Emil Jannings’ Oscar
By Allan R. Ellenberger
Emil Jannings, one of Germany’s most favorite actors, was Swiss-born and was raised in Germany as a child. An undisciplined student, his first ambition was to be an actor, however a close friend who was in the Navy, convinced him to run away and go to sea. He eventually returned and tried to obey his parents wishes to be an engineer but soon ran off again and joined a theatrical road company. This time he was returned home by the police, but his father thought a good dose of theatrical hardship would cure him of his dramatic ideas and allowed him to continue with his pursuit.
For several years he traveled with one company or another eventually becoming a stock member at Bremen and Leipzig. For some time Jannings was with the Darmstadt Royal Theatre in Berlin, where he played in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg and Goethe plays. There he made the acquaintance of Robert Wiene, who would later become the producer of Caligari. He soon played in a series of one-reelers in which one of the directors was a young Ernst Lubitsch.
Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh (1924)
In F.W. Murnau’s, The Last Laugh (1924), in which Jannings plays an old man who sees his world fall about him, he caused critics to rave about him. After his success in Faust (1926), again with Murnau, he came to the United States for Paramount and appeared in The Way of All Flesh (1927), The Street of Sin (1928), The Last Command (1928), The Patriot (1928) and Sins of the Father (1928).
In 1929, the first year of the Academy Awards, Jannings won a Best Actor award for his performances in the The Way of All Flesh (1927), in which he played an embittered family man, and The Last Command (1928), in which he was an exiled Russian general reduced to playing bit parts in war films.
The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929. However, at that time talking pictures had arrived and Jannings became one of that group of foreign actors who, because of their accent, was suddenly forced to abandon his career in the United States.
The first Academy Award (kori.bustard/Flickr)
Since the actor was returning to Germany on April 27 – before the banquet was to be held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel – he asked the Academy if he could receive his gold statuette early. The fledgling organization agreed, making his the very first Academy Award ever presented.
The remainder of Jannings film work was done in Germany. During World War II, it became apparent that Jannings had become a favorite of the Nazi government, particularly since he was one of a handful of people entrusted by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels with running that phase of the film industry most closely dominated by the Hitler regime. After the war he was not seen on the screen again.
Emil Jannings’ Academy Award at the Berlin Film Museum (Jacob.Theo/Flickr)
Emil Jannings died at his home in Strobl, Austria from liver cancer complicated by pneumonia on January 3, 1950. He was buried at Saint Wolfgang Friedhof Cemetery. The very first Academy Award won by Jannings is currently on display at the Berlin Film Museum.