Motion pictures – tainted by scandals, demands for censorship, union unrest, and in the midst of a transition to “talkies” – faced a turning point in 1927. It was during that year that producer Louis B. Mayer, director Fred Niblo, and actor Conrad Nagel suggested that an organization be formed to oversee the film industry. Responding to their idea, a group of thirty-two industry elites, including Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Jack L. Warner, Beth Meredyth, and Cecil B. DeMille, met and formed The International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (International soon being dropped from the title).
Academy Award and Oscar History Begins
As part of their mission, the newly formed Academy, with Fairbanks as its head, sought to publicize and reward the most artistic examples of filmmaking, thus instituting what became known as the Academy Awards. Art director Cedric Gibbons and sculptor George Stanley were commissioned to create a statuette to be presented to various individual winners. Their creation was basically the same familiar figure known today: the gold-plated figure of a man holding a sword standing on a reel of film. The reel has five spokes representing the five branches of the movie industry – producers, actors, directors, writers, and technicians. Not unofficially or officially known as the Oscar until several years later, the 13”, 8 ½ lb. statuettes were called the Award of Merit.
The First “Oscar” Ceremony
The first Academy Award ceremony was held May 16, 1929, and was much different than the star-studded, dazzling event of today. Held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the program consisted of an hour of dancing, a dinner, and then the awards ceremony. The 250 or so attendees paid $5 each for the night’s entertainment. The ballroom was decorated plainly with Chinese lanterns and candles and candy replicas of the Award of Merit on each table.
Unlike the present day ceremony, there was little pre- or post publicity for the affair. There was only brief mention of it in the newspapers, before and after, and it would be another year before the awards were first broadcast, and then only by a local Los Angeles radio station.
The rules and standards for determining winners were also different. Unlike today, nominees were not chosen from films of the previous calendar year. Instead they were chosen from the period of August 1, 1927, to July 31, 1928. The award for acting was based on “total work” rather than an individual movie and there were actually two best pictures and two best directors based on different categories. There was no suspenseful “and the envelope, please” moment, all the winners having been announced some three months earlier. There were only twelve categories represented, two special awards and no acceptance speeches. In fact, the entire award ceremony, emceed by Fairbanks and assisted by DeMille, lasted only fifteen minutes.
The first Academy Award ceremony, marked by honest simplicity, would slowly grow over the next decade or two before becoming the national and international phenomenon of today.
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