First Decade 1927-1936
04/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
Oscar threw his first party in 1929. The press stayed away. A black-tie crowd clapped politely as all 12 awards were distributed in under five minutes. The three Best Actor nominees didn't bother to show up. Janet Gaynor, first Best Actress winner, gamely tried to act thrilled. "Had I known what it would come to mean in the next few years," she said later, "I'm sure I'd have been overwhelmed." It was the first and last Oscar bust. The Depression and the sound era soon made movies into the ideal escapism, and Oscar's touch came to mean box office gold. Some aspired to win. Others conspired. As ever in Hollywood, greed, jealousy and raw ambition added up to a helluva show.
Emil Jannings: The first Best Actor winner had scooted home to Germany before collecting his Oscar scroll. His later Nazi propaganda films—done, he said, under duress—made him a favorite with Hitler. Marlene Dietrich disputes the Fuhrer on the talents of her Blue Angel co-star: "He was a terrible ham."
First Ceremony: Hollywood's elite jammed the Roosevelt Hotel to hear Al Jolson put down the Oscar as a "paperweight." Jolie's film, The Jazz Singer—an early talkie—had been disqualified; only silent films were eligible. The Academy was suspicious of new trends. Some things never change.
Janet Gaynor: The first Best Actress winner won for three silent movies: Street Angel, Sunrise and Seventh Heaven (above with co-star Charles Farrell). Gaynor, then 21, said she was giddy at the awards banquet—not over winning but from "meeting Doug Fairbanks," the movie hero who presented her award.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Their dancing and singing of "The Continental" in 1934's The Gay Divorcee prompted the Academy to recognize movie music by inventing a new category, Best Song.
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert: Both took Oscars for Frank Capra's 1934 comedy, It Happened One Night—as did Capra and the film—the only clean sweep in Academy history until One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest duplicated the feat in 1975. No one expected it. Everybody still thinks Gable won for Gone with the Wind.
Wings: Starring Buddy Rogers, Clara (the "It" girl) Bow and Richard Arlen, this silent WW I air extravaganza was the first Best Picture winner. With tinted color in the battle scenes and noise machines in theaters to simulate plane crashes, here was a primitive Top Gun that showed the Academy's early fondness for spectacle.
Bette Davis: Mother Goddam dressed down to collect her award for 1935's Dangerous, but Davis is credited with naming the statue. Reflecting that the trophy "resembled the backside" of her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson Jr., she dubbed her prize Oscar. The moniker stuck.
Norma Shearer: The 1930 winner for The Divorcee posed with Oscar two days before the ceremony. "She sleeps with the boss," sniped Joan Crawford. Rumor had it that MGM's Irving Thalberg pressured employees to vote for his wife.
Oscar's First Tie: Fredric March (with Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Wallace Beery (with little Jackie Cooper in The Champ) shared the 1931 gold. Both had recently adopted children. Odd, said March, "that Wally and I were given awards for best male performance."