By Ann Silverthorn
Identifying notable Academy Award winners from the 1920s is a very easy task. That’s because the first Academy Awards ceremony was held at the end of the decade, and it only honored movies released from August 1, 1927 to August 1, 1928. The first slate contained just 12 categories, while today, there are more than 20. The International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences organized the event, held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929. It was only attended by 270 people who each paid $5 admittance. The winners had been announced three months prior.
Those first 12 categories included best actor and actress, of course. Then, three were designated for the movies themselves: outstanding; unique and artistic; and the “Special Award.” Two types of directing awards were given, one in comedy and one in drama. For production, categories were art direction, cinematography, and engineering effects. Three awards featured best writing: adaptation, original story, and—title writing. Title writing? Anyone who had been aspiring for this award would have been very disappointed in following years, because with the advent of talkies, this category was discontinued.
Although many people have heard of the film, The Jazz Singer, it was not a big winner in the 1929 Academy Awards. It was nominated for its writing, and Warner Bros. received a “special award,” for revolutionizing the industry, but it was declared ineligible for best picture because it was thought that its use of talking sound put it at an unfair advantage over its competitors. Imagine that. If it had been produced a year later, it might have won best picture.
The first movie to win an Academy Award for best picture was the silent production, Wings, a World War I flyboy film containing daring dogfights and grisly death scenes in mid-air. The level of sophistication in its cinematography earned it an Academy Award for engineering effects, however, it wasn’t even nominated in the category of cinematography. Wings starred the “It Girl,” Clara Bow, along with Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen as rivals for her affection. Which one gets the girl? And which one meets his maker?
It’s notable that 10 years after the Armistice, the Great War was still a popular topic, and it figured in another notable film from the first Academy Awards, 7th Heaven. This film was nominated for outstanding picture, art direction, directing (drama), and writing (sdaptation). It won in the two latter categories. Its leading lady, Janet Gaynor, took home best actress for her portrayal of a young Parisian prostitute who is rescued by Chico, a kindly sewer worker (Charles Farrell). The fairy tale story is soon interrupted by the rumblings of World War I, which takes Chico away to fight.
It is interesting that at this time, nominees could be named more than once in each category, and Janet Gaynor swept the best actress category, being nominated for Street Angel and Sunrise in addition to 7th Heaven. The film, Sunrise, is about a young country couple whose marriage is threatened by a fancy temptress. It won Academy Awards in the categories of cinematography (two nominations) and unique and artistic Picture. Sunrise also received a nomination for best art direction.
Another category that was populated by duplicate nominees was for best actor. This category had only two possibilities, Emil Jannings and Richard Barthelmess, each nominated for two movies. Jannings won for his portrayal of a Russian general who escapes to America and finds a career in the film industry. This film, The Last Command, along with Wings and 7th Heaven, is also set during the World War I era, this one specifically during the time when a revolution resulted in Russia’s exit from the conflict, a pivotal point in the War, resulting in the creation of the USSR as a Communist country.
In the category of writing (original story), for which The Last Command was nominated, a film called Underworld took home the award. This gangster movie starred George Bancroft, as a kingpin who’s used to giving out favors, but finds that he’s in need of one or two himself. This film received a limited release and was thought to be a flop before it went “viral” from word of mouth and became a hit.
As mentioned earlier, Warner Bros. won a “Special Award” for The Jazz Singer. A second “special award” was bestowed on Charlie Chaplin for acting, writing, directing, and producing a film called The Circus, in which he plays an accused pickpocket who joins the “big top” and masquerades as one of its stars.
According to a 2016 article in London’s The Telegraph, Chaplin had been nominated for best actor, writer, and comedy director for The Circus, but his name was removed in order to give him the special Academy Award. This apparently caused some resentment throughout Hollywood and contributed to conflicts with movie moguls, such as Darryl F. Zanuck, who had produced The Jazz Singer. Since then, the Academy Awards have been the magnet for many other conflicts and controversy, but they remain the pinnacle of recognition for those working in the industry and appreciating the art of film.