Monday, May 16, 2016

A Look Back at the First Academy Awards Ceremony

Left to right: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford
On May 16, 1929, the much beloved Academy Awards held their first ceremony. With the award show now drawing millions worldwide, it's funny to note how low key and small the event was during its first year. Unlike the 86 ceremonies to follow, the first year lacked any of the thrills that the award would develop as time went on. In fact, everyone who showed up to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California already knew the winners. It had been announced three months prior, and this event - with tickets at $5 a head - was merely an excuse to hand out the trophies, which were yet to be called Oscars. With adoring fans waiting outside to motivate the stars, the ceremony took 15 minutes to complete, and it's only become more interesting since.

The Academy Awards was created by Louis B. Mayer, who would shortly join MGM around this time. His motivation was simple. He once claimed that "I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them." The approach is flawless, as it still services as a merit of quality within the industry. With President Douglas Fairbanks Jr. leading the original group, the awards were voted upon by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) group that featured himself, Mayer, Sid Grauman, Mary Pickford and Joseph Schenck. From there, what would become the most esteemed award in film history was established.

Photo from the first Academy Awards banquet
Among the rarities of later standards, the first Academy Awards were lacking the eventfulness and flair that they would develop. For starters, this was the only year that wasn't broadcast in any significant way. Even the following year was announced over radio. This was also the only year that the "Best Picture" category (then known as Outstanding Picture) featured exclusively silent films. This isn't to say that there weren't talkies. The Jazz Singer and home studio Warner Bros. became one of the first to receive an Honorary Oscar for the new technique. This was largely done because it was considered unfair for the limited amount of talkies to compete. The other Honorary Oscar recipient was Charles Chaplin for The Circus, which meant to honor his acting, writing, directing and producing.

With the winners announced three months in advance, there was almost no pressure when everyone showed up to the ceremony. Actresses tended to wear more casual attire. Best Actress winner Janet Gaynor wore an outfit that she picked up at a thrift store. The event was catered with 36 banquet tables holding 270 attendees. Unlike later years, the winners weren't often presented with a trophy, designed by Cedric Gibbons, for one specific film. The entire ceremony's first winner was Emil Jannings, who won Best Actor for his work in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. The ceremony also featured the one time presentation of Unique and Artistic Picture, which was considered an alteration of the Outstanding Picture award, which was given to Sunrise: A Song of Two humans

The winners for the first year in 12 categories were as followed:
Outstanding Picture: Wings
Unique and Artistic Picture: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Best Director (Comedy Picture): Lewis Milestone - Two Arabian Knights
Best Director (Dramatic Picture): Frank Borzage - 7th Heaven
Best Actor: Emil Jannings: The Last Command, The Way of All Flesh
Best Actress: Janet Gaynor: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Best Writing (Original Story): Underworld
Best Writing (Adapted Story): 7th Heaven
Best Cinematography: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Best Art Direction: The Dove, Tempest (Both by Cameron Menzies)
Best Engineering Effects: Wings
Best Writing (Title Writing) - Joseph Farnham

A lot has changed in the decades since the award was first handed out. For starters, the ceremony's shockingly short 15 minute running time is laughable when compared to recent ceremonies that often go for over three hours. Still, there were controversies since the beginning, with some complaining that Buster Keaton's The General was snubbed. While this presentation may seem like a trial run compared to what would later come, it set things in motion and set the precedent for what the award would mean for all artists since. 

None of the winners may not be as impressive or memorable as they were at the time, but it reflected a certain craft that oddly worked in Mayer's favor. The award did inspire performers to try harder. It is why every October marks the start of serious prestige pictures conversations. Even if the award was created under arguably cynical means, it was truthful in the long run. Just remember that much like every new awards show since, The Academy Awards had humble beginnings with a quaint production that seems oddly too simple for today's version of "Hollywood's Big Night." Still, it remains impressive that the award has lasted just as long, and continues to mean a lot to people in and outside of the community.

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