The modern movie was born in 1915 with the release of D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Birth of a Nation,” and the first Hollywood movie awards followed little more than a decade later.
Eager to head off the potential threat of disruption cause by increasing unionization within the industry, Louis B. Mayer of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in May 1927. The organization aimed to promote harmony and solidarity among the five major divisions of the film production process: directors, producers, actors, writers, and technicians.
Two years later, in an effort to further promote unity, the Academy announced the launch of a series of awards for cinematic excellence. The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place on the evening of May 16, 1929, and was attended by around 270 guests.
Every film played at any theater in Los Angeles between Aug. 1, 1927 and Aug. 1, 1928 was eligible for nomination with one exception. The first ever feature-length motion picture to include synchronized dialogue, “The Jazz Singer,” was disqualified from the Outstanding Picture category on the grounds that its pioneering use of sound gave it an unfair advantage against all of the silent movies that were in contention.
Although “The Jazz Singer” still received nominations for the categories of best Adapted Screenplay and Engineering Effects, it won neither. In consolation, a special honorary award for the film was presented to Darryl Zanuck, head of production at Warner Brothers, for having “revolutionized the industry.”
Although they were hugely successful at the time, these first-ever award winning movies are now little remembered and studied only by students of film history. The awards for Best Production and Engineering Effects were both won by “Wings,” a silent film about fighter pilots in World War I, while the romantic drama “Seventh Heaven” won in three categories, including Best Director.
This first event was chiefly focused on the actual presentations, as the names of the winners had all been announced roughly three months earlier. It also featured the sole appearance of a separate award for the best director of a comedy film, won by Lewis Milestone for “Two Arabian Knights.”
The iconic statuette was designed by founder Academy member and MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and has changed little since it first made its debut at the first ceremony. No one quite knows how the statuette earned the “Oscar” nickname, but it is most often attributed to actress Bette Davis who is said to have named the figure after her husband.
The gold-plated statuettes stands 34 cm tall, weighs 3.85 kg, and depicts a medieval knight holding a broadsword and standing on a five-spoke film reel, where each spoke represents one of the five filmmaking disciplines.
The second Academy Awards in 1930 marked the first time the recipients were announced on the actual night of the ceremony. An arrangement was made to release the names of the winners to the newspapers earlier in the day on the understanding that they would not publish them before 11 p.m.
The Best Picture winner of 1930-31, “Cimarron,” was the only Western film to win the top prize until “Dances with Wolves” seized it some sixty years later. In 1934, Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” became the first film to make a clean sweep of the five most sought-after categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Forty years had passed before any other film achieved the same feat.
One of the most remarkable years in the early history of film awards was 1939; this is due to the fact that the competition for Best Picture included several movies that, unlike the early silent movies, have gone on to stand the test of time and continued to receive widespread acclaim.
That year the John Wayne vehicle “Stagecoach” was vying for Best Picture with the Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy “His Girl Friday,” the ground-breaking “The Wizard of Oz,” and the hugely popular “Gone with the Wind.” More remarkable still is that, despite such stellar competition, “Gone with the Wind” managed to sweep the board with a total of eight Oscar wins.
For the first few years, awards related to all the work a particular actor or director had done was completed during the qualifying period. It was only in 1933 that the system was changed to honor specific works instead. Another major change came in 1935 when the qualifying period was altered to represent the previous calendar year rather than a period spanning two years.