That’s a Wrap: The First Academy Awards, 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds its 89th Academy Awards event in downtown Los Angeles.  All of the promotion, advertising, screening, voting, event planning, media attention, and the execution of the awards program are a world away from the rather simple inaugural event held back in 1929.

A promotional real photo postcard sold in Germany of film star Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress Oscar in 1929 for three films made between August 1927 and August 1928.  The images are of items from the Homestead’s collection.

On 16 May at the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the Academy hosted in first awards ceremony.  There were all of 270 persons in attendance and the master of ceremonies was Academy president and film icon Douglas Fairbanks.

The brainchild of studio titan Louis B. Mayer, the Academy was proposed by him during a dinner at home with some guests, in which the idea of an organization to benefit (and promote) the film industry was floated.  A few weeks later, at a dinner for some three dozen film industry leaders held at the Ambassador Hotel, the Academy was launched.  After its incorporation and the selection of Fairbanks as president, the idea of an awards ceremony was realized.

The interior of a Carthay Circle Theater (Los Angeles) program for Street Angel, one of Gaynor’s qualifying films for her Oscar, and which co-starred Charles Farrell.  The inscription at the upper right notes that the original owner of the program took her French teacher to dinner and the movie as a thanks for the instruction.  Another teacher could have informed the theater that the word is “premiere,” rather than “premier”!

At that inaugural event, it was decided to honor films, actors, directors and others during the defined period of August 1927 to August 1928.  Notably, winners were notified far in advance, a practice that was changed for the second ceremony when the media was given an opportunity just before the event to announce winners.  In 1940, however, it was decided to go to the current sealed-envelope system.  Also, the 1930 ceremony was broadcast by radio and continued to be until the first televised event took place in 1953.  Last year, some 34 million viewers watched the ceremony and it is expected that number will climb with today’s program.

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The integration of popular music and film was in full swing (!) by the late 1920s, as this piece of sheet music shows with its tie-in to Street Angel and showing its stars in a passionate embrace.

As for the winners in that inaugural ceremony, the award for best actor was Emil Jannings for the films The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh (because of the 1-year defined period, more than one movie could be considered), while Janet Gaynor took the Oscar for three films, including 7th HeavenSunrise, and Street Angel.  There weren’t supporting actor awards until 1937.

Gaynor’s life (well, so far) was covered in an article in the December 1928 issue of Photoplay magazine, one of many periodicals that catered to the movie buff.

The awards for best director were for comedy and drama features, with the former going to Lewis Milestone for his work in Two Arabian Nights and the latter for 7th Heaven to Frank Borzage.

Two awards were given to honor films, including the “Outstanding Picture” nod to Wings, a World War I epic that will be discussed in this blog later this year, while the “Unique and Artistic Picture” award went to Sunrise.

Another big winner in the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony was the World War I epic, Wings, which took the “Outstanding Picture” Oscar.  One of its stars was Charles “Buddy” Rogers, shown in this promotional photograph.

There were also a pair of awards for writing, one for an adapted work, this going to Benjamin Glazer for 7th Heaven, and the other for original writing, with Ben Hecht taking home the Oscar for Underworld.  With silent films nearly on their way out, there was an award also for title writing, handed out to Joseph Farnham.

Meanwhile, there were two special awards.  As the first talking picture and one that, therefore, had a profound effect on the film industry, The Jazz Singer, which starred the very popular vocalist Al Jolson, received one of the statues.  The other went to Charles Chaplin and his work in producing, writing, acting and directing in The Circus.  It appears that this was something of a “consolation prize” for the comic auteur, who was nominated for all four major categories (original writing, directing, best actor, and outstanding picture) and lost all of them.

Recipient of a special Oscar for producing, writing, directing and acting, Charles Chaplin won his award for his work in The Circus.  This is the interior of a Grauman’s Chinese Theatre program for the film.  Note at the bottom right the advertisement for Gay’s Lion Farm, a tourist attraction in El Monte, not far from the Homestead, but which also supplied animals for the film industry.

The museum’s collection features a variety of artifacts relating to films honored at the first Academy Awards ceremony some 90 years ago, including sheet music, theater programs, and promotional photos of film stars, some of which are featured here.

For more on the history of the ceremony and the 1929 event, click here and here for links to the web site of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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