The first Academy Award ceremony—which took place on May 16, 1929, at a banquet in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—bore little resemblance to today’s glitzy and bloated bashes. There was no suspense—winners had been announced three months earlier. Those winners were chosen not by thousands of Academy members (as they are now), but by a committee of five men, overseen by L.B. Mayer, lord of MGM. In fact, the very idea of awards was an afterthought for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was created in 1927 in large part as a studio producers’ association to stem the tide of unionization in the industry.
Best Picture went to Wings (1927), William Wellman’s World War I air battle extravaganza, which despite Clara Bow’s presence is basically a male love story between pilot pals Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. Confusingly, there was also a Unique and Artistic Production Award, which went to Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a film of unequaled beauty, years ahead of its time. Petite Janet Gaynor copped Best Actress for her work in Sunrise and two Frank Borzage films, Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). In Heaven (Best Director), a hymn to uncompromising romanticism, she’s a Parisian waif in love with a handsome sewer worker; in the beautifully stylized studio streets of Angel‘s Naples, she’s an unwilling whore who becomes a circus artiste. Emil Jannings (Best Actor) is enjoyably over-the-top as an exiled czarist general surviving as a Hollywood extra in Josef von Sternberg’s ironic Pirandellian The Last Command (1928). King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), nominated for Unique and Artistic Production, didn’t win in that category, although its title writer went home with a statue. This bleak, flawlessly acted story of the travails of a post-war everyman and his wife, with astonishing hidden-camera New York location work, is arguably this great director’s finest film.