Which Best Actor Winner Allegedly Once Shouted, "Don't Shoot. I Have Won an Oscar"?

Emil Jannings, The Last Command with Evelyn Brent and Jannings
Imagno/Getty Images; Courtesy Everett Collection

Actor Emil Jannings circa 1930. Right: The 1928 silent film The Last Command stars Evelyn Brent and Jannings, who plays a Russian general who becomes a Hollywood extra.

This international movie star was put in charge of Germany's film production and campaigned for Hitler in 1938, but when Nazis fell from power, so did the actor's loyalty.

In 1929, international movie star Emil Jannings won the first best actor Oscar for his work in two films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh.

Preparing to return to his native Germany when his win was announced — three months before the first Academy Awards ceremony — he made sure to pick up his award before he left, writing to the Academy: "I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award to me."

Oscar in hand, Jannings returned to Europe after a six-picture sojourn in America and resumed his illustrious career as a scene-chewing star of German cinema. The actor also was the subject of an oft-repeated tale (debunked a few years ago) that he won only after Academy members were too embarrassed to give the award to the real winner: canine superstar Rin Tin Tin.

Beloved by fans, Jannings was disliked by many of his colleagues, who considered him a mean-spirited, sulky ham. Marlene Dietrich, his co-star in 1930's The Blue Angel, told Life magazine he was "a great actor but a man of childlike vanity, [who] resented her prominence in the picture to the point of fury, acting out a strangling scene with a zeal that left her black and blue for days afterward."

As the Nazis cemented power over Germany in the 1930s, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw in Jannings a useful artistic tool. Far from fleeing the country as many of his colleagues did, Jannings became part of the Nazi PR machine, starring in pro-Germany movies including The Old and the Young King and Uncle Kruger.

Jannings campaigned for Hitler in 1938 and received the Goethe Medal for Art and Science from the führer himself a year later. He was named an "artist of the state" and put in charge of the Nazi state's film production. In 1942, he produced and starred in Bismarck's Dismissal, playing real-life 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, who he said was like Hitler, "one man against the world."

However, as the Nazis fell from power, so too did Jannings' loyalty. Legend has it that as Allied troops marched into Berlin in 1945, Jannings ran through the bombed-out city, his shimmering Oscar thrust in front of him like a sword. "Don't shoot," he shouted, "I have won an Oscar!"

They didn't, and Jannings survived, though his reputation lay in ruins.

In his autobiography, Life and Me (published posthumously in 1951), he tried to explain his actions away, writing that "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." And to a reporter he portrayed himself as a victim: "Open resistance," he said, "would have meant a concentration camp."

He died in 1950 at age 65 from liver cancer, and his Oscar statuette is in the collection of the Deutsche Kinemathek film museum.

This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.