Oscar “Firsts”

While some of us may disagree or even express insult in choices both past and present, one thing is certain, that as film fans the Oscars are a part of our lives – the grandest of award shows, the pièce de résistance of Hollywood.


To start my personal Oscars blogathon journey I thought it would be fun to take a brief look back at the First Academy Awards.  Then at a few more Oscar firsts from the classics era – those that I find interesting or fascinating.  And the first Oscars went to…

The first Academy Awards:

They were born in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Thursday, May 16, 1929.  250 people attended the presentation but none were anxious about the results since the winners were announced to the press on Monday, February 18, three months earlier.  It was still a grand affair, however. Guests enjoyed a dinner of Filet of Sole Saute au Buerre and Half broiled Chicken on Toast.  Douglas Fairbanks and William C. deMille presented each winner with a statuette, The Academy Award of Merit.  (AMPAS)


Fifteen Oscar statuettes were awarded at the 1929 ceremony.  These were for cinematic achievements between Aug. 1, 1927, and July 31, 1928 – very different from how Oscar nominees are considered today – those first years of the Academy Awards chose actors based on a body of work for a year’s time, a much “truer” measure of “Best” anything by my estimation. The actual statuette has remained virtually unchanged since 1929.  The original design was done by MGM art director, Cedric Gibbons.  And, as many know, who Oscar was modeled after has been debated since the golden guy was first introduced.


The very first winner for Best Picture was William Wellman’s, Wings.  Producer, Adolph Zukor received the award for Paramount Pictures.


Emil Janningsthe winner for best actor, did not attend the ceremony so that he could travel back to his home in Germany. Prior to his departure, he was given the statue and became the very first person to be given an Academy Award.

“Hand me now already the statuette award.” – Emil Jennings


Janet Gaynor was chosen Best Actress for her work in Frank Borzage’s, 7th Heaven, F. W. Murnau’s, Sunrise and Frank Borzage’s, Street Angel.  It is reported that while backstage after the awards ceremony, Gaynor was asked what was most exciting about winning.  Her reply was, “Meeting Douglas Fairbanks,” the Academy’s first president and living legend.

Fairbanks and Gaynor with the first Best Actress Oscar

Here’s a clip noting all the winners that year:

The first “Special” Awards:

I am fascinated by the fact that from the onset the Academy recognized a need to honor achievements that did not fit into fixed categories.  That first year it presented two special awards – one to Warner Bros. and one to Charles Chaplin:

To Warner Bros. “for producing The Jazz Singer (1927), the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”


To Charles Chaplin“for acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus (1928).”


AMPAS sent a letter to Chaplin, which read:

“The Academy Board of Judges on merit awards for individual achievements in motion picture arts during the year ending August 1, 1928, 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.”


The original Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences consisted of 230 members who each paid membership dues of $100.

If interested, you can access details of all Oscar nominees and winners through the years in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) database.

More notable Oscar firsts:

 Thomas Edison was the first honorary member of the Academy for his contribution to the creation and development of the motion picture.

At the 1931 ceremony, Norma Shearer had the awkward duty of announcing herself as a winner.  As a result, that was the first and last time a nominated actor presented an award for his/her own category.

The Academy Awards ceremony was broadcast nationally for the first time in 1932.

From 1934 on, the nominating selection and the Awards ceremony would be in accordance with the calendar year.

Charles Laughton was the first non-American to win Best Actor in 1934 for his work in Alexander Korda’s, The Private Life of Henry VIII, which was also the first non-American film to be nominated for Best Picture.

The category of “Best Original Song” was introduced in 1934.  The first winner was “The Continental” from Mark Sandrich’s, The Gay Divorcee.

MGM was the first studio to campaign with ads in the press for Oscar consideration for Clarence Brown’s, Ah, Wilderness in 1935.  The film failed to receive a single nomination.

Best Supporting categories were introduced in 1936. Winners in this category received plaques rather than statuettes.  They started receiving statuettes in 1943.

Bob Hope made his debut as Oscar host in 1939, the first of seventeen future appearances.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel broke the color barrier not only by winning an Oscar, but also for being the first black guest at the Academy Awards.

Vivien Leigh was the first non-American to win Best Actress for her work in Victor Fleming’s, Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Following a leak of winners’ names to the press by the Los Angeles Times, from 1939 forward only the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse would have the names prior to the ceremony.

In 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to formally address the Awards ceremony.

Oscar statuettes, which had been made of plaster during World War II are restored to bronze and gold plate in 1945.

Edward Dmytryk’s, Crossfire was the first “B” movie to be nominated for Best Picture in 1947.

Laurence Olivier directed himself to an Oscar win for Best Actor in 1948 for Hamlet, making him and Vivien Leigh the first husband and wife to win the award.

Ethel Waters was the first black actress to be nominated in ten years (since Hattie McDaniel) for her work in Elia Kazan’s, Pinky.

Edith Head received the first of what would be a total of thirty-five Oscar nominations in 1949 for William Wyler’s, The Heiress for Best Costume Design.

The Oscars are on television for the first time in 1952.

James Dean became the first actor to be nominated posthumously in 1955.  And became the only actor to be nominated posthumously twice the following year.

For the first time ever every Best Picture nominee was in color in 1956.

Miyoshi Umeki was the first Asian actress to win an Oscar.  She won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in Joshua Logan’s, Sayonara in 1957.

In 1958 no Communists were allowed to receive awards.  That had to be a first!


I recently read an article written by film historian and critic, Leonard Maltin, titled, “Why the Oscars Still Matter,” in which he recalls his early Oscars memories.  The article got me thinking about one of my own Oscars memories that I thought I’d share.

Like most classic movie fans, my love of films and all things Hollywood started at a young age.  So it should not be surprising that one of my favorites things to do as a child was play “Oscars,” which I did often with one of my cousins.  The game consisted of our picking our favorite movies, accuracy was of no importance so these films could be the best of camp from the 1950s or one widely considered a masterpiece by the most knowledgable historian. We didn’t care if they’d been nominated by the Academy or not.  We were the only Academy that mattered.

When preparations were complete – that is, when we each finished listing our notables for each category, we’d group our favorite movies and movie stars into absurd categories, often several best pictures took home the grand prize, which was one of my brother’s track trophies.  Then we would present the awards in mock, rather embarrassing displays of awe to our own imaginations.  We were the presenters, the audience and, of course, the winners as well and took turns delivering the acceptance speeches. Sometimes, we were even the sponsors as I remember a couple of popular jingles, “I am stuck on band aid” and “I Can’t believe I ate the whole thing” that we repeated over and over again if one or the other needed to step away.

Continuing a life-long tradition then, I will surely be riveted come February 24th as I watch this year’s ceremony on ABC.  “Movie Stars” are not what they used to be, they no longer carry that royal air that those of the golden age used to, but the Oscars today are still connected to the Oscars of yesteryear as I am.  As Leonard Maltin said, they still matter.


This entry is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon and kicks off my participation in what we hope will be an annual event, which both celebrates our love of film and the Oscars – an event that coincides with the month-long Oscars celebration on Turner Classic Movies,


To read more posts dedicated to Oscars past and present, films and filmmakers that have left a mark, please visit any of the following sites, co-hosts of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon.  As I am one of them, I can attest to the fact we have an impressive array of entries by great bloggers and passionate cinephiles.

Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled

Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club

and yours truly, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen

26 thoughts

  1. This is the perfect post for someone like me who thrives on all the details. I learned SO much from this, and I’m grateful! What a great keepsake of Oscar Firsts for the bookshelf 🙂 Bravo, Aurora! You’ve done it again!

  2. I can’t say that agree with Janet Gaynor, cos I don’t have an Oscar…but I’m pretty sure I’d have passed out. I’ve never re-enacted the ceremony but I have given many many acceptance speeches in a mirror 😉 What a great post Aurora, so many interesting facts.

    1. I would have been like, “whatever.” YEAH, RIGHT! I’m guessing they weren’t such a big deal then as the impact of winning an award like this hadn’t quite been communicated. Plus, I imagine all the actors and directors were so damn tired from making so many movies each year.

      Thanks, Paula!

  3. Fascinating background, Aurora, on the first Oscars, Oscar firsts and your own personal history with the event. The Academy Awards captured my imagination, too, back in the day – but not quite so dramatically. The first Oscar telecast I remember was in 1961, when Elizabeth Taylor accepted her award (deserved or not) soon after she famously nearly died (she whispered and had a scar on her neck when she accepted, as I recall).

    I’ve been reading Josef von Sternberg’s baroque, intriguing and sometimes hilarious autobiography again lately and when I noticed your mention of Emil Jannings and his Oscar for “The Lost Command,” which was directed by von Sternberg, I remembered that the autobiography had many bizarre things to say about Jannings. Jannings apparently was very vocal about his own opinion that he was the world’s greatest actor. This made it especially difficult for him during the filming of “The Blue Angel” when he realized Marlene Dietrich, not he, was more interesting onscreen than he.

    Here is a sampling of von Sternberg’s memories of Jannings, for your amusement: “Jannings was extremely partial to dogs and birds, and his rooms were full of barking chows, squawking parrots and chirpers from his native forests, among them one whistler known as Pinkus whom he consulted on all financial matters.”

    1. That’s hilarious! Wonder if Pinkus gave him sound financial advice? Dietrich showed Jannings THE REAL DEAL.

      Thanks so much for stopping in and those wonderful comments.


  4. You Oscar game is ADORABLE! lol That gave me a good chuckle.
    Loved reading about Oscar history and all of the first. It’s amazing, because I remembered reading about how Janet Gaynor wasn’t too impressed with the award but was giddy about Doug Fairbanks. It’s funny for us to think now that the first year, the award didn’t mean as much to actors as it does now because it was so new!

    1. We were quite dramatic but I don’t think that’s surprising of children who like classic movies. And yes, it seems to those folks during the first OScars it was little more than a fun luncheon.


  5. It’s funny and nice to think about Janet Gaynor being a Fairbanks fan. Even the stars must be awed on Oscar night.

    Gee, what gives with “Ah, Wilderness”? There must have been some sort of grudge against somebody. I imagine that’s part of Oscar tradition as well.

    I shall now go forth and astound my friends and confound my enemies with my new-found Oscar knowledge.

  6. Lovely! I knew some of these facts. I don’t if I’d be more excited if I was nominated and had to wait the real night to know if I won or if I already knew and had to wait three months to receive my prize!
    I may be wrong, but someone in the 1930s, probably someone form the musical category, also announced himself as a winner.
    Oh, and considering the body of work was a much better idea! Maybe this way Garbo could have won an Oscar!

    1. Yeah, Le. Garbo not winning an Oscar stands up with few other head-scratchers. I think I would have been a nervous wreck either way, whether I had to wait or knew in advance.


  7. Good article! Regarding the letter from AMPAS to Charlie Chaplin: I don’t think it’s any small coincidence that the Motion Picture Academy and the Oscars were created by Louis B. Mayer, who famously disliked Chaplin. Small wonder he was taken out of the running at the first Academy Award ceremony.

  8. That’s adorable about your Oscar’s game!! My brothers and I played “Who wants to be the next Food network star” with Barbie’s and GI Joes and using pictures in cookbooks for our entries but yours definitely sounds more fun and unique. I think you should throw and Oscar’s party and we all play it 😉

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