First Academy Awards Ceremony (1929)

Academy Awards
Janet Gaynor, first actress to win the Oscar

The first ever Academy Awards ceremony was held in March 1929, in a simple yet dignified manner as opposed to the present day razzle, dazzle, glitz, glamour and, more often than not, a controversial spectacle. The most prestigious award in the international movie industry, receiving an Academy Award nomination is in itself an achievement like no other; winning one is something out of this world. No wonder it is a common saying that there is no business like show business.

By the late 1920s, the American motion picture industry was producing over 500 feature-length films each year, making it the fourth largest industry in America. During a dinner at the Santa Monica home of Louis B. Mayer (chief of MGM Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), the idea for an academy for motion pictures was born. The three distinguished guests– director Fred Niblo, producer Fred Beetson, actor Conrad Nagel– and the host agreed in principle to form an organization that could handle the affairs of the industry. In addition, this academy was to help get William H. Hays, former Post Master General under President Warren Harding, hired to head a self-policing body for the movie industry, made in 1922 against some unwarranted criticism by the church, civil society activists and the government.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came into existence May 4, 1927, when the state of California granted it a charter as a nonprofit organization. On May 11, 230 out of a total of 300 guests attending the first organizational banquet at the Crystal Ballroom in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, by giving away checks of 100 dollars each, became the pioneer members of the International Academy of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Later on, the “International” was dropped and the official name became Academy for Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; to this day, membership is by invitation only. In November 1927, the first office of the Academy opened at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with another, at the time, ambitious project to build up a library about everything connected with the movie industry.

On May 16, 1929, the first Academy Awards ceremony was held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The presenter of the ceremony that historic night was Douglas Fairbanks and the host no other than Mayer. Two hundred and thirty pioneers members attended the first Academy Award ceremony. The name of the winners had already been announced three months prior, so there was no suspense. The procedure was simple, the name of the winner was announced , he or she came forward to receive the statuette and took his or her place at the banquet table. The runner-ups were given scrolls of commendations. Cedric Gibbons, a producer of MGM,  designed the iconic statuette, later called Oscar, a seven-pound, gold-plated, 14-inch tall naked man with a sword plunged into a film reel.

The first actor to receive the Academy Award was Emil Jannings, a German actor, for his roles in Way of All Flesh and Last Command. The first actress to receive an Academy Award was Janet Gaynor for 7th Heaven.  The Best Picture Award went to Wings, a story about WWI aerial fights, starring 26-year-old Gary Cooper. The Academy Award for Director for Best Dramatic Picture went to Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven.

The only speaker at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony was Darryl F. Zanuck, the producer of The Jazz Singer, which received a special Oscar. In addition, an honorary award was given to Charles Chaplin. If it had been up to Mayer, who had open differences with Chaplin, he would have received nothing but Chaplin could not be denied an Oscar, because of his phenomenal popularity with American moviegoers.

In total, 15 awards were handed out in the best writer, cinematographer and engineering categories, which made for a memorable and historical night. The first Academy Award ceremony in 1929 ended with Al Jolson singing a song from The Jazz Singer.

By Iftikhar Tariq Khanzada



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