By 1927, the film industry was virtually unrecognizable from where it had been a decade earlier. After the massive success of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, people began to take the movie industry seriously. Films were no longer about mild amusement or cheap, five-second pornography, but about stories and character drama. This is not to say that there were not feature-length works of merit before D.W Griffith’s magnum opus, but none of those had the mass market appeal or the marketing behind them to, as former president Woodrow Wilson allegedly put it, “…[write] history with lightning.” While there rightfully objections to the content Griffith’s film, the techniques he helped pioneer helped the production value and storytelling abilities of all future films. The stories films could tell were getting more and more complex, and so too was film development. Naturally, people wanted to be recognized for their talents and their contributions, as actors and crew often had to work under harsh conditions with no recompense, as they were not unionized. One Hollywood executive saw a drama on the horizon, and tried to preemptively end the conflict that would initiate it.
The Academy Awards, like most important institutions, had humble beginnings. It all started with one man’s vision. That man was Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM. Mayer, a staunch conservative with a laissez-faire sense of economics feared that one day his talent (actors, directors, screenwriters, etc.) would one day get it in their heads to unionize due to the harsh working condition previously mentioned. He was especially worried that screenwriters, full of what he thought of as radical ideas, would lead them. In a sense, the creation of the Academy was one step in a war that continues in Hollywood to this day:a struggle between visual artistry and profit.
There was also the issue of several scandals that had occurred in Hollywood’s recent past. The 1926 divorce of Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey had rocked Hollywood to its core, and Fatty Arbuckle’s alleged rape of Virginia Rappe six years earlier and the multiple trials that followed was arguably the worst celebrity scandal of the decade. While the public loved movies and continued to come out for their favorite stars, they nonetheless did not care for the blatant immorality that Hollywood seemed to perpetuate.
Thus, the purpose of the Academy, initially, was three-fold: to recognize the actors and writers and directors of Hollywood in some way in an effort to make a union superfluous, to settle any disputes between studio and labor before things got too out of hand and to improve the image of Hollywood as a whole. So Mayer got together some of the other big wigs in Hollywood at the time, such as actor Conrad Nagel, director Fred Niblo and Fred Beetsonto, head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, to talk the idea over. After that meeting, Mayer met with thirty-six leaders of the film industry at the time in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for a banquet. That night, on January 11, 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded. All thirty-six people in attendance became founding members.
The first organizational meeting of the Academy happened on May 11, 1927. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was elected first president of the Academy. At first, the Academy primarily tried to help negotiate labor disputes between the studios and talent. Over time however, they slowly moved away from that. The Academy formed several committees, one of which came up with the idea of a kind of award.
Eventually, the Academy decided on twelve different categories for awards: Outstanding Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, Best Director – Comedy Picture, Best Director – Dramatic Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing – Original Story, Best Writing – Adapted Story, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Engineering Effects, and Best Writing – Title Writing. On May 16, 1929, The First Academy Awards was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Fifteen people were awarded those first Academy Awards. The ceremony lasted fifteen minutes and tickets were five dollars.
How the award came to be known as “Oscar” is interesting. There are many versions of the origin of the name, but the most prominent is about a woman’s uncle. According to legend, the Academy librarian and later executive director Margaret Herrick saw the award and said, “It looks like my Uncle Oscar.” In 1934, Sidney Skolsky used the name in his article to describe Katherine Hepburn’s Best Actress Award. The name was officially adapted by the Academy in 1939.
The First Academy Awards is special as it was one of the few awards that covered two years. The Academy Awards of 1929 covered the years of 1927 and 1928. The first film to win an award for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding picture) was the 1927 silent film Wings, a World War I movie about two pilots who fall in love with the same woman. Next week, we will discuss and review this hallmark film and see whether or not it was worthy of the first Oscar.