In The Last Command (1928), General Dolgorucki (Emil Jannings) is a former Russian general, now destitute and emotionally broken, living in America and forced to work as an extra in Hollywood films. He’s noticed by Lev Andreyev (William Powell), a former communist revolutionary and now a successful director, who is searching for extras for his upcoming film on the Revolution. Andreyev hatches a scheme to make Dolgorucki a featured player in his film, knowing it will torment the old general who already has a tenuous grip on reality. The movie flashes back a decade and we learn that Dolgorucki, fighting for the Czars, had persecuted Andreyev and his partner in revolution, the beautiful Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent). Dabrova becomes Dolgorucki’s mistress, possibly with the intent of bringing him down from the inside, or possibly to save him, the drama is in discovering which she intends. The Russian Revolution ends (as we all know) with the defeat of the Czars, and now, in 1928, Andreyev is looking to recreate one of the largest final battles of the war with Dolgorucki back in command of a unit he apparently believes is real.
Jannings was a celebrated actor at this time, and thus far is the only German to win an Oscar, so of course he would end up being a Nazi, as revealed in the hard-hitting documentary Inglourious Basterds. Some would quibble about Jannings’ Nazism, and we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, we’re concerned with Emil Jannings only because he became, mostly out of impatience, the first person to receive an Academy Award.
The Academy was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer who, per Bosley Crowther, Murray Ross and David Thomson’s typically snarky Vanity Fair article, hoped that the creation of an Academy would stop cast and crew from unionizing. Joining Mayer for dinner in January 1927 were actor Conrad Nagel, director and producer Fred Niblo, and the head of AMPP, Fred Beetson, and man who since the silent era had been an enthusiastic supporter of federal censorship laws to prohibit “communist content.” Mayer pitched the idea of the Academy to his dinner guests, who all agreed that the time had come for an industry organization of that kind. Later the same month, the four originating members took their idea to a room full of Hollywood leaders, and the Academy was born.
The first president was actor Douglas Fairbanks, who took his job seriously. At the first meeting in May 1927, held in The Blossom Ballroom of the Hollywood Roosevelt, Fairbanks sold memberships at $100 a pop to all 231 industry members who attended, reminding people that there was “a great and alarming cloud of public censure and contempt” against the industry and the Academy was there to fight against this injustice. Gotta wonder what the pro-censorship Beetson felt about that when he heard it.
Mayer and others hadn’t concerned themselves with the idea of awards and banquets to accompany the newly minted Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but Fairbanks and his superstar wife Mary Pickford were set on the idea, and Fairbanks announced the formation of an awards committee at the May meeting. The awards committee immediately descended into chaos, as awards committees tend to do, sending out ballots with incorrect dates for potential nominees, and not making it clear to members that older films were not eligible. When ballots came back with write-in nominations for films like The Gold Rush and The General, the committee had to start over. The second round of ballots had to include an insert for Best Title Writing, as it was a last-minute addition.
Once the nominees were in, the Academy committee argued all night over the winner of Best Picture. Sid Grauman later told King Vidor that Louis B. Mayer was the sole person who argued against The Crowd for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, even though it was one of his studio’s own films. He kept the board up until 5:00 a.m. arguing for Sunrise, at which point the board just gave in. Nominees in each category were whittled down by the committee to one winner and two runners-up, with a few exceptions, and were announced three months before the actual ceremony.
Most recipients at the first Academy Awards did not give speeches, and many didn’t even show up. Telegrams from our boy Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin were read aloud, a few thanks were given, and all awards were handed out in about five minutes. What followed were various bits of business and lectures, speeches from the guests of honor and a few founding members, some of whom were displeased by jokes floating around Hollywood criticizing the Academy. Then Al Jolson got up to end the show with a short act, and because Jolson’s gotta Jolson, he told several jokes at the Academy’s expense.
It was the best part of the whole evening.
The only reason Emil Jannings was the first recipient of an Academy Award was that he’d decided to ditch Hollywood altogether. When talking pictures became all the rage, he knew his English wasn’t good enough for the American silver screen, so he made plans to head back to Germany. When the awards were announced prior to the ceremony, he sent a telegram asking if they could please give him his award early so as not to delay his trip home. They agreed, then read his rather terse telegram at the awards, which infamously requested, “Hand me now already the statuette award,” a source of chuckles for years to come, and a pretty good indicator that Jannings was dead on in his assessment of his own English skills.
The first year was the only year the Academy took multiple performances into account, and Jannings technically won for both The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. Since The Way of All Flesh is a lost film, we can only see one of the performances that lead to his award.
One of the legendary Josef von Sternberg’s last silent films, the story was inspired by an actual general named Theodore A. Lodigensky whom director Ernst Lubitsch had known in Russia, then met again years later in New York after fleeing the communists. Years later, he met Lodigensky in Hollywood, now looking for work as an extra. Though he usually worked under the name Theodore Lodi, his first few roles were credited as General Lodijensky.
The screenplay for The Last Command apparently originates from Lubitsch, who told the story to Jannings directly, and Jannings recounted it to screenwriter Lajos Biro, while claiming the story as his own. Biro, not knowing the story was Lubitsch’s, worked up a treatment that was turned into a full screenplay by John S. Goodrich. The script was first offered to Victor Fleming, but neither Jannings nor Fleming wanted to work with each other again after butting heads in The Way of All Flesh, so it passed to von Sternberg. He in turn reworked much of the script, then took credit (nearly) all for himself. Later, someone referred to only as “an obscure author” in John Baxter’s biography of von Sternberg would approach the studio with proof that the story was originally his. Paramount tried to weasel out of the situation by threatening to attach Lubitsch’s name to the writing credits and then blaming him for the plagiarism, but Lubitsch was having none of it, and Paramount was forced to settle with the “obscure author” out of court.
The Last Command has some iffy political positions, but not (as a few have written over the years) because of Jannings and his devotion to the National Socialists. Some would quibble about whether Jannings was actually a party member or not, but as Who’s Who in Nazi Germany says, he was “an enthusiastic supporter.” He would later try to play down his work for the Nazis by saying he was just a simple artist: “As my heart and soul belonged to the art of acting, they ordered my head not to worry about things that were none of its concern.”
But that’s neither here nor there, because Jannings didn’t become involved with the Nazis until after he returned to Germany, and there’s no evidence that Jannings worked on the screenplay beyond recounting the tale he’d heard from Lubitsch. Likely, ahistorical and illogical changes were made because of studio concerns from folks like Fred Beeson who were scared stiff about portraying communism in any kind of positive light. The revolutionaries are petty, nasty and evil, while Dolgorucki is portrayed as a good man who just loves his country. In one scene, seconds after showing innocent revolutionary women being mowed down by a machine gun while the general and his pals sit in luxury and covered in furs, those same revolutionaries are turned into a hissing, ugly menace.
Andreyev is the end result of that revolutionary menace, of course. It’s interesting to compare the heartless Andreyev with von Sternberg, especially since it appears that much of the political content comes from von Sternberg’s changes to the script. The contempt for everyone involved in Hollywood, including himself, is thick in this film, and starts very early on when the Russian extras hired for Andreyev’s film are referred to as “backwash of a tortured narration.” Ouch.
The entire venture is also an interesting counterpoint to the idea that the victors get to write the history books. Andreyev believes Dolgorucki is a good man, even if they are ideologically opposed, yet he still wants to destroy him for his defense of the Russian czars. He concocts a film that will re-stage the war, not just for revenge but for some good old fashioned wish fulfillment, and Andreyev, in what sure seems like a reflection of von Sternberg’s personal beliefs, frames Dolgorucki’s destruction as his redemption.
Re-fighting the war is a concept mirrored in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, where Emil Jannings is a supporting character. The idea that Hollywood can fight wars with movies is wish fulfillment at times, more tangible when it comes to propaganda and documentary (see: Five Came Back), but in Basterds you can’t help but wonder if Tarantino, being a particularly self-absorbed artist, was so enamored of the idea that he could indeed re-fight an entire war that he didn’t realize he was saying that Jews use movies to destroy. The same thoughts occur in The Last Command, with von Sternberg inadvertently, maybe, suggesting that communism had infiltrated Hollywood to destroy good men.
Or maybe that’s all tangential and it’s simply a case of directorial egos getting out of hand. In Hollywood, who’s to say?
Emil Jannings was a fine actor, perhaps not one whose work has worn well over the years — one is reminded of Rudolf Klein-Rogge at times, though Klein-Rogge translates much more seamlessly to modern sensibilities than Jannings does — and his work was widely celebrated in the late 1920s. The New York Times gave Jannings raves in their review at the time, Time Out raved about Jannings decades later, but a more recent review on CriteronCast points out the obvious criticism of his performance: it’s too broad, too static, and lacking in depth. Jannings was a product of his time, but by the time he was handed finally the statuette, his time had run out.