Emil Jannings (23 July 1884 – 2 January 1950) was a Swiss-born German/Austrian actor. He was the first person to be presented with an Oscar when he was honored with the first Academy Award for Best Actor, at the 1929 ceremony.
Best known for his collaborations with F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg (including The Blue Angel (1930), with Marlene Dietrich), Jannings later starred in a number of Nazi propaganda films.
He was christened as Emil Jannings in Rorschach, Switzerland, the son of a Russian-German mother and an American father. While he was still young the family moved to Görlitz in Germany and in the town state theatre Jannings started his stage career. He worked in Bremen and Leipzig before joining the Max Reinhardt theatre company in Berlin.
Jannings was a theater actor who went into films. He starred in the 1922 film version of Othello and in F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, 1924), as a proud but aged hotel doorman who is demoted to a restroom attendant. Jannings worked with Murnau on two other films, playing the title character in Herr Tartüff (1925) and Mephistopheles in Faust (1926). Jannings eventually started a career in Hollywood. In 1929 he won the first Best Actor Oscar for his work in two films: The Way of All Flesh (now lost), and Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command.
His Hollywood career came to an end with the advent of talkies as his thick German accent was difficult to understand. His dialogue was initially dubbed by another actor in the part-talkie The Patriot (1928), although Jannings' own voice was restored after he objected. Returning to Europe, he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film The Blue Angel, which was filmed simultaneously in English with its German version Der blaue Engel.
According to Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend (Simon and Schuster, 2011), Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. While researching her book, Orlean discovered that it was in fact Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd dog, one of the biggest movie stars of his time, who won the vote. The Academy, however, worried about being taken seriously if they gave the first Oscar to a dog, chose to award the Oscar to the human runner-up.
During the Third Reich, he starred in several films which were intended to promote Nazism, particularly the Führerprinzip: The Youth of Frederick the Great (1935), Der Herrscher ("The Ruler" 1937), Ohm Kruger (Uncle Kruger, 1941) and The Dismissal of Bismarck (1942). Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels named him "Artist of the State" in 1941.
When troops of the Allied Powers entered Germany in 1945, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood. His active role in Nazi propaganda meant that he was subject to denazification, and no comeback attempt was possible. He retired near Salzburg, Austria, and became an Austrian citizen in 1947.
Jannings was married three times. All three marriages were to stage and film actresses and all three ended in divorce. His first marriage was to Hanna Ralph, his second to Lucie Höflich and his final marriage was to Gussy Holl, who had been previously married to actor Conrad Veidt.
Jannings died in 1950, aged 65, in Strobl, from liver cancer. His Best Actor Oscar is now on display at the Berlin Filmmuseum.
Hilmar Eichhorn portrayed a fictional version of Jannings in Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino. In the 1972 film "Cabaret," singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) finds herself at a high-society dinner party; she tries to impress someone at the table by suggesting that she is a friend of Emil Jannings.
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