Monday, May 16, 2011

Today in History: The First Academy Awards Debut

And the Oscar goes to . . . The Academy Awards, which is universally nicknamed the Oscars, began its tradition of showcasing the best of the best in the film industry in 1928. On the night of May 16, 1929, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks (president of the Academy) in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, roughly 270 guests sat down to dine at a lush banquet with fellow film industry moguls. Dancing and conversation ensued, but soon the orchestra was silenced as MGM Chief Louis B. Mayer decided it was time to get down to business. The Academy Awards did not start out with the glitz and glamour to which we have grown accustomed. The brainchild of Mayer, the banquet, the awards ceremony, and the Academy were meant to be more bottom line than a glamorous event. Mayer had hoped to unite the power players of the film industry by pushing out the labor unions. When that idea failed, it was decided that the Academy would serve as its own censor, as it was the fourth-largest industry in America. As movies became more risque´, the industry realized it needed a touch of class and a better relationship with the public. A night of glamour with a golden statue given to the best was just what the industry needed.

The awards were first printed on a paper scroll and then cast in gold. The statuette universally known as Oscar was designed by MGM’s art director Cedric Gibbons and created by sculptor George Stanley. At first the award was sketched as a knight holding a double-edged sword standing on a reel of film with five holes in the base. These five roles represented the industry’s original branches: producers, writers, directors, actors, and technicians. The statuette and the base have since been streamlined, but as cast the statue remains 92.5 percent tin and 7.5 percent copper with a gold-plated exterior. The Oscar statuette is thirteen-and-a-half inches tall and weighs about eight-and-a-half pounds. Although it is unclear how Oscar got his name, the award has come to be called the Nobel Prize of motion pictures.

The awards themselves were originally presented in 12 categories, but have continually grown to encompass the new and innovative ideas and inventions of the film industry. At the first ceremony there was little suspense because the award winners knew they had won three months before the banquet convened. During the second year, however, all of that changed when the results were kept a secret, adding to the allure and mystery surrounding the ceremony.

In subsequent years, the winner’s list was handed out to the media so it could be in print the next morning, until a newspaper published the names of the winners in the evening post before the awards ceremony was actually broadcast. This led the Academy to adopt the sealed-envelope system in 1941; the system is still used today.

By the time the second awards dinner was held in 1930, enthusiasm for the star-studded event was so great that a Los Angeles radio station produced an hourlong live broadcast of the evening. The ceremony has been broadcast ever since, via radio between 1930 and 1952, and then via television from 1953 forward. Broadcast in color since 1966 and internationally since 1969, the Academy Awards ceremony is now beamed to over 200 countries, dazzling hundreds of millions of movie fan across the globe. For many film enthusiasts, the Academy Awards ceremony is the highlight of their cinematic year. Although the broadcast itself often drags, the opportunity to view the parade of stars moving across the red carpet in their designer outfits and “crown jewels” and to exult and bemoan the Academy’s choices for the best of the best has made the Awards into a cultural phenomenon.


The above excerpt is a sneak peek from the forthcoming
Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia
Philip C. DiMare, Editor
Available June 2011

This provocative three-volume encyclopedia is a valuable resource for readers seeking an understanding of how movies have both reflected and helped engender America's political, economic, and social history.


Additional Resources

Pop Culture Universe: Icons Idols Ideas (PCU) is an irresistible and authoritative digital database on popular culture in America and the world, both past and present—in a package as dynamic as the topic it covers.

Mark Browning

This is the first full-length study devoted to the films of Wes Anderson, one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today.


Cooking with the Movies: Meals on Reels
Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr.

Cooking with the Movies enables readers to recreate the fabulous meals depicted in 14 all-time favorite "food" films.

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