Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Brief History of Louis B. Mayer...I mean the Academy...

Louis B Mayer at the "Torch Song" mo...Less than one week left!  I can’t wait to start watching…but I’m a little unsure about the silent movie thing.  I’ve only watched one silent movie in my life, Daddy Long Legs, and I didn’t make it all the way through.  In this day and age, with special effects films of the likes of Avatar, it’s hard to connect to a film where sound is considered a special effect.  When I imagine a silent movie, the movie I think of is an over-acted pantomime, with grainy pictures and title cards to carry the plot.  But I’m happy to be proved wrong.   This weekend I will be watching Sunrise on Saturday and Wings on Sunday, followed by the Academy Awards themselves.  Why two movies?  Well, according to my research, both were Best Picture winners in the first ever ceremonies in 1929.

A Little Bit of History…

At the end of 1926, Louis B. Mayer, studio boss of MGM, decided labor unions were ruining the country.  So he invited some powerful Hollywood friends over for Sunday dinner and they came up with the idea of an elite club, one that would help to both mediate the ongoing labor disputes and clean up the image of Hollywood.  A few months later, in 1927, Mayer organized a group of people from the industry’s five branches (actors, directors, writers, technicians and producers) for a dinner at the Ambassador Hotel , during which "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" was born.  After it became a legal corporation in May of 1927, the first president, actor Douglas Fairbanks, suggested that “awards of merit [be given] for distinctive achievement.”  A year later a voting system was established and categories created.  13 awards were given in varying categories.  The winners would receive a newly designed statuette and the nominees would get a scroll, to tempt them to actually show at the awards.  The winners knew of their awards ahead of time, and while exciting, they were only a small part of an evening that included other Academy business, a sit-down dinner, dancing, lectures and socializing.

Fun Facts

  • The “Oscar” statuette is of a naked man stabbing a sword into a film reel, with five holes representing the five branches of the film industry.  The Academy members wanted to represent a strong, united Hollywood.
  • The technicians had a difficult time coming up with an award for their branch.  In the end, they simply lumped everything together into one all-purpose category: “Best Engineering Effects.”
  • The 1st Academy Awards was the first and only time an award was given for “Best Writing, Title Writing.”  Yes, “Title Writing”, the writing of those cards between silent acting that clues the audience in on important dialogue or action.  The recipient, Joseph Farnham, was also the first Academy Award winner to die; Farnham succumbed to a heart attack just two years later.
  • The Jazz Singer, a Warner Brothers sensation and the first truly successful talking picture, was briefly considered for the categories.  But the Academy members felt that it was impossible to compare this new media with all the silent films.  They therefore decided to award the movie its own Honorary Award for revolutionizing the industry.  Little did they know.

And finally…
The reason for the two movies?  When award categories were decided, the Academy made two winning “Best Picture” categories.  One was for “Best Picture, Production” and the other for “Best Picture, Artistic Quality of Production.”  The difference?  The first would go to “the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness,” while the latter would be awarded to “the Producing Company, or Producer, who produced the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.”  I’m having trouble distinguishing between them myself, but I’ve decided that the first award is more like “best blockbuster,” while the second is closer to “best indie flick.”  Whatever the difference, the Academy decided to award the artistic award to Sunrise, while Wings got best overall production.  The Academy members originally wanted to award The Crowd the artistic award.  But Louis B. Mayer, lord of Hollywood and king of the Academy, despised this depressing, realist film about a lowly man who never amounts to much in the crowds of New York City despite his best efforts.   He thought it directly contradicted the Academy’s aim: “It will encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of the profession by the interchange of constructive ideas and by awards of merit for distinctive achievements.”  A film about a man who works hard but still achieves nothing, shot on a small budget and distinctly unglamorous, could hardly be considered “constructive.”  Nor could this movie promote the “improvement and advancement” of films.  The judges, exhausted, finally gave in.

This motto, however, is something to consider.  Do all these films follow those aims?  In what years did the Academy stray from its ideals?  And how much depends on who is running the show?  Things to consider.  In later years, the Academy only awarded one award for “Best Picture,” and Wings came to be regarded as the sole winner of 1927-28.  But I feel that that wasn’t the Academy’s original intent, so I’ve decided to watch both.  Alright—I’ve lectured enough!  Please keep reading!  On Saturday, I’ll watch Sunrise, the story of a married farmer who is lead astray from his wife by a woman from the city (damn those wily city women).  And on Sunday, I’ll watch Wings, a war epic about two friends from a small town who fight in WWI, and the women who love them.  Any suggestions on food?  Hmmmm…..what could I make for a movie called “Wings”...
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