Some words about the Century Awards

Today is the Oscars, and anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that I never announced any candidates for the Century Awards of 1918. I could just let that pass without comment, but just in case, here are a few words.

It comes down to just one thing: I didn’t watch enough 1918 movies to make it a fair contest. I missed a number of quite large-scale releases, including the #1 box office success. But, more important, in order to really judge what was outstanding for the year, I need to really steep myself in the “other” movies that came out that year, and I didn’t find the time. In general, the rate of my posting is down, and it’s likely to stay that way. I have too many other things (including work!) going on in my life. The Century Awards was a great idea that turned out to be a lot of work every year, and I just couldn’t keep it going.

If anyone’s interested, here’s my biggest thought about 1918: If there had been an Academy Awards (or equivalent), it would have demonstrated the awesome popularity of the four people who formed United Artists the next year: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. Between them, I suspect they’d have had nominations in nearly every category, and probably a fair number of wins as well. No doubt it was this swelling of support that led them to make a go of it as a production company, although the history of UA is fraught with their personal difficulties and over-confidence. (William S. Hart was also involved in the planning of UA, and I expect he’d have been a factor in any fair Awards of the time as well).

A couple of comparative newcomers would probably make some lists as well: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd had been in movies almost as long as Chaplin, but by 1918, he’d gotten out of the “Lonesome Luke” persona and switched over to the now-familiar “glasses” look that made him a comedy icon. Keaton had only been working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Studios for less than a year when 1918 started, but he had rapidly become one of the most important players and behind-the-scenes gag inventors.

With the end of the First World War, 1918 is a kind of turning point in film history as well. It’s the year that Europe looked up and realized that Hollywood was firmly in control of the industry, whatever they might feel about that. Some tried in later years to fight back by establishing nationalized studios (or supporting existing ones), but to a large extent the masses continue to run out to see Hollywood films, no matter how good their own national product was. The nature of silent cinema made this comparably easy – a silent film can be followed by anyone, regardless of their mother tongue, and swapping out translated intertitles is a lot cheaper than dubbing or subtitling a whole movie. But, there was also the economic reality that four years of (mostly) peace had given studios in the US the opportunity to build infrastructure that Europe lost through war and revolution. That included a massive distribution system to over 100 million people that American studios could reach without paying import duties before they even worried about the European market. No European country had anything to compare.

As we continue into 1919, I’ll probably maintain my current rate of one or two posts a week, not all about 1919 because there’s so much “catching up” I still want to do, so it’s likely that I’ll feel the same when we get to Awards time next year. Perhaps I can write up another essay like this one to “take the pulse of the times.” I hope it doesn’t disappoint anyone too much to miss out on the Century Awards, thank you for reading!