On February 27 (written in 2005), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host the 77th annual Academy Awards®.
As much hype as was generated by the Golden Globes a few weeks back – it’s generally considered the show that hints at the imminent Oscar winners – nothing can compare to the glitz and media fervor that surrounds Oscar night. Granted, these days more media coverage is given to the best and worst dressed than to the actual film selections, but there is no denying the excitement film buffs feel as the nominees are announced, and we can begin choosing films to root for, or lamenting the ones left behind.
Back in 1929, things were a little different.
For one thing, the distinction we can make today between the “Hollywood film” and the “indie film” – let alone between the American film and the “foreign art film” – simply did not exist back then. The Oscars first came about to celebrate the new and phenomenal success of the movie industry, and the industry was a different beast; the star system was just taking off, and the lack of sound meant that the movies were a near universal language of gesture, action and emotion.
Not only was the industry different, but changing drastically. It’s fascinating to think that the very first year of the Academy Awards, the movies had just gone sound, and every single nominee was a silent film – except one (see below).
Today, much is made of the fact that the nominees have no idea who the winners are going to be until announced live at the show. Millions the world over watch as stars and producers gasp and cry and exclaim about how shocked they are to win among such honored and distinguished colleagues.
In 1929, somewhere between 250 and 270 people attended a banquet at the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (the only year the awards ceremony was held there) – members got in for free and invited guests paid $5 for the privilege of being present at a ceremony that celebrated films made in 1927 and 1928. Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. De Mille hosted – talk about honored and distinguished colleagues.
The winners were already known in advance – in fact, the press received the information prior to the ceremony so they could get their publications ready for the following morning. That first year, the media weren’t even in attendance for the whole affair, though wild horses couldn’t keep them away every subsequent year. And of course, the 1929 awards weren’t telecast, television being but a distant pipe-dream being stewed up in visionary science labs of the day. It wasn’t until 1953 that the awards were telecast (by NBC), and 1966 that this happened in color.
But enough back story. Let’s get to the show, and announce the winners!
1929 was the only year in which two separate Best Picture Awards were given:
Best Picture, Production
Wings, directed by William A. Wellman; starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobvna Ralston, El Brendel, Richard Tucker, and Gary Cooper.
Made in 1927, the film tells the tale of two men who fall in love with the same woman. Set during the First World War, both men become members of the Air Corps, though their close friendship is threatened by their feelings for Clara Bow, who was apparently a diva on the set, and almost refused to wear her unflattering military costume. This film has the distinction of being the only silent film to win a Best Picture Oscar.
Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Picture
This film is now considered a masterpiece and one of the true classics of silent cinema. An urbanite woman heads to the country and woos a farmer, but he’s married. Not your typical sugar-and-spice protagonist, she implores the man to kill his wife, and the rest of the film leaves us in suspense as to whether he’ll actually go through with it. Sunrise continues to astonish lucky contemporary audiences with its long tracking shots, incredibly life-like studio sets, and striking high contrast lighting. The world lost a true maverick director when Murnau died in a car crash at the age of 42 in 1931.
The Swiss-born Emil Jannings takes this one for two films: 1928’s The Last Command, and 1927’s The Way of All Flesh.
In the former he plays – with gusto – an aristocrat Czarist who falls from grace when Imperial Russia collapses. Directed by the magisterial Joseph Von Sternberg, the film was based on a real life general who had to flee Russia after the 1917 Communist revolution. The latter film, directed by The Wizard of Oz’s Victor Fleming, is unfortunately lost to history.
Emil Jannings made over 70 films during his illustrious career, including The Blue Angel (1930) and It Only Happened Once (1958). He stopped making films in Hollywood with the advent of sound because of his very thick accent, and returned to Germany, where he became a Nazi supporter and made films that supported that ideology.
It seems fitting that in an era that saw actors and actresses making several films a year, that Janet Gaynor would win this one for no less than three performances: 1927’s Seventh Heaven, 1928’s Street Angel, and 1927’s Sunrise.
This lucky lady got to work with Frank Borzage (the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Desire, Mannequin) on the first two of these, and with the esteemed Murnau all in the same year. Janet’s talents did not go unnoticed – her career continued to thrive during the sound era, and she churned out magnificent performance after magnificent performance, including one as the very first Esther Victoria Blodgett, aka Vicki Lester, in 1937’s A Star is Born, a role that was reprised over the years by the likes of Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand.
Best Director, Comedy Picture
Lewis Milestone, for 1927’s Two Arabian Nights
Best Director, Dramatic Picture
Best Writing, Original Story
Ben Hecht, Underworld (1927)
Best Writing, Adaptation
Benjamin Glazer, Seventh Heaven (1927)
Best Writing, Title Writing
(This was the silent era, after all!)
Joseph Farnham, George Marion, Jr.
Charles Rosher, Karl Struss, Sunrise
Best Art Direction
William Cameron Menzies, The Dove (1927) and Tempest (1928)
*I’d like to note as an aside that Menzies was one of the true innovators and gurus of art direction in Hollywood days of yore. Among his distinguished credits are The Thief of Baghdad (1924), The Iron Mask (1929), The Taming of the Shrew (1929), and Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930). A true renaissance man around town, he also acted as Assistant Director on Gone with the Wind and produced Around the World in Eighty Days.
Best Effects, Engineering Effects
Roy Pomeroy, Wings
Two honorary awards were given in 1929 – the early years of the Oscars often involved special or honorary awards, as the categories weren’t fully established yet and the Academy wanted to make sure to honor those films and individuals that didn’t quite fit the standard mold.
For example, Gone with the Wind was given a special Oscar for Color Cinematography; there weren’t that many color films make yet by 1939, and for a number of years thereafter two cinematography awards were given: for color, and black-and-white.
1) Charlie Chaplin was given an award for his 1928 The Circus, for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing. He has been nominated in the general Best Actor category, but the Academy opted to remove him from the regular portion of the Awards.
2) Warner Brothers was given an Honorary Award for producing 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first film to use synchronized sound for a portion of a feature length film – Warner Brothers was indeed responsible for putting all of their assets, and their reputation, at risk to herald the coming of the Sound Age. Hollywood never turned back.
There you have it – the first Academy Awards!
I hope this has helped provide a bit of background and inspired you to do more research into the great stars of the silent age, who inaugurated the Oscars but only had one year to bask in their glory. From there on in, it was all about the talkies … one can only wonder what will be winning awards 77 years from now. Happy viewing on February 27!
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She was a regular contributor to what was formerly The Movie Profiles & Premiums monthly newsletter between 2002-2009.