First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first Academy Awards celebration was an anticlimactic if gala affair, as the winners in the twelve categories had been announced three months earlier. Over time, however, the event expanded, the winners were kept secret in advance, and the awards themselves became the most prestigious honors in Hollywood.

Summary of Event

On May 16, 1929, the first Academy Awards presentation was held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, California. From a simple banquet affair, the tribute would grow to gigantic proportions. The annual Academy Awards ceremony, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has become an important international event. Millions of people worldwide watch the televised event each spring. To many, the Academy Award, or Oscar, symbolizes the highest achievement in film and is seen as the film industry’s most important honor. [kw]First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement (May 16, 1929) [kw]Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement, First (May 16, 1929) [kw]Awards Honor Film Achievement, First Academy (May 16, 1929) [kw]Film Achievement, First Academy Awards Honor (May 16, 1929) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences;Academy Awards Academy Awards Motion pictures;Academy Awards [g]United States;May 16, 1929: First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement[07250] [c]Motion pictures;May 16, 1929: First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement[07250] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 16, 1929: First Academy Awards Honor Film Achievement[07250] Fairbanks, Douglas, Sr. Mayer, Louis B. Nagel, Conrad Niblo, Fred Beetson, Fred DeMille, William C. Levee, M. C. Woods, Frank

The presentation of awards for artistic merit was largely an afterthought by the founding members of the Academy. The originally stated goals of the Academy, published in 1927, were mostly idealistic and self-serving. The Academy planned to take aggressive action in meeting outside attacks that were unjust and to promote harmony and solidarity among its membership and among the different branches, reconciling internal differences that might exist or arise. It intended to further the welfare and protect the honor and good repute of the profession of filmmaking and to encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of professional filmmakers, through exchange of constructive ideas and by awards of merit for distinctive achievements. The Academy thus intended to do for the motion-picture professions what other national and international bodies had done for other arts, sciences, and industries.

In order better to understand the background and beginnings of the first Academy Awards ceremony, it is necessary to examine the formation of the Academy itself. Its genesis occurred in early January, 1927. Louis B. Mayer, powerful studio boss of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), invited four of his studio personnel to a Sunday dinner. They were Conrad Nagel, Fred Niblo, Fred Beetson, and William C. deMille. Mayer wanted to form an organization that could speak for the film industry, arbitrate labor disputes, help solve technological problems, and police screen content. The five men planned a dinner to be attended by representatives of the various creative professions involved in film production to discuss membership in the proposed organization. On January 11, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, thirty-six people heard the proposals and enthusiastically supported the idea. The International (this word was later dropped) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was named as president, Fred Niblo as vice president, M. C. Levee as treasurer, and Frank Woods as secretary.

On May 4, 1927, the Academy was granted a charter by the state of California as a nonprofit corporation. One week later, an organizational banquet took place at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, with more than 300 guests in attendance. Speaking to the gathered assembly, Fairbanks convinced 231 of them to join and pay $100 each for membership. In his comments, Fairbanks mentioned that the new organization would bestow certain awards of merit for distinctive achievement. Days later, the Committee for the Awards of Merit was formed.

The following year, in July, 1928, the awards committee developed a voting system. Each member of the Academy would cast one vote in his or her branch. Nominees for awards would be selected from films released in the Los Angeles area between April 1, 1927, and July 31, 1928. The deadline for selection was set as August 15, 1928. A board of judges would tabulate the results, determine the top ten nominees, and narrow the field to three contestants. Lastly, the Central Board of Judges, comprising five individuals representing each of the five divisions of the Academy—producers, actors, directors, writers, and technicians—would select the winners in twelve achievement categories.

The winners of the first awards were selected at an Academy gathering on Friday, February 15, 1929, six months after the submission deadline. The press and the winners quickly were notified. Three months later, the awards were officially presented at a glittering black-tie dinner dance. Chairman of the evening William C. deMille welcomed the assembled guests and introduced Fairbanks, who then explained the voting rules, suggested that acceptance speeches be kept short, and called up the winners to receive their trophies.

The first Academy Awards could be given for a single achievement, multiple achievements, or a body of work. Twenty additional certificates of honorable mention were given to runners-up. The winners that first evening were as follows: most outstanding production, Wings (1927); Wings (film) most unique or artistic production, Sunrise (1927); Sunrise (film) achievement by an actor, Emil Jannings; Jannings, Emil achievement by an actress, Janet Gaynor; Gaynor, Janet achievement in dramatic directing, Frank Borzage; Borzage, Frank achievement in comedy directing, Lewis Milestone; Milestone, Lewis achievement in cinematography, Charles Rosher Rosher, Charles and Karl Struss; Struss, Karl achievement in art directing, William Cameron Menzies; Menzies, William Cameron achievement in engineering effects, Roy Pomeroy; Pomeroy, Roy achievement in original story writing, Ben Hecht; Hecht, Ben achievement in writing adaptation, Benjamin Glazer; Glazer, Benjamin and achievement in title writing, Joseph Farnham. Farnham, Joseph The categories were revised the following year: Awards for most artistic or unique production and achievement in engineering effects were dropped, and the dramatic and comedy directing awards were combined, as were those for achievement in original story writing, writing adaptation, and title writing.

Each winner at the first Academy Awards ceremony received a solid bronze statuette slightly more than a foot high. It had been designed by Cedric Gibbons, Gibbons, Cedric art director at MGM, and sculpted by George Stanley. Stanley, George The same model of statuette was given in subsequent years, but its composition was changed from bronze to plaster and later from plaster to gold-plated britannium. The figure is of a knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film. The statuette got its nickname of Oscar in the 1930’s, possibly following a comment by Academy librarian Margaret Herrick that the figure reminded her of her uncle Oscar.

Special Academy Awards were also presented to Charles Chaplin Chaplin, Charles for his work acting in, writing, producing, and directing The Circus (1928) and to Warner Bros. for producing The Jazz Singer (1927). Only Jannings and Chaplin were not present to accept their statuettes. Speeches by Hollywood celebrities—including Mary Pickford, Louis B. Mayer, and Cecil B. DeMille—followed the awards. Entertainer Al Jolson, star of the just-honored The Jazz Singer, brought the festivities to a close. The first Academy Awards presentation was a quiet success.

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Significance

None of the founding members of the Academy could have foreseen the impact the first Academy Awards would have not only on the Hollywood community but also on the world. The awards, at the beginning, were a secondary consideration. Concern about the myriad changes taking place within the motion picture industry was the main reason for formation of the Academy. Hollywood’s financial success had led to calls by spiritual leaders and government figures to control the film industry unless it could police itself. The founding of the Academy was meant to do that, and the Academy Awards were to be used to promote the organization and deflect public criticism by focusing on and showcasing Hollywood’s past achievements.

Without realizing it, the first Academy members established one of the earliest, and certainly the most coveted, prizes in cinema. The tradition begun in 1929 continued uninterrupted.

During the 1920’s, a series of technological and cultural breakthroughs occurred, particularly in the area of mass communication. The second Academy Awards ceremony thus took on greater importance to the media. There was full newspaper coverage, and Los Angeles radio station KNX broadcast the entire event. The Academy Awards had arrived as a media event and would never again have the intimacy of the first presentation. Over the years, especially after the awards ceremony began to be televised in 1953, the audience grew to more than one billion viewers worldwide.

Over time, the award ceremony and its importance changed. The number of nominees for each regular merit award became standardized to five, and nominations were for single achievements. From its humble origins in 1929, the reputation of the Academy Award rivaled that of awards given in other fields, such as the Emmy, the Tony, and the Grammy. An Oscar is considered to represent a higher level of recognition than are awards bestowed by critics and trade associations. Internationally, the Oscar is considered to be one of the most important film prizes, surpassing prizes offered by other countries. It is accepted as cinema’s most prestigious award. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences;Academy Awards Academy Awards Motion pictures;Academy Awards

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Emmanuel. All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. New York: Continuum, 2003. Excellent study dealing less with winners and losers than with the preeminence of the Academy Award, its meaning, the nomination system, the voting process, and the place occupied by the Oscar in American culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Likeness, George C. The Oscar People: From “Wings” to “My Fair Lady.” Mendota, Ill.: Wayside Press, 1965. Good introductory work. Detailed biographies of performers as well as film summaries give an in-depth look at Oscar winners. Includes chapters on the supporting players and craftsmen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osborne, Robert. Seventy-five Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. New York: Abbeville Press, 2003. An official history of the Oscars, licensed by the Academy to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the awards. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pond, Steve. The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards. New York: Faber & Faber, 2005. Behind-the-scenes look at fifteen years of Oscar history, encompassing the 1990’s and the early twenty-first century, including analysis of the function of the Oscars in American culture and of what they can tell us about American culture as a whole. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shale, Richard. Academy Awards: An Ungar Reference Index. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. An excellent fact book about the Academy and its origins, purpose, and activities. Details the first fifty years of films by various categories and features a short introduction, useful appendixes, select bibliography, and index. The study is well organized.

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