The first Academy Awards ceremony was held in Hollywood on May 16, 1929. Only 270 guest were invited and no there was no television broadcast, the only time in Academy Awards history that the ceremony wasn’t broadcast in some way; even a year later it was covered live on radio.
The name “Oscar” wasn’t used until 1934, when gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky used it in his Hollywood column to describe Katharine Hepburn‘s first Best Actress win. The name caught on and the Academy made the name official in 1939. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not attribute the nickname to a specific person, it does cite Skolsky’s use of the term in a 1934 column tagging the name “Oscar”. The Academy still does not admit that this was the first instance of the Award being called “Oscar” in print, which it was. Skolksy claimed that his use of the term referenced an old vaudeville joke that began, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The point of the joke was that the Academy Award was little better than a tchotchke.
MGM art director Cedric Gibbons sketched the first figure of a knight holding a sword and standing on a reel of film with spokes representing the five branches of the Academy: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. The sword represented the protection for the welfare and advancement of the industry. Later in 1928, sculptor George Stanley redesigned the statue with an improved knight figure but removed the reel of film.
The winners that night:
Best Picture: Wings
Best Actor: Emil Jannings for The Last Command and The Way Of All Flesh
Best Actress: Janet Gaynor for Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise
Best Director: Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven and Best Comedy Director: Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Nights (this was the first and only time the Academy split the Best Director award).
The nominees dined on broiled chicken on toast with green beans as they sat waiting for the first ceremony to begin. No one was nervous; the 12 winners, and the 20 films that were given an honorary commendation, had already been announced in the Los Angeles Times in February.
The event was held in the Blossom Ballroom at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a venue that had been built two years earlier and which, perhaps not coincidentally, counted Academy President Douglas Fairbanks as one of its investors.
The ceremony lasted only 15 minutes and honored films released between August 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928. Fairbanks and Academy vice president William C. deMille (brother of Cecil B.) handed out the 24 carat gold-plated trophies (they are bronze-plated now).
It may have been the first Academy Awards, but it was the last to include silent films exclusively. Fairbanks had a bleak film future ahead as his career rapidly declined with the advent of the “talkies”. The talking picture was new, starting with the Jazz Singer (1927) with its famous line: “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”. It reinvigorated the industry, which had been in decline. Gore Vidal, in his book Screening History (1992), wrote:
“Actually, the movies were not as popular in the 1920s as they had been before the First World War.”
The Jazz Singer was disqualified from competing for Best Picture because the Academy decided it was an unfair advantage to have films with sound compete with silent films. DeMille told the audience:
“There is only one award in this whole list that has anything to do with talking pictures. It seems strange when you stop and look over the field and see how many talking pictures are being distributed today.”
That first Best Picture winner, Wings, is a story about pilots in World War I. It was directed by William Wellman, and at two million dollars, it was the most expensive film in movie history.
Wings also won an award for something called best engineering effects. Now named “Best Visual Effects”, the term wasn’t used until 1938 when a film was actually recognized for its effects work, when a “Special Achievement Award for Special Effects” was given to the Paramount Picture’s Spawn Of The North. The following year, Best Special Effects became a recognized category. From 1939 to 1963, it was an award for a film’s visual effects as well as audio effects, so usually it was given to two people. In 1964, it was given only for visual effects (to Emil Kosa, Jr. for Cleopatra). The following year the Academy changed the name to “Best Special Visual Effects” and gave it to Peter Ellenshaw, Eustace Lycett, and Hamilton Luske for Mary Poppins.
Much of the chatter that first year was about how Buster Keaton‘s The General which had been snubbed. It is now considered a classic.
There was no red carpet. The ceremony wasn’t the fashion event it has become. Gaynor, who was 22 years old at the time, wore a small off-the rack dress with a Peter Pan collar.
German actor Jannings won the Best Actor, but the Academy might need to cancel him and take away his statue because he went on to be named Germany’s “Artist of the State” in 1941, conferred on Jannings by Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Both awards are now on display at the Berlin Film Museum.
Another 1929 Academy Award statue that was to go on display was the honorary one that was presented to Charlie Chaplin. It was to be shown in a Chaplin exhibit in Switzerland in 2015, but it was stolen from the Paris offices of the Association Chaplin, which controls the rights to all things Chaplin. It’s reportedly worth one million dollars on the black market.
Originally a nominee for Best Actor, Best Writer and Best Director for The Circus (1927), Chaplin was removed from those categories so he could receive the special award, a change that the press attributed to his growing unpopularity in Hollywood. The special award read “for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing”. After living in exile, 43 years later, the Academy honored Chaplin with another Oscar.
After the 1929 awards were presented, the real party began downtown at the glamorous new Mayfair Hotel, where the movie folks danced with Gatsby-era abandon, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his flashy new fiancée, chorus girl-turned-“It” girl, Joan Crawford.
The red carpet fashion commentators, swag bags and selfies had to wait until the 21st century.
Gaynor is quoted in the late Robert Osborne‘s 2013 book 85 Years of the Oscar:
“Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I would have been overwhelmed. But I still remember that night as very special, a warm evening, and a room filled with important people and nice friends.”
In 1942, the Academy began broadcasting the results of its secret ballot voting system, using the sealed envelopes that build so much suspense today. The ceremony wasn’t televised until 1953, with host Bob Hope.