Skip to main content

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
 
 
 
______________________________________________________
SOURCES:
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) 
https://www.oscars.org/academy-story
https://www.filmsite.org/aa27.html

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an