The 90th Oscars ceremony is quickly approaching us. Now such a major part of the film industry that it is almost hard to believe that 90 years have past since the first ceremony. And so much has changed.
The very first Oscars took place on 16th May 1929, with less than three hundred guests turning up. The presentation ceremony only lasted a mere 15 minutes. And there were only 12 categories. There are now 24 categories, but the ceremony is way over a 15 minute runtime. It remains the only year that the show wasn’t broadcast in any way. A year later it was broadcast over the radio. Fast forward 90 years and there are now 37 million viewers tuning into watch the glitz and the glam in the US alone.
The reason behind the Academy Awards and the inception of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was an attempt to bring some credibility and respect to the industry after years of scandals (Fatty Arbuckle trail and William Desmond Taylor murder being two of the most shocking). With the Hays code approaching and the studio system beginning in reign in Hollywood, it seemed only fitting that the industry come together to celebrate it’s talented individuals and reward those who behaved. The Academy was set up to “raise the cultural, educational and scientific standards of film” although one has to wonder whether we really have made any improvements since it’s beginnings in February 1929.
The biggest upset of the night, was the Academy’s snub of The Jazz Singer (1927), which was not nominated for Best Picture, because the Academy felt it was unfair to pitch it up against other silent films. In fact it was Wings (1927) that won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise (1927) won Best Unique and Artistic Picture. Often considered the joint winners of the first ever Best Picture award. Wings had an unheard of budget of $2million, making it the most expensive movie of its time. Wings also won the most obscure award, for best engineering effects. There were grumbles about The General being ignored and many considered it a far superior film over Wings and Sunrise.
Best director went to Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven (1927), which was actually remade 10 years later and starred James Stewart. Although like with many remakes it failed to engage with audiences. Borzage went on to have a successful enough career well into the talkies revolution, although after 1948 ill health meant he could no longer regularly direct films.
Seventh Heaven‘s main actress, Janet Gaynor won best actress, but she shared the award with herself for two other film roles which were Street Angel (1928) and Sunrise. Eat your heart out Meryl Streep! Gaynor’s career continued into the age of sound, and she received her second Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her role in A Star is Born (1937).
Emil Jannings won Best Actor for his performance in both The Last Command (1928) and The Way of All Flesh (1927). Sadly The Way of All Flesh is now a lost film, with only two fragments of the film remaining, and there is no complete preserved copy of the film. We can only imagine just how great Jannings performance was in the film, and it seems such a shame for it to be lost. To this date, Jannings is the only German to every win the best actor award, and sadly he went onto star in a number of Nazi propaganda films which led to the end of his career after the end of World War Two.
There were two honorary awards presented that night. One went to Warner Brothers for “For producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry” this made up for it being rejected from the Best Picture category. The second went to Charlie Chaplin, “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus“. Although there is another story to tell about what happened to Mr Chaplin’s Oscar. In 2015 it was stolen from the Paris offices of the Association Chaplin and is now thought to have been sold for a whopping £1million on the black market! Keep an eye out at your local Car Boot sale for that Oscar!
So, from humble beginnings we have now grown into the biggest event of the year, with 24 categories and a global audience. We can only wonder what the stars of the 1920s would have thought of the ceremony now.