daughter of his worst enemy. In “Jacqueline’s Heart,” she unknowingly confides her distress to the woman who was the prime motivator for Judex’s vengeful plans: his mother. She handles this scene, and the emotional drama of the series masterfully. Mary Pickford had her own ideas for the character of Gwendolyn in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” ideas that sometimes conflicted with those of the director, Maurice Tourneur. Mary was enough of a heavyweight in Hollywood that she got her way, and the result is a highly sympathetic and moving performance. Edna Purviance was Chaplin’s leading lady throughout this period of his short films, and once again turned in a thoughtful, funny, and charming performance for “The Immigrant.” She’s a fellow newcomer to the United States, who Charlie meets and pursues, and her reactions are really the emotional center of the romance for the audience. Gloria Swanson was still a rising star when she made “Teddy at the Throttle,” and she’ll be back many times in future years. Here, she gave a comedic twist on the “girl tied to the train tracks” cliché that demonstrated timing and physical ability as well as the acting skill she’s remembered for today. Vera Karalli appears as a mute ballerina in “The Dying Swan,” whose tragic life is a fascination for a mad artist. She conveys her sadness, and its transformation to joy and then to horror, through body language and dance.

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Yvette Andréyor in Jacqueline’s Heart (Judex)
  2. Mary Pickford in Poor Little Rich Girl
  3. Edna Purviance in The Immigrant
  4. Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle
  5. Vera Karalli in The Dying Swan

And the winner is…Mary Pickford for “Poor Little Rich Girl!”

Having declared 1917 “the year of Mary Pickford” in an earlier post may have been a dead giveaway to regular readers how this was going to go. It was not a no-brainer, though, because all of the women nominated had definite strengths. Pickford in “Poor Little Rich Girl” really makes the whole story work. It’s impossible to imagine another actress pulling it off so well. Even in the context of a fairly schmaltzy story that isn’t really my cup of tea, I was decidedly moved by the end, and genuinely wondering/worrying if the script was going to let her die at the end. That’s the power of her acting.

Best Leading Actor 1917

Leading men in movies can be smooth, handsome, funny, debonair, sophisticated, mysterious, brooding, and sympathetic. Sometimes all at once. The movie business had by 1917 set up certain actors as powerful stars, and bidding wars were leading to what seemed insanely high rates of pay for certain actors. Others worked more humbly, but still effectively, giving directors and audiences what they wanted, solid performances that turned good scripts into great movies.

The best performances I saw in 1917 were a mixed bag. Charlie Chaplin gave a very funny performance infused with pathos in “The Immigrant.” He showed confidence, fear, love, determination, and hardship all in the course of a 25 minute run time. Douglas Fairbanks gave a less nuanced but still powerful performance in “A Modern Musketeer,” emphasizing screen presence over range. His noted enthusiasm and “pep” shines throughout the movie. On the more somber side, Victor Sjöström gave a classically Swedish performance as a man lost at sea who returns to find that his life has been taken away in his absence. He shows multiple layers of anger, pain, and frustration, and struggles with those emotions against his character’s basic decency when “A Man There Was” reaches its climax. Andrej Gromov is also a tragic figure in “The Dying Swan.” He plays an insane artist who becomes fascinated by the suffering face of a mute woman, but the moment she finds happiness, he goes mad and strangles her to get the image he wants for his painting. Finally, René Cresté established the superhero by taking on the role of Judex. In “Love’s Forgiveness,” his character is finally able to resolve the dark revenge motives he’s been carrying throughout the serial with his love of the daughter of his main enemy.

The nominees for best actor in a leading role are:

  1. Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant
  2. Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer
  3. Victor Sjöström in A Man There Was
  4. Andrej Gromov in The Dying Swan
  5. René Cresté in Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

And the winner is…Victor Sjöström in “A Man There Was!”

While it was far from an upbeat movie, Sjöström’s performance in “A Man There Was” surpassed the material and built it into a powerful screen experience. As I suggested above, there’s a lot going on here, and expressing all of it without recorded dialogue is an impressive trick. All the moreso when the Intertitles were limited to the words of the poem by Henrik Ibsen on which this is based. Sjöström had to convey everything that was going on inside of him, using his face, but maintaining the stoic expression of a Swedish sailor. He did a great job, and thus he is honored with this award.

Best Supporting Actor 1917

As with female roles, often the most interesting or memorable characters in a movie are not its stars. Actors in supporting roles can be family, friends, enemies, or indifferent to the main characters, but they often add spice and interest to the stories on the screen. Supporting actors sometimes play a particular “type” so well that it becomes part of their identity – perhaps being “typecast” is artistically tedious, but it can also be a guarantee of steady work, so long as that “type” stays in fashion. Some of them are able to excel even within the confines of a redundant character type, and these are the actors we look for in this category.

Buster Keaton is remembered today for his starring roles, but in 1917 he started out his career as a supporting actor in Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s company. In “The Rough House,” he actually played two characters – one a throwaway bearded gardener, the other a delivery boy who becomes a classic Keystone-style cop. It’s this second performance that won him the nomination this year. Eric Campbell was one of Charlie Chaplin’s favorite foils – a big man with heavy eyebrows who tragically died in a car crash in December, 1917. He’s especially memorable in “Easy Street” as the man who bends a lamp post to show his strength. Conrad Veidt is remembered by silent fans today mostly for his supporting role in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and he plays a similarly menacing role in “Fear,” an earlier film by Robert Wiene. Here, as the mysterious “Buddha Priest,” his close-up defines the unknown dangers of a curse upon the protagonist. René Poyen was a favorite child actor of director Louis Feuillade, and had starred in many “Bout-de-Zan” short films before being brought in for an important role in the “Judex” serial. The episode called “The Licorice Kid” places his character at the center f the action, and gives him a chance to display his surprising range and talent. Tully Marshall takes on the thankless role of the sidekick to Douglas Fairbanks in “A Modern Musketeer,” but he is able to warn Fairbanks’s character of the impending abduction of the romantic lead. More significantly, a revenge subplot against Doug’s romantic rival centers around Marshall, whose character has been wronged in a cowardly financial scam, and this gives him a chance to display a range of emotions.

The nominees for best actor in a supporting role for 1917 are:

  1. Buster Keaton in the Rough House
  2. Eric Campbell in Easy Street
  3. Conrad Veidt in Fear
  4. René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)
  5. Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer

And the winner is…René Poyen!

As a child actor, Poyen was able to be gruff and lovable, without being annoying. His character is one of the best parts of the “Judex” serial, which I found a bit too wholesome, compared with Feuillade’s earlier crime serials. The Licorice Kid provides a pleasant contrast to the rest of the characters, being street smart and used to poverty, but not a scheming criminal. In this episode, he gets tricked by the villains but is able to rescue his friend, Le Petit Jean, by having him leap off of a balcony into a blanket held by their allies below. Even though he was quite young and the time, René Poyen was a highly poised and professional supporting actor.

Best Supporting Actress 1917

In a society in which the “male gaze” is dominant, women are common subjects for visual media. In the silent era, women could surprise you with their boldness, their strength, and sometimes their villainy. Often, the most interesting roles for women were not the leads, but were to be found in the characters that make up the world of action in which they play. The women actors of 1917 had opportunities to add complexity and color to the movies that audiences went to see.

ZaSu Pitts stands out in a supporting role for Mary Pickford in “Little Princess.” She is Becky, the scullion maid with no parents, who is excited by her new friend and also helps her survive her new condition of poverty. Musidora, who won a Century Award for her supporting role in “Les Vampires” is up again for “Judex.” In “The Atonement,” her character, Diana Monti, tries to escape her fate when Judex arrives on the boat where she is holding his true love captive. In “Polly RedheadGertrude Astor navigates a fine line between being jealous of Polly and being her benefactor when she brings the existence of Polly’s doppelganger to the attention of her employer, setting the end plot into motion. May Emory is over the top as a jealous rival for Gloria Swanson in “Teddy at the Throttle,” displaying comic timing and ability and getting a face full of mud for her efforts.

The nominees for best actress in a supporting role for 1917 are:

  1. ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess
  2. Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)
  3. Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead
  4. May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle

And the winner is…ZaSu Pitts in “Little Princess!”

Pitts completely blew me away with her deferential, demure, yet nuanced and perky performance. I think she actually stole the show from Pickford a couple of times, and that’s quite an accomplishment. It probably helped that the two of them had real chemistry and became good friends after this film. I believe this is the first time Pitts has appeared on this blog, and she came in with a bang. I’m happy to honor her performance with a Century Award.