Oscar's First Decade: An Overview of the Academy in its early years
This piece was originally written for Next Best Picture:
It took twelve years, but in 1940 someone finally decided it’d be a good idea to film the Academy Awards ceremony as it happened. This documentation, and the ceremony itself, is a far cry from the statuette’s first appearance in 1929. The first Academy Awards ceremony (the term Oscars would take a few years to catch on) took place two years after the Academy’s inception in 1927, when M.G.M studio executive and recurring supervillain Louis B. Mayer devised a way to quell labour disputes while avoiding unionization: "I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them…If I got them cups and awards, they'd kill them to produce what I wanted. That's why the Academy Award was created”.
Of this first ceremony, which took place at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 11, 1929, there is only photographs, testimonies, and a legend about voter suppression concerning a certain canine screen legend. Mercifully, the entire thing took fifteen minutes. That is, of course, because there were only twelve competitive categories and recipients had been notified of their wins three months prior, thereby neglecting the need to practice “I can’t believe I won” faces in the mirror. This particular year contains anomalies that would not be repeated in following years, such as Best Director being split into drama and comedy categories, and awarding artists for not only a single film but for an entire year’s body of work. Emil Jannings, who was not present at the ceremony, won his Best Actor award for his performances in two films, while his female counterpart Janet Gaynor won for three. A category that survived only this first year, and perhaps one of the most charming categories ever, is Best Title Writing, that is title cards that indicate plot points and dialogue in silent cinema which would become a nearly extinct art form by the next year. This night only, what we now call Best Picture went to two films: Wings was given the title of Outstanding Picture, while Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was named Best Unique and Artistic Picture. It was not until the next year that this award was consolidated into one and Wings retroactively became the night’s big winner. This debut decade would see several other categories come and go, such as Best Dance Direction, indicating the stronghold the musical had on Hollywood in the 1930’s, and Best Assistant Director (by what criteria this was determined is beyond me).
We have only a small amount of footage from ceremonies throughout the 1930’s, and what we do have consists of staged reenactments of winners receiving their awards with varying degrees of awkwardness. When the recipient in question is not a learned, camera-loved actor, the interaction between presenter and recipient is extremely stiff, such as in 1931 when L.B. Mayer gave the Best Picture award to Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle for All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). After watching these two interact, ones pallet is cleansed by the appearance of Best Actress recipient Norma Shearer, who accepts her award from host and fellow actor Conrad Nagel. As one of the biggest actresses of the silent era and upcoming 1930’s, it is no surprise that she is able to accept her award with poise and a small degree of classic 1930’s sexist humour: “for once a woman is at a loss of words to tell you just what this statue means to me…encouragement, inspiration, and gratitude”.
Historically speaking, there is a dissonance between the decade’s Best Picture winners and what film fans and historians tend to associate with 1930’s cinema. There is one musical, one pre-code drama, and a battle of the sexes, but it is largely dominated by historical dramas and biopics. While Wings is a fine WWI silent epic with impressive visual spectacle and technical innovation, it is hardly considered a masterpiece like its competitor Sunrise, which is often deemed the greatest silent film of all time if not one of the best overall. The following few years do not fare much better. Three films, The Broadway Melody (1929), Cimarron (1931), and Cavalcade (1933), are often found at the lamentable end of “Best Pictures ranked” lists. Outside of their Best Picture wins, none contain much cultural or aesthetic significance that would make them worth revisiting. Thankfully, contained within these years are several deserving and memorable titles, such as the aforementioned WWI epic tragedy All Quiet on the Western Front, the witty and refreshingly modern Grand Hotel (1932), and the foundational screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934), famously the first out of three films to win the Oscar’s big five: Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor, and Actress. This would be followed by three historical dramas of varying significance: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), a surprisingly entertaining and somewhat homoerotic retelling of the infamous naval incident, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a film with disgracefully terrible story structure that drags its feet across a wholly unearned three hour runtime, and The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a common biopic that warrants neither praise nor criticism. After these three dinosaurs comes much lighter fare, You Can’t Take it With You (1938), a standard but enjoyable Frank Capra joint concerning class inequality and the American Dream starring Capra regulars Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Lionel Barrymore.
By the time this crucial decade in cinema comes to a close, there have been a few incidents to indicate the growing influence of the Oscars as a Hollywood institution. All the way back in 1930, silent screen legend Mary Pickford regarded recognition from her peers with enough importance to actively campaign to win the Best Actress award for Coquette, which she did. The Best Actress race, which even in modern times remains arguably the most discussed and culturally significant of all, was the subject of great fanfare when it was announced that Bette Davis had not been nominated for her stunning performance as a sharp-tongued Cockney waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934). There was noticeable outrage from fans and Academy members, so much so that she became a nominee by write-in. This was not enough to garner her the award, but marks perhaps the first accusations of the all too familiar practice of “snubbing”. Davis would in fact win the award the following year for Dangerous (1935), largely considered an early example of the “make up” Oscar.
In 2018, the Academy announced its plan to include a new category in the mix, the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. From almost all corners the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, with critics accusing the Academy of pandering to mainstream audiences. Given that the category’s inception was likely a result of the unprecedented critical and financial success of Black Panther (2018), a comic book movie with an almost entirely black cast, the announcement was also met with accusations of racism. In modern times, there is a great divide between what is popular and what we, that is film lovers, consider to be critically worthy cinema. At the Oscars it is rare that the two shall meet. However, back in the late twenties and thirties, popularity and success at the Oscars went hand-in-hand. After all, it was for its mass appeal and entertainment value that Wings originally won its Outstanding Picture award. Of the twelve first Best Picture winners, ten were included in their respective year’s top ten highest grossing films, with four securing the number one spot as highest grossing film of the year.
Even still, 1939 was exceptional. Largely considered the greatest year in cinematic history, the ten nominees for Best Picture represent a wide variety of genre and the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Each film is a classic worthy of revisitation:
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Gone With the Wind
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
There are arguments to made for each one of these films deserving the title of Best Picture, but Gone With the Wind’s win was inevitable. It was, and remains, the most financially successful film of all time adjusted for inflation, and at four hours long contains an abundant feast of cinematic excellence that was greatly rewarded at the 12th Oscars ceremony. As previously mentioned, this was the first year that the ceremony was filmed live, this time as part of a Warner Bros. short film titled: “Cavalcade of the Academy Awards”. Narrated by screenwriter Carey Wilson as an actual Oscar, we get a glimpse into a Hollywood totally unlike today’s over-saturated media landscape, described as a "fountainhead of the celluloid fantasies whose shining shadows flicker around the full circumference of our troubled world,” and in this world, Oscar is “the most frantically sought person in cinema-land”. The film shows several notable individuals arrive at the ceremony in full glamour, such as Austrian actress/inventor Hedy Lamar, Best Actor nominee James Stewart, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, Melvyn Douglas, and gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was there to accept a posthumous honorary award for his father, the former king of Hollywood and first president of Academy Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Norma Shearer, widow of Irving G. Thalberg after whom the annual memorial award is named, is seen smiling and laughing with her arm around Judy Garland, who that night would be awarded a juvenile Oscar by her frequent costar Mickey Rooney. As the night goes on it becomes increasingly clear that Gone With the Wind is set to make a sweep, with host Bob Hope referring to the night as “a benefit for David Selznick". With a record thirteen nominations, it would go on to win a record eight, including Best Picture, Director for Victor Fleming (who also directed The Wizard of Oz), and the first award for colour cinematography. Cinematography would continue to be split by colour and black and white until 1966.
The final awards of the evening are given to Best Actor and Best Actress presented by Spencer Tracy. It was apparently a great surprise when Robert Donat won for his role in Goodbye Mr. Chips over Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart would go on the win the following year for The Philadelphia Story (1940) in another supposed case of the makeup Oscar. Of all the awards given out this night, for any person or film, there is perhaps none more deserved than the Best Actress award given to Vivien Leigh for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara. This particular Best Actress race is notably stacked with iconic names: Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo, and Greer Garson. Still, Leigh’s win should come as a surprise to no one given her stunning performance that guides us through the film’s expansive story. Leigh herself is in real life the farthest thing from the fiery Irish-American Southern spitfire at the centre of Gone With the Wind, elegantly gliding up to the podium to accept the award with grace, sincere gratitude, and an iceberg of a gemstone hanging from her neck, “please forgive me if my words are inadequate in thanking you for your very great kindness,” she says in a British accented whisper. For one reason or another, there is no footage of David Selznick receiving the Best Picture award, but the celebration of Gone With the Wind as an institution rather than just a film is completely evident. There is a palpable energy in this room, a sort of excitement from all in attendance to see one film rise so high above the rest. Such a success seems to have reinvigorated Hollywood’s faith in itself after an uncertain decade of great change.
Oscar concludes this short presentation by looking towards the future. He also not so subtly refers to the hold he has on the motion picture industry at large, as if referring back to the original intention of the Academy as stated by L.B. Mayer:
"From my vantage point here in Hollywood, I can see my 70,000 workers (your workers Mr. and Mrs. Audience), planning, scheming, hoping that next year I may shimmer shiningly in their hand. Which is as it should be, because while they get the Oscars, you, Mr. and Mrs. Audience, get better and better pictures."
While I, a humble film lover, do not necessarily put much stock into Oscars having any intrinsic value whatsoever, I understand that it is for this reason that they exist, to generate a level of competitive excitement that keeps film in the public consciousness, even if for self-serving reasons. To uphold film as an elevated art form in an age where our attention for media is so greatly divided. It upholds, per his own words, “that recognition of achievement for which mankind will always strive”.