I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created. — Louis B. Mayer
What is the function of the Academy Awards? Initially, as the above quote suggests, it was for the studio system to gain power and control by doling out little gold men in exchange for great works of art. The first Oscars must have felt deterministic. The results were announced in the LA Times three months before the show even began. It was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to a crowd of 270 Hollywood insiders and their guests, who shelled out a cool five American dollars for their attendance. It was 1929, the end of the roaring twenties, mid-prohibition, the year that kicked off the market crash that lead us into the Great Depression. It was a time when anyone in the country could have used some award, or at least penance, for the difficulty that was about to come. The first show was as low-key as they come, the proceedings were not even broadcast on the radio until the following year. If we want to seek a more fundamental purpose, the voting body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, serves one preliminary function: to bring together and embody the democratic interests of actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers. It is the bringing together of diverse guilds to embolden their positions within the studios.
The first Oscars lasted a breezy 15 minutes and handed out only 15 awards. It was the Academy’s second year of existence, and as such, they created a small memorial of what mattered to movie folks of the ’20s. Guests dined on nuts and olives, consommé célestine, half-broiled chicken spread on toast, and two desserts as the brief ceremony commenced. It was a nice, well lit ballroom and reflected on the final hurrah of the silent picture as the dominant form. Talking films were outcast from the ceremony all-together, making the first Oscars the last true awards ceremony exclusively devoted to silent films. They handed out little gold men designed by MGM art designer George Stanley. It portrayed a knight standing with his sword pointed down at a base of film reel with five segments representing each guild. The award has since been refined and bronzed for television cameras.
Categories were structurally unique from what came after. There were essentially two Best Picture categories: Outstanding Picture and Best Unique and Artistic Picture. An idea like Most Popular Movie was not yet on anyone’s tongues. This split leads to an interesting decision, as F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) captured the Best Unique and Artist Picture. The awards were considered equal and given the same weight. Today, we see the outcome of history: Sunrise is featured on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films and is an evocative and lovely piece of silent work from the German director making his American premiere. It is an ageless technical beauty, a statement on symbolism from one of the leaders of German Expressionism, famed for its forced perspectives and tracking shots, a credit to its cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. It had one of the very first synchronized music and effect tracks behind it, popularizing Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionettes” before the song would conjure into our minds the Portrait of Hitchcock. Sunrise is the thing to celebrate here, the true picture of the year.
Oscars controversy, of course, is not a new invention. One glaring omission is Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece, The General (1926), which today is widely considered not only one of the greatest films of all time, but the pinnacle of the legendary silent comic’s entire career. Those in attendance may also have balked at a The Jazz Singer (1927)-shaped hole in the ceremony. The film that ended the silent era was not to be celebrated alongside them. Warner Bros. would instead be given a consolation prize for “producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.” With a heavy-handed purpose, they kept it out in fear of how it might compete, or not compete, with the year’s silent pictures. Talking pictures would come to dominate the ceremony the following year and forevermore. For best actor, it was the first and last time they gave the award to a German, celebrating Emil Jannings for his combined work in The Way of All Flesh (1927, now lost) and The Last Command (1928). Later, he would turn his Hollywood Star Power toward Nazi pictures. Awkwardly, the reason for the minor controversy was that he was outvoted by the dog Rin Tin Tin (also a German, but the Shepard kind) but the Academy worried about being taken seriously, so according to the dog’s biographer Susan Orlean, they awarded Jannings instead.
What was then called Outstanding Picture would the following year become the flagship award for the Oscars, removing its sister category of Best Unique and Artistic Picture. The field of nominees for the first Best Picture represented four distinctly different ideas of what a silent picture could be: comedy, a love story, a gangster flick, and war pictures, respectively. Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) was perhaps the best of the bunch, a sly comedy that played well to the attributes of The Tramp and expressed his universality. Chaplin was nominated across four categories and was given an Honorary Award for his contributions in “acting, writing, directing, and producing The Circus” and in some way, recognizing an outsized contribution that does not fit neatly into a category. 7th Heaven (1927) was the most nominated film of the ceremony, yet may play as the most dated today, a simple little love story about class in the streets of Paris, somewhat dull. The Racket (1928) is a provocative entry too — a silent gangster picture that very clearly begins to lay down a foundation for what studio noir will look like in the ’40s, especially those of the Warner Bros camp.
This brings us to what has become the big emblematic award for the Oscars. Nobody in the room waited with bated breath or any sense of anticipation at all. They already knew 1927’s Wings was the choice. Set during the first World War, Wings was a technical showpiece. It emphasized realism and set the course for all aviation movies to follow. We have to imagine now, seated in a theater, the very immediate and sweeping pleasure of finally seeing aerial photography done in any convincing way in a movie. It must have been thrilling just for the impracticality of it. They would strap the camera onto each plane’s fuselage and shoot the actors up in the air. Someone had to get there first and it was Wings that lead the way. At a hefty two million, it was the biggest film of the ceremony, and one of the grandest of its time. Surprisingly forward thinking, it’s also socially progressive, the first film to show men kissing, and one of the first studio productions to feature nudity. Shifting between brutal realism and impressionistic avant-garde techniques borrowed from European film, it was outpacing its competition in a broad reach for cinematic style and purpose and was rewarded for that ambition.
Wings is now remembered for one incredible tracking shot. The camera glides across the tables of a large party, playing to each table as we experience people naturalistically. With a bit of clever engineering, a tremendous outcome is accomplished, one that’s been famously repurposed in films like Hugo (2011). There’s a lot going on in the shot. A couple having a normal dinner conversation normalizes the shot. The second table escalates with action, the exchange of money; we’re already thinking, for what service? Our third table is incredibly important, showing a lesbian caress, a counter to the first round of William Hayes censorship guidelines set down the same year — cinema saying, this is valuable and occurs in the middle of any natural situation in life — this is about realism, and we will purvey the truth of common interaction. The mystified couple at the next table almost play as if reacting to the power of the last shot, turning away from each other, reconsidering the context of their world. Crucially, we get a laugh from the woman throwing her wine in her partner’s face and finally fix onto the crux of the party. It may be based in World War I, but we have just traveled through the Roaring ’20s too, and have arrived at the outcome of the prohibition: raging parties filled with love and despair. Wings is a fine movie with a shot that is a masterpiece more dynamic and alive than anything competing in its category.
What the first Oscars truly reflected was an ingrained interest in the studio industry. The auteurs of the moment, the Keatons and Chaplins of the late-’20s, were summarily sidelined. Industries unto themselves, they created without the strict backbone of the formalized system. Their work, especially that of The General, reflected the real refined end-point that the history of the silent film had led to. The interests of that early Academy showed right away, the Oscars were about celebrating the films that created a perception of themselves. They would reward the best guild participants, ones that showed industry progression above individualistic achievement. While they had the right idea with rewarding Sunrise and creating an Artistic category, it was the first tacit admission that what was Outstanding or a Best Picture, was not a symbol of artistic achievement, but of the largest cross-section between arts and commerce. The big, bloated Wings showed a more maximum potential of what big money can do in the movies. It set a precedent for favorable social commentary wrapped in a big package, a reward for producers and outsized, scalable projects, over what really moved the movies forward. The first year was also the last formal hurrah for the silent pictures. It’s stretched with an array of quality, high and low, but, helpfully, it highlights a transitional point of development for our cinema. When films got recognition, more films like them could be made. Inspiration and available funding would dictate the market. Louis B. Mayer was right . If you just give filmmakers some medals, you can control the history and future of the movies.