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The Best Actress winner wore an off-the-rack skirt set. The guests nibbled at half-broiled chicken on toast. And the entire ceremony was over in 15 minutes. Hardly anything about the first Academy Awards, held May 16, 1929, foretold the billion-dollar juggernaut to come: no flashbulb-blitzed red carpet, no goodie bags, no 360-style camera. (In fact, the show wouldn’t reach a television audience at all until 1953.) Just a handful of industry machers and movie stars gathered in a hotel ballroom, saluting their own—and saying goodbye to an age that was already fading fast even as they honored it: the era of silent films.
More than a year had passed since talkies were introduced, revolutionizing the business, but you wouldn’t know it from the nominees. Even the pioneering Jazz Singer was kept out of the competition for major categories—its spoken dialogue was deemed an “unfair” advantage—and had to settle for an honorary award. Otherwise, the rules were hardly stringent. Though legendary studio mogul Louis B. Mayer claimed that the main aim of the evening was to raise funds for the nonprofit Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was really more like a gold-plated carrot. “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them,” he said later. “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.”
And they came for their cups: Some 270 attendees paid $5 each (roughly $70 in today’s money) for the privilege of a private dinner at the Blossom Room in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. There, they were treated to a banquet that began with something called consommé Celestine and ended with ice cream, with speeches in between from the likes of Mary Pickford and Cecil B. DeMille. Actor Douglas Fairbanks was tasked with hosting and handing out the statuettes, 12 inches tall and plated in 24-carat gold, though there was no need for the winners to act surprised: The prizes had been announced three months before in the Los Angeles Times. Recipients that first year included the war romance Wings (Outstanding Picture), Janet Gaynor (Best Actress across three roles—7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), and Charlie Chaplin, who was ultimately cut from the major competitions and given his own special recognition. (He wouldn’t receive another Oscar until the Academy granted him an honorary award in 1971.)
Some of the original 12 categories, like Best Title Writing and Best Unique and Artistic Picture, soon fell by the wayside; dozens more would be added over the years. By 1930 the ceremony was broadcast on radio, and the winners’ surprised faces were real; television cameras and pomp and circumstance eventually followed. But back in 1929 it was still just a homegrown show, by and for the people who made Hollywood happen. “Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I would have been overwhelmed,” Gaynor later said, according to Robert Osborne’s 2013 book 85 Years of the Oscar. “But I still remember that night as very special, a warm evening, and a room filled with important people and nice friends.” Ninety years on, the spirit remains—give or take a few billion friends.