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The Birth of the Academy Awards

The Academy Awards, widely known as «the Oscars,» are the most famous and prestigious competitive awards in the entertainment industry. Given annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they are an international recognition of excellence in cinematic achievements. In anticipation of the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, which will be held three weeks from today, on April 25, here is the story of how it all began.

Louis B. Mayer and the creation of the Academy

In early January 1927, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer invited a few people to dinner at his home. Later in the evening, while he was playing solitaire, he overheard actor Conrad Nagel and other guests discussing the advisability of creating an organization that would benefit the entire Hollywood movie industry. Mayer, the «filmmaking force of his time,» was interested in the idea and soon arranged a meeting with Nagel, director Fred Niblo and the head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Fred Beetson. Mayer's interest in such an organization stemmed from the fact that he was looking for a way to mediate labour disputes without unions and arbitrate contracts between the studios and the various craft guilds.

LEFT: Louis B. Mayer, founder of the Academy. RIGHT: The Academy members in 1927.

After their brief meeting, Mayer invited 32 other people in the industry to a formal banquet at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on January 11, 1927. The illustrious guest list included actors Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, directors Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh, and producers Irving Thalberg, Jesse L. Lasky, and Harry and Jack Warner.
During the evening, Mayer presented what he called the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Everyone in the room became a founding member of the Academy, and their first official meeting was held in early May of that year. Around that time, it was decided to drop the «International» from the name, becoming the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Fairbanks was elected as the first president of the Academy, while Niblo was the first vice-president. Their initial roster was composed of 230 members from the five main branches of the film industry: Actors, Directors, Producers, Writers and Technicians. 
Some of the founders of the Academy: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Irving Thalberg, Jesse L. Lasky and Jack Warner.

The first Academy Awards ceremony

Although the Academy's initial concerns had to do with labour negotiations, those issues were soon put aside in favour of awards to honour artistic accomplishment within the industry. 
In May 1928, the Awards of Merit were created by a committee of seven people, who suggested to the Board of Directors that the trophies be presented in 12 categories: Outstanding Picture, Best Unique and Artistic Picture, Best Directing (Comedy Picture), Best Directing (Dramatic Picture), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing (Original Story), Best Writing (Adaptation), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Engineering Effects and Best Writing (Title Writing). During July, the voting system was established and the nomination and selection process began. These «awards of merit» would come to be known as the Academy Awards.
LEFT: The 1st Academy Awards ceremony at the Blossom Room in May 1929. RIGHT: Menu of the first Academy Awards banquet.

The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 at the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. It consisted of a private banquet for 270 guests, who were served a surprisingly simple menu. The meal began with a selection of olives and nuts, as well as celery and rolls. Next came a bowl of consommé Celestine, followed by the standard fish and chicken options. In this case, there was sole fillet sautéed in butter and half broiled chicken on toast. Accompaniments included green beans, potatoes, and a lettuce and tomato salad. For dessert, there was vanilla and chocolate ice cream, a selection of cakes, and coffee. Since Prohibition had not yet been lifted, no alcoholic drinks were served that night.
The winners of the first Academy Awards were announced by Fairbanks during a 15-minute event (although they had been named three months earlier). The statuette given to each winner was designed by AMPAS founding member Cedric Gibbons, art director of MGM. Winners were chosen by the Academy Central Board of Judges; however, according to director King Vidor, the voting for Best Picture was essentially in the hands of Fairbanks, Pickford, producer Joseph M. Schenck, exhibitor Sid Grauman and Mayer himself.
Cedric Gibbons, the creator of the Academy Award statuette. Gibbons went on to win 11 Oscars himself, out of a total of 39 nominations.

Unlike later ceremonies, artists could be nominated and awarded either for work in a single film or across multiple films, or even without reference to any specific film. Every movie that played at a theatre in Los Angeles between August 1, 1927 and August 1, 1928 was eligible for a nomination in the Best Picture category — except The Jazz Singer (1927). The groundbreaking musical was disqualified because it was thought that it would be unfair to let «talkies» compete with silent movies. It did, however, receive a nomination for Best Writing (Adaptation) and producer Daryl F. Zanuck of Warner Bros. won an honorary award for pioneering talking pictures.

The official first winner for the Best Picture award as «the most outstanding motion picture production» was the World War I epic Wings (1927), made by Paramount Famous Lasky. The statuette, not yet known as the «Oscar», was presented to one of the film's stars, Clara Bow, on behalf of the producers, Adolph Zukor and B. P. Schulberg. Roy Pomeroy won the Best Engineering Effects award for the thrilling air sequences in Wings. He added the roar of the planes' engines, the firing of guns and even the scream of a German aviator killed in a dogfight.
Wings was the first ever Best Picture winner. It is the only silent film to win the award.

Fox's Sunrise (1927) was awarded a comparable honour for being the best film in the category of Best Unique and Artistic Picture (the category was abandoned by the Academy the following year). Charles Rosher and Karl Struss won the statuette for Best Cinematography for their work on the same film. Additionally, Janet Gaynor received the first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Sunrise, as well as in 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928).
Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The award for Best Actor was given to Emil Jannings for his work on The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928). Jannings' thick German accent brought his Hollywood career to an end with the advent of the «talkies», so he returned to Europe shortly before the award ceremony. (The Academy agreed with give him the statuette earlier.) Following Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Jannings continued to act in the service of Nazi cinema, starring in several propaganda films. His active role in Nazi propaganda meant that he was subject to denazification after World War II, which effectively ended his screen career.
Emil Jannings, the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor.

The award for Best Director was split into two categories, Dramatic and Comedy. The winners were, respectively, Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven and Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Nights (1927). The two categories were merged for all subsequent ceremonies.
Frank Borzage e Lewis Milestone with their respective Academy Awards.
The award for Best Writing was divided into three categories, Original Story, Adaptation and Title Writing. The winners were, respectively, Ben Hecht for Underworld (1927), Benjamin Glazer for 7th Heaven, and AMPAS founding member Joseph Farnham (for no specific work). The Title Writing category was eliminated from all subsequent ceremonies.

The statuette for Best Art Direction was given to William Cameron Menzies for his work on The Dove (1927) and Tempest (1928). Menzies is credited with having coined the job title «production designer» and was a pioneer in the use of colour for dramatic effect in filmmaking. 
LEFT: Joseph Farnham receiving his Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks. RIGHT: William Cameron Menzies, winner for Best Art Direction at the 1st Academy Awards.

The aftermath

As the Academy grew in membership and became more active in industry politics, it moved further away from involvement in labour-management arbitrations and negotiations. Although it was technically an intermediary organization, not a company union, the fact that it was completely created by the studios meant that it could hardly be impartial in negotiations and could easily serve as a means of combating legitimate unionization. As a result, the Academy delayed serious labour negotiations in the movie industry for years.

As a creation of the studios, the voting for the awards by the Academy could be swayed by the wishes of the most powerful of those studios. Indeed, as far as Louis B. Mayer was concerned, the Academy was about manipulation, but for immediate MGM-related goals rather than distant, generic Hollywood goals. «I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them,» Mayer later said. «If I got them cups and awards, they'd kill them to produce what I wanted. That's why the Academy Award was created
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (Cooper Square Pess, 2000)
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (Dundurn Press, 2011)
The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture by William A. Wellman Jr. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006)
The Oscars: The Pocket Essential Guide by John Atkinson (Pocket Essentials, 2005)


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