The red carpet, the secret envelopes, and the after-party glitz and glam have become so ingrained in how we perceive the Oscar ceremony, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t anything like the TV broadcast millions worldwide will watch on ABC on February 22nd. There was a time when the awards were handed out in hotel ballrooms free of television cameras because television didn’t even exist; a time when they were handed out in minutes instead of hours because the studio heads wanted to get in as much dancing with their contract starlets as the evening would allow; a time when the Academy Awards weren’t even openly referred to as “Oscars” because the name was initially regarded as an insult, mockingly served up with a heaping spoonful of sour grapes that was smirked by the jealous hacks of Tinsel Town who were never considered for them.
This was also a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was reviled by rank and file of Hollywood because it was started as a labor organization placed squarely under the iron thumbs attached to the iron fists of the studios.
Oh, that wasn’t the Academy’s only purpose, by any means.
It was born as the brainchild of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who envisioned the organization as an elite alliance of the industry’s cream of the crop that would influence taste and act as an internal censor which would head off the dreaded Hays Office from highjacking movie content with the burgeoning Motion Picture Production Code. But what really got Mayer’s goat was the idea of unions taking over Hollywood. 1930s Hollywood was decidedly “open-shop.” Los Angeles had been a hot-bed of anti-labor flare-ups for the better part of the teens and 20s, and when it came to the cities’ largest industry– motion pictures — the tensions had reached a boiling point. Producers sat atop an inverted pyramid of power–the moguls reigned over Hollywood and everyone else below them, as David O. Selznick once famously said, were mere “cogs in the wheel.” Creative control over the work of actors, directors, and writers, were subject to the almighty dictates of the self-appointed czars of Hollywood. And the czars wanted to keep it that way.
Louis B. Mayer had recently built a beach house whose construction was so delayed by the carping of union carpenters, union electricians and union painters that it seemed like the place would never be finished. (Poor Mayer, right? A luxuious beach house delayed over a carpenter wanting a fair day’s wages. Outrageous.) Mayer swore that those unions would never get a foothold in his movie empire, so he had it written into the Academy charter that part of its function would be to arbitrate disputes between labor and management. (The deliciously witty Dorothy Parker said it best: “Looking to the Academy for representation was like trying to get laid in your mother’s house. Somebody was always in the parlor, watching.”)
That charter would be the death-knell of the Academy as Mayer had envisioned it.
When President Roosevelt called for a bank holiday in 1933, the studios forced the Academy’s reaction by having the entire industry take an across-the-board 50% cut in wages for the duration of the crisis. Mayer made darn sure to let MGM know that he would be taking the pay cut along with everyone else. But Louis B. Mayer, making $8,000 a week, having the same percentage taken out as workers who were eking out a living on less than $50 dollars a week, only illustrated who the Academy was actually working for, especially when the money that was withheld from payroll only wound up being dumped back into the studio’s profit margin. Not only that, but as director King Vidor later recounted, ‘anyone refusing the 50% cut would be terminated.’ The Hollywood frontlines needed their own advocates negotiating on their behalf, and they found them in the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild.
The unions knew that their first order of business was to take the Academy out of its role as an arbitrator of labor disputes; and to show the powers that be that they intended to do exactly that, they needed to hit Mayer and the Academy where it hurt. They needed to be at the forefront of the annual ceremony that placed the Academy in the spotlight of the center stage of the world. The unions needed their members to boycott the Academy Awards.
By 1936, the award ceremony was already in something of a shambles. The Academy was rocked by scandal at the previous banquet when Bette Davis, considered a sure-thing winner for Best Actress in Of Human Bondage, wasn’t even nominated. So great was the outcry over Davis’ omission that the Academy allowed write-in votes to give her a second chance. She wound up losing to official nominee Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, but the Academy continued to allow write-in votes that year, with cinematographer Hal Mohr becoming the only person to ever win an Oscar without a nomination for his photography of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Academy was on a shaky foundation and the unions knew it.
The gauntlet was thrown on March 2nd, 1936 when the unions, white-hot with angst, sent their members a telegram stating that the Academy was not a supporter of labor and urged members not to attend the awards, which was slated for March 5th at the Biltmore Hotel. (Leading SAG members James Cagney and Gary Cooper were particularly active in the movement.) Mayer along with other studio bosses, attempted a desperate counter, sending out telegrams of their own instructing their contract players to attend the ceremony. (Jeanette McDonald, one of MGM’s biggest stars at the time, and a SAG supporter, remembered the telegram feeling “…like an iron fist in a velvet glove.”)
But it was too late: the union’s gambit worked. Actors, writers and directors withdrew their Academy memberships and financial support until Mayer’s dream of an elite alliance of the industry’s cream of the crop suddenly became a Hollywood pariah.
For the first time, the Academy board of directors would have to pay for the banquet out of their own pockets because its support from the studios was drying up.
But an even bigger problem seemed to be whether anyone would show up for the banquet at all. In those days before the secret ballot (1936 would be the first year that the Academy hired an accounting firm called Price Waterhouse to tabulate the voting), Writers Guild stalwart and union activist Dudley Nichols announced that he would be turning down the award he won for his screenplay of The Informer when he was told in advance that he was the honoree. Nichols was the first person to ever refuse an Academy honor. (The Variety banner declared, in classic Varietyspeak, “NICHOLS JILTS ACAD. DOLL”.)
One had to wonder: would there be others? It would be a public relations fiasco if the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel was empty on Oscar Night. The Academy was down for the count, and the unions knew it. It would take a miracle to take the taint off the awards presentation.
But Academy president Frank Capra was a man famous for making miracles happen on the screen in films like Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night, so when he got his chance to do it in real life, he didn’t disappoint. Capra had been obsessed with the Academy Awards since their inception and was convinced that they were vital for the public’s perception of the movies. He looked at the situation and determined that this year’s award ceremony shouldn’t just be about honoring achievements in film. They should also honor an entire lifetime’s work. That would send the message that the Academy wasn’t simply a dark tower built by the studio heads to crush their minions, but was instead a kind-hearted group of movie-lovers who wanted only to honor the accomplishments of the artists over a lifetime of work; successes that weren’t just realized during a 365 day calendar, but an unforgettable series of triumphs that had been accumulated throughout an artist’s career.
So Capra took a deep breath and announced that the 1936 Academy Awards presentation would be a special one because for the first time, an award would be given for achievements amassed over the course of a lifetime. And for that one-of-a-kind honor, there could be only one recipient; the visionary filmmaker who directed The Birth of a Nation, the first great blockbuster in movie history; the artist who created masterpieces like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Hearts of the World; the man who saw some flickering shadows projected on a bed sheet nailed to a wall and realized that they would become the major art form of the twentieth century. The very first Academy Award for lifetime achievement would be presented to director D.W. Griffith.
Griffith’s name and reputation have been so sullied in recent years because of the truly shocking racism of The Birth of a Nation, a film whose heroes are the Ku Klux Klan, that it is difficult for us to consider how revered a figure he was in the mid 1930s. And viewed through eyes that have seen Seven Samurai or La Dolce Vita or Sunset Boulevard, his greatest work now seems crude and his legend overrated. But if we consider the merits of films that were made before February 8, 1915 when Birth of a Nation premiered and objectively compare them with Griffith’s Civil War epic, it’s not hard to understand why Birth can be regarded as something like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey that signaled a massive leap forward in mankind’s evolution. Griffith is dismissed today – perhaps justifiably so — for making a masterpiece overflowing with hate. But The Birth of a Nation was and remains a watershed moment in the history of the cinema. Denizens of Tinsel Town in 1936 were slow to pick up on the racism of Griffith’s work, seeing him only as the visionary who had transformed those flickering images into the art of movie-making.
But Hollywood is Hollywood and even visionaries can’t get a job if their last few movies bombed, and Griffith’s were critical and box office fiascos. He hadn’t released anything in five years and his last film, The Struggle, was considered to be so bad that top critics refused to review it out of respect for his past accomplishments. So Capra breathed a sigh of relief that when word got out that the Academy was honoring Griffith, no one thought of The Struggle. They thought of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the man who invented the movies in the flesh. The unions and the Academy were bound to get their problems sorted out eventually, they thought. Maybe they would show up for the banquet.
And they did. The 8th annual Academy Awards banquet of 1936 wasn’t the galaxy of stars that it had been in years past, but it did see celebrities like Clark Gable, Merle Oberon and Bette Davis (who finally won the Academy Award for her performance in Dangerous that had been denied her the year before) tripping the light fantastic on the dance floor.
But many stayed home, including the promised screenwriting winner Dudley Nichols and Best Director John Ford, and the ballroom’s ranks were swelled by studio secretaries and grips who were given last-minute free tickets to make it appear at a glance that the union boycott was ineffectual. But none of it seemed to matter when Birth of a Nation star Henry B. Walthall handed the first lifetime achievement award ever presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to D.W. Griffith, which the director accepted by saying “We had many worries in those day, small worries. Now you people have your worries and they are big ones. They have grown with the business; and no matter what its problems, it is the greatest business in the world.” Griffith’s words won him the first standing ovation ever given at an Academy Awards ceremony.
The big problems with the unions didn’t disappear that night, of course. But Frank Capra’s brilliant strategy had worked. The movers and shakers of Hollywood eventually came back to the Academy and by the time of the 1937 awards, the storm had blown over for everyone.
Almost everyone, that is. The Academy sent Dudley Nichols his statuette the day after the banquet but the screenwriter just sent it back again, resulting in a game of hot potato with the award that went on until 1938, when the Academy ultimately removed all references to its being a labor organization from its charter and he accepted his prize. Capra begrudgingly came around on the Academy’s participation in labor matters because of the charismatic leadership of the newly-installed president of the Directors Guild of America, who made him see the union issue in an entirely different light.
His name was Frank Capra.