Monday 3 March 2014

Award Season: Top 5 Precode Oscar Moments

The annual Academy Awards has always been an occasion for glitz and glamour and to honour members of the film industry who have excelled over the year. Since the event began broadcasting on television, the eager public has been the given the unprecedented opportunity to have live and comprehensive coverage of the ceremony and (more importantly) the red carpet pre-show. This technology has made the yearly scandals, snubs, bad jokes and outfit shocks instant news all in vivid colour. However, the period before television and the radio broadcast – and my personal interest – the early 1930’s also included a number of cringe worthy, unbelievable and ground-breaking moments. These incidents were only recorded thanks to the now seemingly out-dated medium, the newspaper, and organisations, such as, Oscars.org. Amid this awards season I have dug out my top 5 Precode Oscar Moments:

5. It Happened One Awards Night
The 7th Academy Awards held February 27th, 1935, proved a spectacular year for comedies and the famous, influential director, Frank Capra. His little romantic comedy, It Happened One Night, became the first film in the awards history to take a clean sweep of all the major Oscars. These include: Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable who won the top acting gongs, Best Director for Capra, Best Screenplay for writer Robert Riskin and also, the most celebrated category, of Best Picture. It would take more than 40 years for the feat to be repeated by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976. It was also an astounding win because in conjunction with the film being the first romantic comedy to receive Best Picture, the film was never destined to be a resounding success. There were many issues with the movie pre-production, mainly with casting with none of the major stars of the period willing or able to take either the male or female leads. After a struggle Capra finally settled on Gable and Colbert both who had a long line of demands before agreeing to participate. However, the films dialogue, themes and the performances of actors struck a chord with both audiences and critics making the film a major triumph.    
Claudette Colbert with her Oscar
4. The Importance of Being Frank
Conversely, the 1933 ceremony, a year before, was embarrassing experience for the innovative director, Frank Capra. The filmmaker providing an interesting and hilarious talking point for the guests and media alike days after all the Oscars were awarded. Capra was nominated for Best Director for his work on the film, Lady For a Day, alongside George Cukor for, Little Women, and Frank Lloyd for the historical epic, Cavalcade. Actor and master of ceremonies, Will Rogers, announced the nominees and called, ambiguously, “Come up and get it, Frank!” Assuming he had been awarded the prize and in the confusion, Capra rushed to the stage to collect the statue. After a few moments of bewilderment and clarification, Rogers confirmed it was actually Lloyd who had won instead of Capra. It was an Oscar blunder that thanks to the lack of technology was not instant news and has become a part of the Academy Awards legend. Thankfully, Capra’s embarrassment was overcome when he was rewarded the following year with the Best Director award.

Frank Lloyd and Will Rogers

3. Let’s Call it a Tie        
Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Conrad Nagel and Fredric March
The 5th Academy Awards celebrating the films created between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932 created an odd dilemma for the award’s officials. In the Best Actor category, front-runners, Fredric March nominated for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery for The Champ ended the voting with a one-point difference. The Academy rules at the time stated that the score was not a significant enough win and called the contest a tie. On the night both actors were presented separate trophies and, luckily, both appeared contented with the outcome. Although he was officially in the lead, March was happy to share his prize, with his biographer, Charles Tranberg, commenting:    

March made a very witty acceptance speech.  He and Beery had both recently adopted a child and March said something to the effect that it was ‘a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.’  Very funny and witty--March really did have a good sense of humour.  It brought down the house.  March had no adverse reaction to sharing the award with Beery--after all they both got their own statuette and didn’t have to share custody of one trophy.”

2. The Kids
Young stars became a feature of the Academy Awards ceremonies between 1930 and 1934 as this era in films created many opportunities for the tiny talents to exhibit their abilities. Two outstanding examples are Shirley Temple and Jackie Cooper who both caught the public and the academy’s eyes in the early thirties. Temple created history winning the first ever Juvenile Award aged six at the 7th Academy Awards which was created to acknowledge her achievements over her short career. She is still the youngest ever Oscar recipient. Similarly, Jackie Cooper entered the history books in 1931 after being nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Skippy aged only nine. His achievement was only surpassed in 1979 by Justin Henry nominated for his work in Kramer vs. Kramer. However, young Cooper didn’t have the stamina to last the entire ceremony. According to reports, Cooper fell asleep half way through the proceedings unfortunately on the shoulder of Marie Dressler who was nominated for Best Actress. When she won, Dressler had to slowly manoeuvre the sleeping Cooper onto his mother’s lap before accepting the award.   
Shirley Temple with her Academy Award

1. The Great Bette Snub  
Bette Davis with her Oscar for Dangerous in 1935
One of the most shocking ever Oscar snubs occurred in 1934. Bette Davis who had previously been given flimsy and melodramatic roles had forced the tyrannical Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO to star in the confronting Somerset Maugham story, Of Human Bondage. The role was challenging for Davis who not only had to behave outrageously flirty and cruel but appear physically hideous and die in the end of a degrading undisclosed illness. She was successful and a standout for the year with Life magazine commenting she gave, “the best performance ever recorded on the screen by an American actress.” However, astonishingly, Davis was not initially nominated for the Best Actress award. After pressure from the media, members of the public and other actors, The Academy was forced to reconsider its decision. The critics were insisting a “write-in ballot” be created. Later Academy’s president, Howard Estabrook stated, “The awards committee has decided upon a change in the rules to permit unrestricted selection of any voter, who may write on the ballot his personal choice for the winner.” This ruling allowed Davis to be officially named a nominee two weeks after the first announcement of the nominees were made. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Davis did not win losing out to Claudette Colbert. Interestingly she wrote in her autobiography that everybody on the night assumed she would be victorious.

“The air was thick with rumours. It seemed inevitable that I would receive the coveted award. The press, the public and the members of the Academy who did the voting were sure I would win! Surer than I!”
She was rewarded a year later receiving the Oscar for her role as a fallen actress in Dangerous in a well-acted performance but Davis always considered this a kind of reparation for the snub the year before. 

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