Sunday, December 16, 2007

First Academy Awards

On February 24th the Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars will turn 80. I know many of you will think oh G0d, not another Oscars blog! But I as a movie buff could not resist and decided I will focus in each post on something related to the Awards. Let's start at the beginning.

The 1st Academy Awards were presented on May 16, 1929 at a private dinner held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Tickets cost $5 and fewer than 250 people attended. The whole ceremony lasted only 15 minutes. Unlike later events, the winners had been announced months prior to the ceremony. This was also the only Academy Award ceremony not to be broadcast in some way.

The best picture award went to Wings, a 1927 silent movie about World War I fighter pilots produced and released by Paramount Pictures. The film, completed with a then unheard-of budget of $2 million, was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (then called "Best Picture, Production") for the film year 1927/28, and won a second Academy Award for Engineering Effects. The film was written by John Monk Saunders(story), Louis D. Lighton and Hope Loring, and was directed by William A. Wellman, with an original orchestral score by John Stepan Zamecnik (J S Zamecnik), which was uncredited. It is the first known film to feature a male-on-male kiss -- a fraternal one -- between the two main characters played by Rogers and Arlen. Also, it is one of the first widely released films to have shown nudity. Clara Bow's breasts can be seen for a quick second during the Paris bedroom scene (army men open the door and she is caught changing).

The Best Actor Award went to Emil Jennings for two films - The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. He also starred in F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, a film notable in silent cinema for its lack of title cards, and in the 1922 film version of Shakespeare's Othello.Christened Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz in Rorschach, Switzerland, he was born to a German mother and an American father. Jannings was a theater actor whose promising Hollywood career came to an end when talkies made his thick German accent difficult to understand. He returned to Europe, where he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the classic 1930 film, The Blue Angel, filmed in English simultaneously with its German version Der blaue Engel. He soon spotted that the unknown Dietrich was a star in the making, while his own career was past its peak, and he was especially spiteful to her throughout the filming, according to her. During the Third Reich, he starred in several films which were intended to promote Nazism.His involvement with the Nazis ended any chance he may have had for a comeback in the United States.

The Best Actress award went to Janet Gaynor. Her performances in Seventh Heaven (the first of twelve movies she would make with actor Charles Farrell) and both Sunrise and Street Angel (in 1927, also with Charles Farrell) earned her the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928. It was the only time in Oscar history that the award was given for multiple roles: it was given on the basis of the actor's total work over the year, and not just for one particular performance. Gaynor was not only the first, but until 1986 (when Marlee Matlin won her Oscar), she was also the youngest actress to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. Gaynor was one of only a handful of leading ladies who made a successful transition to sound movies over the next decade. And for a number of years, Gaynor was the leading actress of the Fox studios and was treated accordingly with top billing and the choice of prime roles. However, when Darryl F. Zanuck merged his fledgling studio, 20th Century, with Fox, her status became precarious and even tertiary to that of actresses Loretta Young and Shirley Temple. She managed to terminate her contract with the studio and achieved acclaim in films produced by David O. Selznick in the mid-1930s. In 1937, she was again nominated for an Academy Award, this time for her role in A Star Is Born. After appearing in The Young in Heart, she left film industry for nearly twenty years, returning one last time in 1957 as Pat Boone's mother in Bernardine.

The Best Director award was split between the one for Drama and the one for Comedy. The one for Drama went to Frank Borzage. Borzage was a successful director throughout the 1920s but reached his peak in the late silent and early sound era. Absorbing visual influences from the German director F.W. Murnau, who was also resident at Fox at this time, he developed his own style of lushly visual romanticism in a hugely successful series of films starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, including Seventh Heaven (1927), for which he won the first Academy Award for Directing, Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929). (He won a second Oscar for 1931's Bad Girl.) Borzage's trademark was intense identification with the feelings of young lovers in the face of adversity, love in his films triumphing over such trials as World War I.

The one for Comedy went to Lewis Milestone. Howard Hughes promoted Milestone to director, and one of his early efforts, the 1928 film Two Arabian Knights, won him an Oscar in the first Academy Award ceremony. He also directed The Racket, an early gangster film, and later helped Hughes direct scenes for his aviation saga Hell's Angels (for which he never received credit). Milestone won his second Academy Award for All Quiet on the Western Front, a harrowing screen adaptation of the antiwar novel by Erich Maria Remarque. His next, The Front Page, brought the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play to the screen. It earned him another Oscar nomination. His work during the '30's and '40's was always easily identifiable by its lighting and imaginative use of fluid camera. He worked extensively in television from the mid 1950s.

Special awards were given to Charlie Chaplin for The Circus and to Warner Brothers for the Jazz Singer.

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