These features were written and shared by Denise Morrison—
- Week Fourteen, Feb. 21 —Outstanding Picture
- Week Thirteen, Feb. 14 —Unique and Artistic Picture
- Week Twelve, Feb. 7 —Best Actor
- Week Eleven, Jan. 31 —Best Actress
- Week Ten, Jan. 24 —Best Director: Drama
- Week Nine, Jan. 17 —Best Director: Comedy
- Week Eight, Jan. 10 —Honorary Award: Charles Chaplin
- Week Seven, Jan. 3 —Best Writing:Original Story
- Week Six, Dec. 27 —Best Writing:Adaptation
- Week Five, Dec. 20 —Best Writing:Title Writing
- Week Four, Dec. 13 —Best Cinematography
- Week Three, Dec. 6 —Best Interior Decoration
- Week Two, Nov. 29 —Best Effects, Engineering
- Week One, Nov. 22 —Honorary Award for The Jazz Singer
Ultimately there would be one overriding Best Production which would go to “the most outstanding motion picture, considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness.” In the beginning when the Academy first set up the voting system, they also set out a guideline that limited the films eligible for nomination. This first year however members didn't pay much attention to the Aug. 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928 time frame and sent in nominations for earlier films like The Gold Rush (1925) and The General (1926) and voting had to be done again. The Academy officially recognizes three films as being nominated for this top award; other award sources list more. The three official films were The Racket (1928), produced by Howard Hughes and released through United Artists; 7 th Heaven (1927), produced by William Fox and released through Fox; and Wings (1927), produced by Lucian Hubbard and released through Paramount.
This is the only nomination for The Racket, a crime drama starring Thomas Meighan as the tough honest police captain and his gangster rival Louis Wolheim. The story was based on a play that did quite well on Broadway, perhaps a statement on how much the general public was fascinated with gangsters in this era of Al Capone. The film was produced by a Hollywood outsider, Texas millionaire Howard Hughes--the term independent producer could have been created for him—who took filmmaking seriously for many years before other interests drew him away. The film was long thought lost until it was found in a vault among Hughes' effects after his death. Although seen today it appears The Racket is just a standard gangster melodrama, it created many of the elements seen in subsequent gangster pictures: the kid brother whom the gangster wants to shelter from the rackets; mob bosses cavorting in lavish nightclubs; overwrought gangland funerals; crooked politicians. All in all, an interesting choice for best picture. Like Hughes' other nominated film Two Arabian Knights this film was directed by Lewis Milestone.
7 th Heaven of course had several nominations and was wildly popular with fans. Great directing and acting--Academy voters really did like it. But Paramount's Wings had it all in one spectacular war epic and it took home the first Best Picture award. A real labor of love for director and war veteran William Wellman, Wings had realistic battle scenes, technical mastery of the photography of the aerial sequences, a romance and bromance (!) and a young handsome western kid named Gary Cooper in a cameo. The film also at one time had color sequences and was filmed in Magnascope so there were engineering effects that Paramount could be rightly proud of. Wings set the trend that Academy members had a hard time resisting—the bigger the movie the easier to make it Best Picture.
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The producer's branch of the Academy chose one award for themselves to honor the best producing company, or producer, who had produced the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture. The founding members in the producer's branch of the Academy were an interesting group of people; mostly men, it did include Mary Pickford, one of only three women who were founding members (the other two were in the writer's branch). It also included theater owner Sid Grauman but the majority of the members represented a studio. The three films nominated couldn't have been more different and came from the three biggest studios at that time: MGM, Fox and Paramount.
MGM's The Crowd (1928) was indeed an artistic triumph with critics but was not a favorite of Louis B. Mayer's. It was directed by King Vidor with the backing of MGM's top producer Irving Thalberg. It's overriding theme of the average man who in the end never rises above leading an average life, was a brilliant piece of filmmaking but was so different from the glamorous (and mostly happy ending) movies the studio was already becoming famous for. Probably the most unusual film to be nominated was Paramount/Famous Players Lasky's Chang (1927), an adventure film set in Siam that had a documentary feel to it but was all Hollywood melodrama and was made by the men who eventually brought King Kong to the screen. The final nomination was Fox's experiment, Sunrise A Song of Two Humans (1927), the studio's attempt to marry European film artistry with Hollywood know-how. A dreamy romantic drama Sunrise was probably the most commercially viable of the three films, being both a hit with critics and the public.
According to King Vidor's autobiography, Sid Grauman called him late one night to tell him the Central Board of Judges were struggling with choosing a winner in this category but that his film The Crowd was the clear choice of all the judges—except one. Vidor's boss at MGM Louis B. Mayer didn't want anyone thinking the first winner of this award won because of collusion between himself and the Academy so he fought hard against his own studio's nominee in favor of Fox's entry, Sunrise, feeling director F. W. Murnau would bring prestige to the award and the Academy. In the end the judges caved and Sunrise would win the award. It was not a bad choice; Sunrise is today regularly at the top of favorite silent film lists the world over.
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With the removal of Charlie Chaplin's name from Best Actor contention, it left the competition for the award to two actors who had enjoyed stellar years. The men, German star Emil Jannings and D. W. Griffith alum Richard Barthelmess, represented a total of four films in their nominations. Jannings (1884-1950), a Swiss native, had become a theatrical sensation on the stages and screens of Germany before Paramount brought him to Hollywood in 1927. He starred in five films for the studio, two of which were recognized with a nomination: The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Last Command (1928). Hollywood was a melting pot thanks to silent cinema and Jannings' thick German accent wasn't a detriment to his stardom--until Al Jolson said “you ain't heard nothing yet” in The Jazz Singer . Jannings wasted no time in telling Paramount he would not be renewing his contract.
Richard Barthelmess, on the other hand, was a ten year vet of Hollywood, having learned the ropes as a member of D. W. Griffith's film company. Barthelmess (1895-1963) had the foresight when he left Griffith to start his own production company, giving him the freedom to make his own film choices. Two films earned him the nomination, The Patent Leather Kid (1927), a boxing-turned WWI drama and The Noose (1928), a crime thriller. Barthelmess was also a founding member of the Academy in the Actor's branch. This would be his only nomination during his career.
But it was Jannings who would win the first Best Actor award. Readying for his imminent return to Germany the actor sent a wire to the Academy which said in part: “I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award to me. I want to take this opportunity to extend to you my heartfelt thanks for the honor bestowed upon me….” Since the award winners were announced in February with the ceremony not till May (1929), Jannings was asking permission to receive his award early, making him technically the first person to actually “take home” the statuette. Paramount barely had time to snap some publicity photos of the actor with his brand new award before he left for Europe.
Special Note: Emil Jannings became a staunch supporter of Hitler's Nazi Party in the 1930s. It's been reported that when the Allies entered Germany in 1945 Jannings carried his award around as proof of his former association with the good old US of A. Of the five films Jannings made for Paramount only The Last Command (1928) has survived intact. It will be one of our Saturday afternoon features at this February's Kansas Silent Film Festival, Feb. 25-27, 2011. The Way of All Flesh (1927) and The Patriot (1928) only survive as brief clips. Street of Sin (1928) and Betrayal (1929) are thought to be completely lost.
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When gossip columnist Louella Parsons of the Hearst papers learned that Janet Gaynor (1906-1984) had been cast as Diane in the film 7 th Heaven (1927), she told her readers the actress was “too young and inexperienced to trust for such a fine property.” When the film was released Parsons published an apology to Gaynor saying her performance moved her to tears. In fact the public was so wild for her and co-star Charles Farrell that Fox rushed the same team of stars and director into a similar story called Street Angel (1928). This topped an already successful year for the twenty-one year old Gaynor, who had starred in F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1927. Like other branches of the Academy, the acting branch used the option of nominating a performer for their body of work during the period eligible and Gaynor fit the bill perfectly.
Her competition was two experienced actresses: Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), epitomizing everything that was glamorous about Hollywood, was nominated for her film Sadie Thompson, a film she produced with the financial backing of Joseph P. Kennedy. The role of Sadie Thompson proved she was more than just a movie queen. The surprise nomination was given to character actress Louise Dresser (1878-1965) for her role in A Ship Comes In (1928), a film about an immigrant family struggling in their new homeland. Surprise because the Academy nominating team chose to honor Louise's performance instead of the tour-de-force acting from star Rudolph Schildkraut. And surprise since the RKO film didn't get a wide release.-
Against the perfect year of Gaynor her competition hadn't a chance. Gaynor brought her mother to the first awards ceremony; Swanson chose not to attend feeling the Honorable Mention scroll would only make Joe Kennedy feel worse (Kennedy, thinking Sadie Thompson would be a flop, sold the rights to United Artists president Joseph Schenck, who made a tidy profit off the film). Dresser, who was married to an executive at Fox Studios, did her duty and attended.
Gaynor to the press: “At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”
Special Note: Until 1986, Janet Gaynor was the youngest leading actress to win an Academy Award. She would be nominated once more in her career, in 1938 for the original version of A Star is Born.
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Three respected men in their field were nominated for the first Best Director award from the Academy: Frank Borzage for 7th Heaven (1927), Herbert Brenon for Sorrell and Son (1927) and King Vidor for The Crowd (1928). The winner was Borzage (1893-1962), an actor turned director who began his career in Hollywood in 1912. Often dismissed as a “gushy sentimentalist” he gave us some of the screen's most romantic stories during his career, which was at its strongest in the silent and early sound periods. He pioneered the use of the soft focus, giving his films a very particular look. Borzage would win a second Best Director award in 1931 for Bad Girl. 7th Heaven was the perfect vehicle for his talents as a director and he made the most of it. While Fox's Sunrise grabbed all the critical attention, 7th Heaven reaped the box office win; Fox would quickly capitalize on the film's one-two punch of Borzage directing and stars Gaynor and Farrell acting by making Street Angel soon after. Ironically Sunrise's director F. W. Murnau would not be nominated, which became something of a tradition for the Academy, nominating directors with their pictures.
An Honorable Mention scroll went to Herbert Brenon (1880-1958), who, like Borzage, had his greatest artistic period during the silent era. This would be the Irish-born director's only Academy nomination. Sorrell and Son, starring D. W. Griffith star H. B. Warner, is about a father's sacrifices for his son. This film was presumed lost until an incomplete print was discovered in the Academy's film archive. The final reel is still believed lost.
King Vidor (1894-1982) received the other Honorable Mention scroll for his critically acclaimed film The Crowd. While not a box office winner, Vidor fought hard to make this “everyman” film, to tell a true-to-life story with no Hollywood happy ending. With the country's critics applauding the film it's no wonder it was nominated, both for best director and best artistic production. Of the three directors nominated Vidor's career was the most consistently successful and long lasting. Vidor was nominated five times for Best Director but never won a competitive award; he was given a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 1978.
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The term "Comedy is King" was never more evident than in the silent era; comedy was so important to the silent film that several smaller studios were in business only to crank them out. So to acknowledge the role it played in the industry, the Director's branch chose to include a category that, like title writing, would not be repeated in future ceremonies.
Originally three men were nominated in this category: Charlie Chaplin for The Circus (1928), Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights (1927) and Ted Wilde for the Harold Lloyd comedy Speedy (1928). Once Chaplin was removed it just left Wilde and Milestone. Milestone is a name most film fans should know as he had a long career in Hollywood. Ted Wilde (1889-1929) maybe not so much; he was mostly a gag writer for Harold Lloyd, one of a number of comedy writers on Lloyd's team. Lloyd, like his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, was his own best producer on all his films but unlike Chaplin and Keaton he never had any interest in directing himself. Keeping it in the family (so to speak) he chose Wilde to direct two of his best comedies despite minimal experience at Roach. He gets director credit for Speedy and The Kid Brother (1927) but never really got the chance to prove himself as a director; he died at the age of 40 in 1929.
Speedy (1928) had a lot going for it including a cameo by none other than the Babe [Babe Ruth] himself. The nominated film is our festival feature Friday night Feb. 25 with introductory commentary by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, noted silent film historian and author of several Harold Lloyd biographies.
But the winner of this one-time-only award was Lewis Milestone (1895-1980); Milestone, a Russian immigrant, came to the US in 1913. Serving in WWI in the Signal Corps taught him a great deal about film making and upon his discharge he headed to Hollywood. He moved up the ladder quickly and within two years of his first directing job won an Academy Award for a lighthearted buddy film Two Arabian Knights, which he made for a young independent producer named Howard Hughes. This is the first of back to back awards for Milestone; he also won best director for the film he is probably best remembered for All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
Special Note: Two Arabian Knights, long thought lost, was one of a handful of films found in Howard Hughes' belongings after his death.
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Charles Chaplin had been off the screen since his 1925 hit The Gold Rush. His follow-up film The Circus (1928) was eligible for Academy Awards in several categories so when the nominations first came out Chaplin was nominated Best Comedy Director and Best Actor—considering he did it all on this picture he could have also been nominated for writing and best picture but was not. When the time came to announce the winners (and winners were announced a full three months before the ceremony) Chaplin was nowhere to be seen; the Central Board of Judges removed Chaplin from contention for any competitive awards and gave him a special award "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus." So depending on which Academy Award history you read Chaplin's name is sometimes listed as a nominee but officially he was an honoree only.
left: Chaplin and Myrna Kennedy in The Circus (1928)
Chaplin chose not to attend the banquet that year. His award was accepted by the host for the night William C. DeMille (Cecil's bro). DeMille said "I think he is the only one to whom the Academy has or ever will give a first award to one man for writing, directing, acting and producing a picture. It takes us back to the old days."
In the beginning, Academy members cast a nominating vote in his or her branch; then a Board of Judges from each branch tallied the votes and presented the nominations to a Central Board of Judges. This small group consisted of one member from each branch, and it was these people who picked the winners. It is unknown for sure why Chaplin's name would be withdrawn by the Central Board for sure; in a letter to Chaplin the Academy wrote: "The Academy Board of Judges …unanimously decided that your name should be removed from the competitive classes, and that a special first award be conferred upon you for writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus. The collective accomplishments thus displayed place you in a class by yourself." (February 19, 1929.)
Chaplin was nominated twice more in his career, for The Great Dictator (1940, for writing and acting) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947, for writing) but it was for Music (Original Dramatic Score) that he won his only competitive award in 1972--twenty years after the film was made. Limelight was his last American film before being denied re-admittance into the US. With the political climate the way it was the film was released on as few screens as possible when it premiered in 1952 and never played in Los Angeles. When the film was re-released twenty years later it technically became eligible for an Academy Award; this happened the year after Chaplin received a second honorary award "To Charles Chaplin for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century."
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The Original Story category had two nominations (three depending on the source), both of which were Paramount films--and both directed by Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969). Rather ironic considering this brilliant but dictatorial director was once quoted as saying, “I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.” So it’s probably not hard to believe there was a great deal of turmoil on the set of nominated film Underworld (1927) between Sternberg and the film’s screenwriter Ben Hecht (1894-1964), the first winner of the Best Writing: Original Story award. These two strong-willed artists fought over creative control of the film, with Hecht ultimately asking to have his name removed from the credits claiming Sternberg ruined his story (Paramount didn‘t comply). Needless to say Hecht was not present for the awards ceremony. Hecht would be nominated six times during his long career, winning twice. Although he had a prolific career in Hollywood he was never completely comfortable there.
Paramount didn’t know what to make of this gangster film, made before the genre became well, a genre, and therefore held release back, unsure of its reception. But word of mouth convinced the studio it would be alright and the award, the only nomination for this film, was icing on the cake.
The other nominee was Lajos Biro (1880-1948) for The Last Command, also directed by Sternberg. This would be the only time Austrian native Biro would be nominated for an Academy Award; he would eventually become associated with Alexander Korda‘s production company in England. (The book Inside Oscar also lists as the third nominee Rupert Hughes for The Patent Leather Kid, however the Academy does not list the film as being nominated in this category).
Special Note: The writers branch of the Academy changed this category a few times; for the next two ceremonies they combined the two awards into one called “writing achievement.” Then changed their minds again and went back to the two individual awards. These two awards would become a bone of contention for the Academy as studios and writers argued over assigning a work as original or adapted. Tired of arbitrating, the Academy would eventually leave it up to the studios to decide.
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Fox Studios was rightly proud of its hit Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It was just what the studio had ordered, an artistic film with a European pedigree but made with good old fashioned Hollywood know-how. But it wasn't the only film Fox had in contention for an award that year and this other film was wildly popular with the public. 7th Heaven, a romantic drama starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell had a few things going for it — its young stars, who the public fell in love with; deft direction by veteran Frank Borzage; and a solid script from screenwriter Benjamin Glazer, who would win the first Academy Award® for Adapting a story for a Motion Picture. His competition was Alfred Cohn for The Jazz Singer and Anthony Coldeway for Glorious Betsy.
Glazer (1887-1956), a Belfast, Ireland native, immigrated to the States and went to school to become a lawyer at the turn of the century. But he found his true calling as a writer, first as a newspaper reporter then a playwright. His first screen credit came in 1921 and he worked on some impressive films in the twenties: The Merry Widow (1925), Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Beggars of Life (1928) to name a few. He was a founding member of the writer's branch of the Academy and would eventually earn a second award for writing in 1941 for the original story Arise My Love. Glazer adapted 7th Heaven from a play by Austin Strong.
It however is the only nomination for the Warner Bros film Glorious Betsy (1928), based on the true story of Napoleon's youngest brother Jerome and his love for an American woman Elizabeth Patterson. The film starred Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel and was the studio‘s second talking effort after The Jazz Singer (meaning music and sound effects with some talking sequences). Today, sad to say, the film survives at the Library of Congress but the sound discs are lost.
Special note: This nomination is the first of five for 7th Heaven which will be the Saturday night feature at our festival Feb. 26, 2011.
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Of all the awards dreamed up by the members of the five branches of the academy (acting, directing, writing, technical and producing) the title writing award is the most unique to silent films and therefore the first category eliminated in future ceremonies. It was also the last category to be added to the ballot as the writer's branch decided at the last minute to add it, forcing the academy to add inserts into the printed ballot books.
With the advent of the feature-length film, title writing became a specialty, and dialogue “inter-titles” (or simply titles) were used for humor, to convey important information, and to individualize characters—and generally doing so with minimal words. Title writers were also screenwriters themselves; the winner of this award Joseph Farnham (1884-1931) has a screenwriter credit or two in his filmography but he was mostly a title writer—and as such he has a rich list of films he worked on, from Greed to The Big Parade to The Crowd. He was also one of the thirty-six original founders of the Academy.
Officially Farnham and fellow nominee George Marion, Jr. are nominated for their body of work over the course of the two years eligible but other Academy Award® histories list specific films; for Farnham the three films are: The Fair Co-Ed (1927) ; Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) ; and Telling the World (1928). George Marion, Jr. is generally thought to have been nominated for his work on the Colleen Moore film Oh Kay! (1928). Gerald Duffy is the only nominee that officially is nominated for a specific film: The Private Life of Helen of Troy. Duffy died several months before the awards ceremony; his mother came and accepted his Honorable Mention scroll (losers in each category received a runner-up scroll; in this way the organizers hoped to get their participation in the ceremony—even though they already knew they hadn’t won). Farnham himself would unfortunately soon follow and end up being the first Academy Award winner to die; he passed away in 1931 at the age of 47.
Special Note: Telling the World, a William Haines/Anita Page newspaper adventure is believed to be a lost film.
The Academy Responds:
In the last paragraph of the Week Five, Title Writing entry, there’s a misleading reference to the Awards year: “nominated for their body of work over the course of the two years eligible.” Eligibility for the first Awards was within a single year, it’s just that the twelve-month period was August-July, not January-December.
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Three respected men in their field were nominated in the cinematography category representing four films--George Barnes was nominated for his work on Devil Dancer (1927), The Magic Flame (1927) and Sadie Thompson (1928); Karl Struss and Charles Rosher were nominated as a team for F. W. Murnau's Sunrise. Another source* lists Struss and Rosher as being nominated for films in their own right; Struss for his work on Drums of Love (1928); and Charles Rosher for My Best Girl (1927) and Tempest (1928). But ultimately it was the two of them together that won the first award for their work on F. W. Murnau's Sunrise . This is the second of four nominations for the movie; the first win.
Rosher (1885-1974) was one of the most respected cameramen in the business; he was Mary Pickford's go-to guy for all her camera effects and cinematography. His career spanned over forty years and included six nominations in this category--he won a second statuette in 1947 for The Yearling. But many believe Sunrise was his finest work. His partner on this film was Karl Struss (1886-1981) and together they created some of the most beautiful and meaningful images ever seen on the silent screen. Struss ended up with four nominations in his career but Sunrise was his only win. George S. Barnes (1892-1953) also had a prolific career in Hollywood and would earn eight nominations in this category, winning once, in 1941 for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940).
Sunrise: The Husband is Tempted by a Woman from the City
Special Note: Two nominated films in this category are considered lost or partially lost films: Devil Dancer is a true lost film; no prints or negatives are known to survive. The Magic Flame with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky is partially lost--only the first five reels still exist.
* Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards by Mason Wiley & Damien Bona (1987) The difference between the official AMPAS database and this book (and others) is sometimes several movies and artists--particularly for this first year; I've tried to indicate both official and unofficial.
The Academy Responds:
There’s a tendency to write about the 1st Awards as though the Awards process and presentation were similar to the way they are now. As an example, in the first paragraph of Week Four, Cinematography: “This is the second of four nominations for the movie; the first win.” There is no prescribed order to the nominations, and there were no revelations at the first banquet. While this was the first award presented for an achievement related to “Sunrise,” the win had been announced previously.
Also in Week Four, the correct total for George Barnes’s nominations is five, not eight: in the first year he was recognized for work on three films within a single nomination; in the second year there were no nominations. We no longer count the 2nd Awards when tallying up someone’s nominations history, although we don’t really expect people to understand about there not being any nominations that year and the Academy has contributed to this confusion in the past. There should, however, be consistency. In the Week Three text, the nominations total for Cedric Gibbons includes the second year, while the total for William Cameron Menzies does not.
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Now known as Best Art Direction this category would be dominated by the man who created the award we now call Oscar®--Cedric Gibbons. But this first year his claim to fame would be the award itself, as he was not nominated for an actual award but is credited with creating the award at the behest of his boss at MGM Louis B. Mayer. Gibbons' design is of a male figure plunging a sword into a reel of film--the five holes of the reel representing the five branches of the academy. The design was then given to art school student George Stanley, who sculpted Gibbons' design into a 13 ½ inch tall, clay statuette. It was then cast in tin and copper with the final touch a layer of gold-plate making it weigh 6 ¾ pounds.
Three of Gibbons' colleagues were nominated for this first award: Harry Oliver for Seventh Heaven , Rochus Gliese for Sunrise and the eventual winner, William Cameron Menzies for his work on The Dove (1927) and Tempest (1928) . Menzies (1896-1957) is probably best remembered today as the art director David O. Selznick entrusted Gone With The Wind to, but he had a career that spanned five decades and was also a director, producer and writer. He did some of his most imaginative work in the silent era, notably Douglas Fairbanks' Thief of Bagdad. He would be nominated one other time for art direction and given a honorary Academy Award in 1940 for his work on Gone With The Wind .
Over the years this category has had some interesting changes. In the 1940s the award was separated into black and white and color categories; this continued off and on until 1967 when it became one award again. And in 1947 the award name was changed to Art Direction - Set Decoration.
Special note: Of the two films Menzies won for, The Dove starring Norma Talmadge and Noah Beery is now considered partially lost--only four of nine reels are preserved today.
Cedric Gibbons would eventually be nominated 39 times in the art direction category, winning 11 times.
The Academy Responds:
Week Three is the most problematic, beginning with the incorrect category heading (Interior Decoration instead of Art Direction). There’s a lot of misinformation in the opening paragraph about the Oscar statuette. The five spokes (not holes) of the reel represent the five original branches. George Stanley was no longer a student when he received the commission. The height 13½ inches applies to the post-1945 statuette, including the base, not the original clay model. The statuettes presented in the first year were gold-plated solid bronze, not tin and copper. (Please read about the statuettes on our site.)
“And in 1947 the award name was changed to Art Direction – Set Decoration.” Incorrect. The Robert Osborne books use that style as a header but it’s not the official name of the category, which has always been Art Direction.
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It has been said that the Technical Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences® was at a loss as to how to categorize all the various activities done by their colleagues into awards. So they lumped them all together into one award, the Engineering Effects Award, to be given to the person who “rendered the best achievement in producing effects of whatever character obtained by engineering or mechanical means.” The first men nominated in this category were: Nugent Slaughter, Ralph Hammeras and, the winner, Roy Pomeroy for Wings (Paramount). The winner was actually the head of Paramount's special effects department and one of the 36 original founders of the Academy. Ironically Pomeroy (1892-1947) won for a film he did not get on-screen credit for. He was also visual effects supervisor for another nominated film Speedy. The other two nominees were not nominated for work in a specific film (which was typical in a lot of categories this first year) but some historians have assumed Slaughter was nominated for The Jazz Singer and Hammeras for The Private Life of Helen of Troy.
By the next awards ceremony this category would be eliminated and it wasn't until 1939 when Best Special Effects was added; this award combined visual and sound effects. In 1964 the award split into two separate awards, Best Visual Special Effects and Best Sound Effects, then in 1977 simply Best Visual Effects.
Special Note: The Private Life of Helen of Troy, a comedy directed by Alexander Korda and released by First National in 1927, is one of several films from the first Academy Awards® that is considered a lost film. There are small elements of the film that have been preserved but no full-length version currently exists.
The Academy Responds:
"Ironically Pomeroy won for a film he did get on-screen credit for.” This is more of a stylistic complaint, but there’s nothing unusual or ironic about it, given the screen credit conventions at that time and the fact that he was a studio department head. In the paragraph about the award category, the Special Effects category was replaced by Special Visual Effects (not Visual Special Effects) and Sound Effects in the 1963 (not 1964) Awards year.
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However the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927--to stop unionism from spreading into the various trades, or whether it was to show the public at large that the industry was reputable after several scandals over the last few years tried to prove otherwise--one of the first activities of the new organization was to form a Committee for the Awards of Merit. A voting system was decided upon and each branch of the Academy was asked to come up with award categories--which was tough because during this time The Jazz Singer had been released and was revolutionizing the industry. Many felt it would be unfair competition if the Warner Bros film sensation was allowed to compete against silent films so it was judged ineligible for Best Picture awards (there were two of them this first year). But it was the elephant in the room and not acknowledging it seemed wrong as well so the film did receive honorable mention in two categories (Engineering Effects and Adapted Screenplay) and Warner Bros received a special award for The Jazz Singer “the pioneer outstanding talking picture which has revolutionized the industry.”
Warner Bros head of production Darryl F. Zanuck was the only one of the winners to actually stop and say a few words to the audience upon receiving the golden statue. He dedicated the award to Sam Warner, the man responsible for “the successful usage of the medium” who had died the day before the film had opened.
The Academy Responds:
The Jazz Singer did not receive honorable mention for Engineering Effects, at least not officially. The citations were to individuals and did not refer to work on specific films. The quote from Darryl Zanuck (“the successful usage of the medium”) is from Inside Oscar; we cannot verify its source. That language does not appear in the text of Zanuck’s remarks published in the Academy Bulletin of June 3, 1929, which provides a detailed account of the banquet and award presentations:
[William C. de Mille:]
"To Warner Brothers goes a special first award for producing 'The Jazz Singer', the pioneer outstanding talking picture which has revolutionized the industry. The Warners are in New York, but Mr. Darryl Zanuck is here and he will accept the honor for the company."
Mr. Zanuck, in accepting, said:
"It is the wish of Warner Brothers that I accept this award in the name of Mr. Sam Warner, who was a pioneer in pictures and who first saw the possibilities and experimented with what is now known as the Vitaphone, and who first saw there was a possibility of making talking pictures. I thank you."
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