18 February 2014

85 years on - the first Academy Award winners

Eighty-five years ago today on 18 February 1929 the winners of the first ever Academy Awards were announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The swanky gala ceremony didn't occur until 16 May - today is only the anniversary of the publication of the awards results. According to History.com, the initial announcement was hardly a glittering affair: 'The first award recipients’ names were printed on the back page of the academy’s newsletter. A few days later, Variety published the information--on page seven'.

The May awards ceremony featured Douglas Fairbanks presenting statuettes - yet to be nicknamed 'Oscars', which didn't come until 1931 - to winners Janet Gaynor, Emil Jannings, and Best Picture Wings. Neither the announcement of the awards nor the ceremony appeared to attract much attention by reporters here in New Zealand. But the movie sections of the newspapers were full of screen gossip, to a much greater extent than today, which shows the popularity of cinema-going in 1929. 

The Auckland Star was particularly movie-crazy, with an elegant graphic illustrating eight new cinematic releases for the week of 21 February 1929:

Source: Auckland Star, 16 February 1929
The 'Gossip of the Studios' column by Molly Merrick in the same 16 February Star (but originally written in Hollywood on 8 January) contains an intriguing mention of a New Zealand-themed motion picture, Under the Southern Cross (also known as Taranga or The Devil's Pit), which Merrick (re-)reported as going gangbusters in a Hollywood movie-house preview:

The "Hollywood Filmograph" states: 'Under the Southern Cross,' a Universal production, pre-viewed at the Larchmont Theatre last Sunday night to a packed house, is undoubtedly the best picture of its kind that has ever been filmed. The picture fairly reeks with scenic grandeur, and should appeal strongly to those that are on the que vive for something novel and bizarre in the celluloid-line."
A follow-up article in the Star on 18 May 1929 reveals further details of Under the Southern Cross, quoting a favourable review by none other than the Premier, Sir Joseph Ward:

Universal's portrayal of the Maoris, resulting in a film production that has created a profound impression in America, in England, and now in New Zealand, before a representative gathering, including the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Ward and members of the Cabinet, will be released shortly. Perhaps no better testimony to the exceptional qualities of "Under the Southern Cross," or "Taranga," as it has been more familiarly known, could be given than to quote contents of a letter received from Sir Joseph, who said, "It was with the greatest pleasure that I watched this fascinating story of old New Zealand unfold through a very beautiful picture secured by the Universal Film Company. It proves that it is possible to build stories of great dramatic power and absorbing interest within our own beautiful country. Once again, the Maori race has proved 'second to none' in its capability of reaching the highest standard set by the world in motion picture production as in many other directions. It is a great tribute to their natural genius, and should go far towards making the name of New land a household word overseas."
Under the Southern Cross was thought to be lost until a silent print was found by a British film historian in 1980. This version was screened with musical accompaniment in 2009; an excerpt of the modern soundtrack can be heard in this Radio New Zealand recording from July 2010, and here's a still from the filming, perhaps taken at Whakarewarewa in 1928.

As any fan of Singin' In The Rain can tell you, the late 1920s were also the formative years of talking pictures. The New Zealand cinema pages contain details of the strong uptake of talkies in New Zealand cinemas. Wellington's Evening Post of 28 February 1929 trumpeted a major event taking place in the capital the following month:
Of great interest is the announcement that the Paramount Theatre in Wellington is to open with the new sensational entertainments, the sound pictures, on Friday, 8th March, in which event that popular house will gain the distinction of presenting the first all sound film bill to be seen and heard in the Dominion. The programmes to be presented during successive weeks are, without exception, all those that have been, and are now being, presented to record attendances in Sydney and Melbourne. Much of the credit for this unique state of affairs goes to Fox Pictures, who, under the direction of William Fox, the president, are the acknowledged leaders in this remarkable field of entertainment. 
Coming nearer home, the negotiations by the directors of the Paramount Theatre, Wellington, with the Fox Company, date back a considerable time, and the news that this theatre has been wired for nearly three months in readiness for the arrival of the spectacular talkie entertainments will probably be a surprise to many. The system of reproduction is the new perfected De Forrest installation, generally conceded to be one of the finest plants of its kind that has been manufactured. Now that the long-awaited films have arrived, no time will be lost in presenting the best of these programmes to the amusement seekers of Wellington, the exact date of commencement being Friday, 8th March. 
The first programme will consist of Fox Movietone News, all that is exciting in the news of the day, just as it happened, with thrilling sound effects. King Alfonso, of Spain, the American Ambassador to Spain, and the president of the New York Stock Exchange, are among the world celebrities who actually address you. George Bernard Shaw, literary genius, talks from the screen, jokes, and his engaging personality will hold the audience spellbound. "Chic" Sale, stage and screen star, supported by a notable cast, appears in an "all-talking" comedy, "The Star Witness." The Roxy Theatre Orchestra, New York's famous 110 piece orchestra, is heard. Then there is the "Street Angel," a love lyric of Naples, featuring the "Diane" and "Chico" of "Seventh Heaven," Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. You will hear James Melton and the Roxy Theatre male chorus of 40 singing "Angela Mia," the theme song, during the screening of "Street Angel." Box plans will open to-morrow morning at the Bristol and Utility (next theatre), when, it is anticipated, there will be a heavy demand for seats.
The Evening Post of 9 March 1929 contained the verdict on the previous night's talkie premiere. Declaring the event 'a convincing programme' delivered to a capacity crowd, the Post's reporter noted that:
It may be that talking films, as applied to true dramatic work, are still some time ahead in full development (development, that is, which takes, and holds, the fancy of the picture-going public), but on the musical side the sound film is already a success.
Returning to Molly Merrick, in the Auckland Star of 18 May 1929 we can see that the meat and bread of the Hollywood gossip columnist is a long-established tradition. Here she provides updates on two hot topics for film lovers everywhere:

Speaking of curls, James Hall had his hair permanently waved — says it was necessary for the next picture. Well, we shall see what we shall see. 
A glance at the illustrations of current fan magazines reveals that Bessie Love plays her ukelele with kid gloves on, and that Marion Davies does her swimming with high French heels.
See also:
Movies: Mr Iturbi will see you now, 29 December 2013
Movies: How one book made every Hollywood film feel the same, 20 July 2013
Movies: Wodehouse in Hollywood, 1930, 12 February 2013 
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