First Best Picture Oscar

The first Oscars: what happened in 1929

The guests in 1929, who included Al Jolson, were seated at 36 banquet tables, enjoying the best California wines in a room decorated with white carpets and art deco chandeliers. The Wall Street Crash, only five months away, was certainly not in the air.

Douglas Fairbanks presents Janet Gaynor with the first Academy Award for Best Actress, for her work in Seventh Heaven BETTMANN/CORBIS

The ceremony lasted only 15 minutes and honoured films released from August 1, 1927 until July 31, 1928. Fairbanks and Academy vice president William C deMille (elder brother of Cecil B deMille) handed out the 30cm-high, 24 carat gold-plated britannium trophies (they are gold-plated bronze now) which were still five years away from getting their Oscar nickname.

The big subject of the night was talking pictures. This was the last ceremony to include silent films exclusively. Fairbanks, a founding member of The Motion Picture Academy, who was known as The King of Hollywood, had a bleak film future ahead and his career rapidly declined with the advent of the "talkies". The talking picture development, begun with the Jazz Singer's famous line "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet", was about to revolutionise the industry, which had been in decline. As Gore Vidal noted in his book Screening History: "Actually, the movies were not as popular in the Twenties as they had been before the First World War."

The Jazz Singer had not been allowed to compete for best picture because the Academy decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films. DeMille told the audience: “There is only one award in this whole list that has anything to do with talking pictures. It seems strange when you stop and look over the field and see how many talking pictures are being distributed today."

Some at the 1929 ceremony knew the world of cinema was turning, not least the Dean of Stanford University, who was at the event promoting his university's new course on film, called "An Introduction to Photoplay".

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