Your RDA of Irony

And Now the Nominations for Megalomaniac

May 11, 1927:  The Studio Moguls Demand Respect–or as they would say “Fancy-Smancy”

Hollywood is one of the great and enduring success stories of America.  In 1906, the perennial sunshine of Southern California was conducive for shooting film and tempted a New York-based studio to open a west coast office.  Even then, filmmakers had a tendency to copy each other.  By 1915, most American movies were made in California, and an agricultural community outside of Los Angeles had become the center and synonym for movies. 

The world loved Hollywood’s films.  Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by themselves ensured a trade surplus for America.  As for the producers and studio heads–Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn and others–they were rich and powerful but still dissatisfied.  Men of modest origins but not modest natures, they wanted honors and deference.  In another time or country, they could have acquired titles of nobility; but 20th century America had none to offer.  However, in 20th century America these producers were free to anoint themselves.  So they did.  On May 11, 1927 they formed a society whose chief purpose was self-adoration.  Grasping for prestige, the organization’s name was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  Its first president–Douglas Fairbanks, himself–proposed some awards for merit. 

The first awards ceremony was at a banquet the following year.  Ten awards were given out in 15 minutes.  We would recognize most of the awards’ categories:  best film, best actor, best actress, best director, etc.  But there also was a prize for “Best Title Writing”.  Movies then were silent, and any narration or dialogue would appear on title cards flashing on the screen.  So, when the villain wants to have his way with Lillian Gish, a title card would express Miss Gish’s indignation:  “You cad!”  The first award for best Title Writing was also the last.  In 1927’s”The Jazz Singer” Al Jolson had turned to the audience and said aloud, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”  The Hollywood film now talked.

The tradition of the terrible acceptance speech also dates to that first Awards ceremony.  The winner for best actor was Emil Jannings.  He was German but in silent films no one could detect his miserable knowledge of English.  The advent of the “talkie”, however, ended his prospects in Hollywood.  He actually was on a train out of town when the first Awards ceremony was held.  Jannings wired his acceptance speech, saying thank you and adding  “I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award for me.”


  1. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    After American offers faded, Emil Jannings, who is referenced in “Inglourious Basterds,” returned to Berlin in the 1930s to make pro-Nazi films.

    Producers of today’s Oscar broadcast would have loved Emil Jannnigs’ acceptance speech, if only for its brevity!

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Jannings did appear in one “talkie” that was an international success: “The Blue Angel.” His costar, a Miss Dietrich, did not share Jannings’ political malleability and, although a pure Aryan, she left Germany in 1933. During the War, she was an inexhaustible entertainer for the USO. Her friend Billy Wilder said that “Marlene Dietrich was at the front more than Eisenhower.” In one of her most famous USO routines, she appeared with an amateur magician named Orson Welles (he probably found the War safer than Hollywood); among his tricks, Welles would saw her in two.


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