Silence is Golden At The First Oscars

Janet Gaynor, the only woman to win Best Actress for multiple roles, receives her award from Douglas Fairbanks
Janet Gaynor, the only woman to win Best Actress for multiple roles, receives her award from Douglas Fairbanks

by Ray Setterfield

May 16, 1929 — The first movie academy awards were presented on this day in a ceremony far removed from the extravaganzas that have taken place in modern times.

The ceremony took the form of a private dinner party for 250 people in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. There was no radio or television to record the event.

Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, had set up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 to advance and improve the film industry.

Its first president – and host of the 1929 awards – was the silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Best known for his roles in Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad, Fairbanks never received an academy award himself.

Only silent movies were considered for an award in 1929, which ruled out "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson, one of the first “talkies”. The academy considered it was unfair for movies without sound to compete against those that benefited from the new technological revolution.

Thus, the silent film "Wings" won the Best Picture award – called “outstanding picture” in 1929. Directed by William Wellman and starring movie sensation of the time, Clara Bow, it is the story of two American airmen who are both in love with the same woman. It would not be until 2011 that another silent movie, "The Artist", would win the Best Picture award.

By the time of the first awards ceremony another winner, Janet Gaynor, had appeared in three films – "7th Heaven", "Street Angel" and "Sunrise". She is the only person ever to win Best Actress for multiple roles.

Gaynor went on to make a colour version of "A Star Is Born" in 1937, to be covered by Judy Garland in 1954, then Barbra Streisand in 1976 and finally by Lady Gaga in 2018.

The nickname Oscar for the awards began to be used in 1939. Nobody is certain how the name came about but a popular story has it that Margaret Herrick, an executive director of the academy, mentioned that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. And the name stuck.

The figure of a knight standing on a reel of film gripping a crusader's sword had been designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, according to the academy’s website. Los Angeles sculptor George Stanley was then asked to bring the design to life in a three-dimensional statue, “and the Academy Award of Merit was born.” The 13.5 inch (34.3cm) award is made of bronze, plated in 24-carat gold, and weighs 8.5 pounds (3.8kg).

One star who found the award elusive is Charlie Chaplin. At that first awards ceremony he was originally nominated for Best Actor, Best Writer, and Best Comedy Director for his film The Circus.

However, apparently because of his unpopularity in Hollywood, Chaplin was removed from those three categories and received a “special award” for his work instead. He would have to wait until 1971 before receiving another honorary award.

Instead, it was Emil Jannings who won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in the films "The Last Command" and "The Way of All Flesh". The only German to have won best actor.

In contrast with its muted 1929 15-minute awards ceremony and 250 guests, today’s Oscars extravaganza is very different. There are 24 award categories presented before an audience of about 3,400 and the show lasts for about three and a half hours. It is televised across the world.

Published: May 2, 2020

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