the first oscars -- 1/19/24

Today's selection -- from Oscar Wars by Michael Schulman. The first Academy Awards were held in 1929 on the precipice of the Great Depression, in the wake of the talking movie ushered in by 1927’s The Jazz Singer:

“[In 1929], a new Hollywood icon was being born. Legend had it that Cedric Gibbons, MGM's design guru, sketched it on a napkin or a tablecloth. More likely, he used a piece of paper. He drew an ‘idealized male figure’ with a Crusader's sword, which served as the Academy's insignia on printed material. In late 1928, the figure was handed off to sculptor George Stanley to transform into a three-dimensional work of art, which was then cast at the California Art Bronze Foundry: a twelve inch-tall figurine standing atop a film reel, affixed to a Belgian marble base. By January 1929, the Academy touted the result as ‘an artistic and striking bronze statuette, with gold finish, on which will be inscribed the name of the winner.’

“The central board of judges met on Friday, February 15, and announced the winners of the first Awards of Merit in Monday morning's papers, along with twenty honorable mentions. There was no word on when the awards would be presented. Instead of the planned twelve awards, there were fifteen. Sunrise had two winning cinematographers, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher. The board had also decided to give two special prizes, one to Charlie Chaplin for The Circus and the other to Warner Bros. for The Jazz Singer, the dinosaur-killing asteroid that had ‘revolutionized the industry.’ The honorary award was an acknowledgment that talkies couldn't compete alongside silent films: they were a whole new art form.

“For the first and only time, actors were awarded for multiple films. Emil Jannings won Best Actor for Paramount's The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, and Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for Fox's Sunrise, Street Angel, and 7th Heaven. Sunrise won Best Unique and Artistic Picture, though its director, F. W. Murnau, didn't even get an honorable mention. Neither did William Wellman, despite the fact that Wings won Outstanding Picture. Joseph W. Farnham, one of the Academy founders and a Titular Bishop, won the first and only award for Title Writing.

The first Academy Awards ceremony (pictured) was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel

“MGM's The Crowd got two honorable mentions, for King Vidor's direction and for Best Unique and Artistic Picture. For the rest of his life, Vidor would spin an intriguing tale about why the film lost to Sunrise. ‘Back then, there were five people who would end any kind of tie,’ he said. ‘They were Louis B. Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, Joe Schenck, Mary Pickford, and Sid Grauman. They sat up all night and Sid Grauman called me up and said, “I held out until five o'clock for The Crowd, but it didn't get it.” The reason was that Mayer did not want to vote for one of his own films.’ On another occasion, Vidor again named Mayer as the culprit but changed the motive: ‘It was his own picture, but it was unglamorous, against the studio's image.’

“Were the first Academy Awards rigged? Mayer did, indeed, dislike The Crowd, a drab cousin next to such sparkling entertainments as The Broadway Melody, MGM's new ‘ALL TALKING, ALL SINGING, ALL DANCING Dramatic Sensation,’ which grossed an astounding $4.3 million. And he was still careful about the appearance of self-interest. It's possible that Mayer put his thumb on the scale to avoid the appearance of collusion; MGM was conspicuously absent among the honorees, apart from the afterthought award for title writing. Yet, the Academy, in order to disprove any ‘favoritism or friendship,’ had disclosed the names of all the judges, none of whom was Mayer, Fairbanks, Pickford, or Schenck. Grauman did sit on the central board of judges, so he certainly could have been the one to call Vidor with the bad news. The most likely scenario is that Sunrise—one of the silent era's masterpieces—won fair and square and that Vidor's resentment had more to do with Mayer's general loathing of The Crowd.

“Besides, Mayer had bigger problems than who won the Academy Award: his perch at MGM was in mortal jeopardy. Marcus Loew, who ran MGM's parent company and who had remained his close ally, had died of a heart attack in 1927. His replacement was Nick Schenck—a ‘smiler with a knife,’ as one executive called him—whose distaste for Mayer was mutual. Later, another of Mayer's rivals, William Fox, secretly bought up 443,000 shares in Loew's Inc. from Loew's widow. Then he acquired Schenck's shares, plus another 227,000 on the open market. By the time his spending spree was done, Fox had spent fifty million dollars and controlled a little more than half of Loew's Mayer found out about the incursion en route to Herbert Hoover's inauguration. Rumors floated that Schenck was preparing to oust Mayer and replace him with his brother, Joe, from United Artists. His rivals were closing in.

“Zukor was officially informed that Wings had won the big prize in a letter from Academy secretary Frank Woods, reading, ‘This award consists of an artistic statuette of bronze and gold, and will be presented to. you or your representative at an early date.’ Ten days later, he received another letter, saying that the prizes would be presented on May 16, at the Academy's Second Anniversary Dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel. ‘May we have your assurance by return mail that a representative of your company will be present?’

“Zukor couldn't be bothered to travel from New York to pick up the trifle, so the Academy pitched a novel idea: What if Zukor accepted via a prerecorded talking film? This would affirm the Academy's forward thinking—but Zukor apparently wasn't eager to respond.

“On May 10, with the ceremony days away, Woods sent a desperate telegram:


“But Fairbanks had already been at Paramount's Long Island studio that morning, where he and Zukor filmed the prize handoff. Preserved in Zukor's papers are his notes for the first-ever Academy Award acceptance speech: ‘I am deeply impressed with the idea and purpose of the Academy Awards of Merit. The recognition of individual achievement is bound to be a great stimulus and inspiration to the persons engaged in production and to the whole industry. I hope that Paramount will be able to win the award next year, etc.’”



Michael Schulman


Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears




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