The Academy goes on the hunt for its own history
Fixating as we do on the seasonal ins and outs of the Oscar process, it’s easy to forget that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a purpose beyond handing out gold stars to the industry’s great and good. As an organization dedicated both to the development and preservation of the medium, they have fostered a wealth of films and archive materials that have scant relationship to the Academy Awards. Little wonder they warmed so to the film-preservation paean that was “Hugo” last year.
Still, when their archiving obligations overlap with celebration of the awards that made them famous, it’s an irresistible promotional opportunity for AMPAS. Hence the launch of their Oscar’s Most Wanted movement, which seeks to complete their library of every single film, short or feature-length, that was once graced with the golden man’s touch.
Inevitably, they’re mostly on the lookout for various once-nominated short subjects or documentaries that have since seemingly disappeared to the great projector room in the sky. With little demand or occasion for repertory screenings of such materials, they tend to gather dust – or simply turn to it – faster than narrative features. More surprising, however, is that a former Best Picture nominee is also on the Most Wanted list, and one from a major filmmaker at that.
In 84 years of the Academy Awards, just under 500 films have been nominated for the top prize – and of those, only one isn’t available to view completely in some shape or form. I’d like to tell you that I’m talking about “Doctor Dolittle,” but it’s actually Ernst Lubitsch’s 1928 film “The Patriot” – no relation to the turgid Mel Gibson epic that earned a smattering of technical nods in 2000 – that is confounding the most obsessive Oscar completists.
A loose Hollywood biopic of Czar Paul I of Russia – yes, royalty porn was a hit with voters from the get-go – the film can be glimpsed in a trailer on YouTube, but no complete cut has yet surfaced. It won a writing Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor – though back in those days, the second year of the awards, nominees weren’t formally revealed. (I believe it was the last silent film to feature in the lineup, depending on how willing you are to classify “The Artist” as such.)
Is it a great loss? Hardly anyone knows, though one would rather Lubitsch films didn’t casually go missing. As such, it’s the highest-profile title in the Most Wanted list on the Academy’s official website, where they invite any informed parties to step forward, and any interested ones to follow the search – which has so far turned up the aforementioned trailer and a single reel, housed at the Cinemateca library in Lisbon, Portugal. (Coincidentally, back in the spring, I visited the Cinemateca, a swirlingly decorated period townhouse once featured in a Manoel de Oliveira film; it’s as romantic a cinematic resting-place as any film could ask for.)
Other titles being hunted down by the Academy include Oscar-nominated shorts “Chase of Death” and “The Kiss”; once-AWOL titles successfully sourced by the Academy’s archive include another such short, “The Cliff Dwellers” and a restored doc short nominee, “Naked Yoga.” Here’s hoping they continue in this vein: a complete archive of Academy-honored shorts, perhaps stored in a manner similar to the British Film Institute’s digitized Mediatheque, would be a neat resource.
You can read more on the Oscar’s Most Wanted drive here.