Oscar’s First Night
In those days, MGM stood for “Mayer’s Golden Man.”
By Don Stradley
On Thursday night, May 16, 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its two-year anniversary with a night of dinner and dancing. There were between 250 and 270 invitees, each allowed one guest, each paying five dollars (some sources say 10, but that may have combined member and guest) to gather in the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. As they settled down in the Blossom Room to feast on squab and lobster, the attendees were witnessing history. The swanky affair, you see, featured a brief ceremony where AMPAS president Douglas Fairbanks presented “merit awards.” With no broadcast media present, and minimal newspaper coverage, this was the debut of the Academy Awards.
The exact origin and motive behind the awards has been debated. Secretive and informal, the academy’s main function was to squash labor disputes. An early charter, however, declared the group also intended to “protect the honor and good repute of the profession.” Though the public still loved movies, Hollywood was perceived as an unsavory place, a sewer of drugs, suicide, and murder. With religious groups blaming Hollywood for America’s moral decline, a slight downturn in attendance, and scandals erupting almost monthly, the studio chiefs felt it was time to sanitize the business. Leading the charge was MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, a man who never saw a problem he couldn’t bury with money.
Mayer, who had helped found the academy, said something just before his death in 1957 that shed a bit of light on this subject. The awards, he said, were created because he knew people would do his bidding if he would “hang medals all over them.” Film historians have interpreted this in different ways - either he was promising awards to filmmakers if they made the lighthearted movies that he favored, or he used the awards as a negotiating tool when it came to certain issues, such as the prevention of union organizing.
It’s hard to say with complete certainty that Mayer used the awards to influence employees, or that his cryptic quote was anything more than an old man’s bragging about his past. But there is no doubting that the academy’s early days were shaped by his authority.
After all, it was Mayer who asked the MGM art department to design the trophy.
The biggest hit of that first night was a talking film clip of Adolph Zukor thanking the academy for selecting his studio’s film, Wings, as “Outstanding Picture.” Zukor’s speech was shown by a portable sound projector, which would soon be marketed for home use. Talking pictures, also known as “soundies” or “squawkies,” were among the many technical marvels discussed at the time. The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talking film, earned a special award for Warner Brothers, such was its impact on the business. In fact, it had been announced that week that several prominent New York theaters had agreed to be wired for sound, the last holdouts recognizing the arrival of this new talking era. There was even some gossip that a new invention called “television” would allow people to see movies in their own homes, a concept that seemed unbelievable.
The evening’s program included a few speeches. Mary Pickford talked about helping the needy of the industry. Stanford University professor Walter R. Miles spoke about his desire to help advance “film science,” while William C. DeMille droned on about the academy’s recent achievements. Fairbanks tried to keep things moving so guests could enjoy their tasty squab, but then, as now, people at the Academy Awards liked to run their mouths.
As for the actual awards, there were 12 first place distinctions. The trophy, a gold-plated statuette that wasn’t yet named “Oscar,” was an 8 ½ pound Art Deco masterpiece designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by George Maitland Stanley; it was presented by Fairbanks to the winners, while parchment diplomas were given out as “honorable mentions.” The tense moment where an envelope was torn open to reveal the winner’s name wasn’t part of this night. For the first ceremony, the winners had actually been revealed to the public in advance.
Since the event was to celebrate the academy’s two-year anniversary, the awards were for achievements of the two recent years. Therefore, Emil Jannings was selected as Best Actor for a pair of performances: The Way of All Flesh (1927), and The Last Command (1928). Similarly, Janet Gaynor was honored as Best Actress for her work in three films: Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, (both 1927) and Street Angel (1928). There was no statuette for supporting players (there wouldn’t be until 1936), but there were two separate categories for directing, one for drama and one for comedy (won by Frank Borzage and Lewis Milestone, respectively). The latter classification was eliminated by the next year, as were many other categories, the number dropping from 12 to seven.
Aside from the ceremony’s brevity - most reports say it was 15 minutes long, while some recalled Fairbanks passing out the trophies in a lightning five minutes - the biggest difference between 1929 and now was in the event’s scant publicity. Outside of California, most newspapers noted the happening with a brief United Press summary. The news of a snowstorm in Chicago earned more ink than the first Academy Awards ceremony, as did stories about the tumbling price of wheat, and the number of actresses getting sick because of a new starvation diet.
Photos of the evening were also scarce. The LA Times published a nice group shot of several winners, but the only person holding a trophy was Gaynor. This was likely the public’s introduction to the handsome gold figure, displayed proudly by an elfin woman whose hands seemed barely large enough to hold it.
How much clout did Mayer bring into that first ceremony? Consider that Charles Chaplin, the most famous comedy star of the time, had originally been nominated in four categories but received instead an “honorary” award for his recent film, The Circus. Mayer’s dislike of Chaplin was well known. Did he encourage the comic’s name be struck from the individual groupings to prevent a possible Chaplin sweep? Not surprisingly, Chaplin didn’t attend. More than 40 years would pass before Chaplin received another Academy Award, a lifetime achievement trophy in 1972, but he never won and was rarely nominated while Mayer was alive.
Then there was King Vidor’s excellent film, The Crowd. Though it was an MGM production and highly regarded by critics, Mayer campaigned against it, killing its chances. The reason for his concern was a scene that included a toilet.
Mayer’s precise influence on voters can’t be proved, but it is probable that his pull helped MGM rule those first Academy Award years. Between 1930 and 1936, four MGM films won top honors, while MGM stars won more than a dozen Best Actor and Actress awards through 1944. (Even Clark Gable won his 1934 Oscar when he was on loan to Columbia from MGM.) Cedric Gibbons, the MGM art director who had drawn his first sketch of the trophy on a tablecloth, went on to win 11 of them in his career, eight under Mayer’s reign. And with the exception of Musical Scoring, it appeared that any new category added in the coming years (i.e. Sound Recording, Film Editing, Dance Direction, plus various short subject categories) would first be won by an MGM employee. Some say MGM simply had the best roster of talent. Others say Mayer collected on favors.
MGM’s early supremacy at the Academy Awards was matched by the way Mayer’s
wholesome vision took root during the next decade and more. True, the studios still churned out horror movies and crime films, and directors slipped in their naughty stuff during the pre-Code era, but generally the next 15 years was a time of musicals, romantic comedies, Andy Hardy, and perky child stars. Mayer became the highest paid man in the country because he knew what America wanted, starting with a yearly publicity stunt that glowed with glamour and pageantry.
Despite a modest beginning, the Academy Awards quickly became a major cultural event. By 1932, the ceremony received radio coverage and front-page headlines in all prominent newspapers. Of course, the town was still haunted by scandals and lurid deaths, such as Peg Entwistle jumping to her doom from the top of the Hollywood sign. These tragic notes were drowned out, however, by a renewed and towering film business. The movies won out. Mayer’s golden man stood tall among the dead.