In the postwar turf fight between the motion picture industry and the television networks, the first telecast of an Academy Awards ceremony by NBC on March 19, 1953 marked the beginning of grudging truce: The movies would use TV to lure audiences back into theaters and TV would use the movies to sell television.
As usual, a lot of the action took place off (either) screen. In addition to the film-v.-TV storyline and the backstage machinations to win the gold-plated statue (by now universally known as Oscar, though still a name that required quotation marks, at least according to the grammar police at the New York Times), a political undercurrent rumbled beneath the hooray-for-Hollywood festivities. The showdown was not just, or maybe mostly, between calibrations of film artistry but, in the case of two of the five best picture nominees, between gradations of ideological correctness.
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Three of the candidates bore no partisan vapor trail (John Ford’s The Quiet Man, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, and Pando S. Berman’s Ivanhoe) but two (High Noon, produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by Carl Foreman; and The Greatest Show on Earth from ringmaster Cecil B. DeMille) served as stand-ins for the political leanings of their makers — and seemed poised to split the votes of the 1,750 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences along selfsame lines.
The decision by AMPAS to make nice with its nemesis was, you will be shocked to learn, motivated by money. The cash-strapped studios were no longer willing to pony up to pay for the soiree, so when NBC offered $100,000 for the broadcast rights, AMPAS abruptly reversed course on its “stubborn policy against TV” in the hope that, as only Variety could put it, “home telecasting could serve as an important biz hypo.” The move was part of a “sweeping change in the attitude of the big film studios toward TV,” noted AP’s ace entertainment reporter Bob Thomas.
Once the green light was given, AMPAS and NBC collaborated to insure maximum audience penetration in a nation of 160,000,000 with approximately 23.5 million sets in use. 106 NBC-TV stations and 190 NBC radio stations broadcast the event. The stateside viewing audience was augmented by 31,000,000 radio listeners overseas, courtesy of the Armed Forces Radio Service which, in one of America’s more devious acts of Cold War brinksmanship, fed the bedazzling capitalist spectacle to 69 foreign stations. So as not to cut into motion picture and Broadway revenues, the show was scheduled from 10:30 p.m. to 12:00 EST, live from the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and the International Theater in New York. The sponsor was NBC’s parent company, RCA, which, naturally, was peddling RCA Victor television sets.
Viewed today on a chalky kinescope,[*] the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 25th Annual Academy Awards provides a time portal viewfinder into the state of the embryonic art and the manners of Hollywood types still insecure with the new medium (you can see the eyelines of veteran film actors glancing at their images on the in-house monitors).
In honor of AMPAS’s silver anniversary, the stage is decorated with a huge Oscar-topped wedding cake, with smaller Oscars-as-candles circulating around the faux pastry. Stage left, a large screen projects the show to the Pantages audience. Longtime MGM musical director Johnny Green, no stranger to Oscars himself, oversaw the production. A swinging orchestra under the baton of past and future Oscar winner Adolph Deutsch expertly juggles sheet music to play the film-appropriate musical theme. Some 2,800 tuxedoed and begowned swells packed the Pantages, many arriving late due to heavy rains, a downpour that also cut down the crowd of looky-loos outside the theater. If the off-screen announcer sounds vaguely familiar, it is because he is Ronald Reagan.
One decision the AMPAS board of 1953 did not have to anguish over was the selection of the host: the availability of stand-up comedian and radio and film superstar Bob Hope made life easy. The most versatile, reliable, and motor-mouthed MC of the mid-twentieth century, especially when his writers were waiting in the wings, Hope had first hosted the ceremonies in 1940 when Gone With the Wind took home eight Oscars (“What a wonderful thing — this benefit for David Selznick!”) and he would perform the duty 13 times in all, up until 1978.
The minute Hope walks to the podium he owns the room. His cascade of non-stop punchlines taps two main veins: side-eyed swipes at television (“Jack Warner still refers to TV as that furniture that stares back”) and the long-running gag about his unrequited Oscar-love. (“I like to be here just in case. You can never tell — one year there might be one left over.”) For viewers under a certain age, Hope’s topical humor may require a footnote. “Don’t glare at me, you melted-down Stevenson button!” he snaps at the shelf of Oscars stage left. When actor Ray Milland walks off stage, he muses, “I wonder if he ever redeemed his typewriter.” An evergreen joke that cuts both ways gets the biggest laugh of the night: “TV — that’s where movies go when they die.”
Back in New York, the hosting duties were shared by actors Conrad Nagel, a founding member of the Academy, and Fredric March. Then the center of television production, New York gets insultingly short shrift throughout the show. “The New York section had one-half of the theater space of the Hollywood extravaganza, one- fourth the audience, one-eighth the flowers, and less than one-twelfth of the award winners,” complained the New York Herald Tribune.
Though many of the awards were still being divided into “black and white” and “color” categories, the show moves swiftly and never feels rushed. The presenters — all of whom, in honor of the occasion, are themselves Academy Award recipients — get right down to business without the exchange of inane patter. The winners of the subaltern awards make no speeches, just say a simple thank you, if that. Some just clutch their trophies and run. Occasionally, a charming moment of confusion befuddles a star presenter. “Oh, there are two of you!” says a startled Ginger Rogers, when two substitutes for an absent winner walk to the podium from different directions. By the way, a lot of people aren’t in the house to pick up their awards; many are on location or just can’t be bothered to dress up.
Paced throughout the ceremonies, the musical performances were all easygoing and intimate, uncluttered by squadrons of over-choreographed dancers. Celeste Holm, finger puppet in hand, sings “Thumbelina” from Hans Christian Anderson; Hope shows off his vaudeville roots by hoofing and crooning along with Marilyn Maxwell on “Am I in Love?” from Son of Paleface; and Peggy Lee and Johnny Mercer absolutely kill on a duet of “Zing a Little Zong” from Just for You. The Black press took pride in the only featured Black performer of the night, singer-dancer Billy Daniels, who sang “Because You’re Mine” from the film of the same name. Of course, nothing was going to beat out Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s haunting ballad from High Noon, “Do Not Forsake Me,” as sung by Tex Ritter.
High Noon, which had earlier won the best B&W editing award, seemed on a roll. Perhaps the best of the cycle of “adult westerns” that thrived during the Cold War, the clock-watching melodrama depicts the cowardice of a frontier community which refuses to stand up to a gang of outlaws, a thinly veiled metaphor for the fear instilled in another western town by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Greatest Show on Earth wasn’t much of a metaphor for anything except the grandiosity of the name above the title. However, Cecil B. DeMille was a founding member of the fiercely anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group whose core American ideal was to blacklist non-members out of the motion picture business.
Everyone sitting in New York and Los Angeles knew another pertinent backstory.[†] On September 24, 1951, High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman was called before a HUAC session in Los Angeles, where he was neither cooperative nor friendly. Though Foreman testified that he was not currently a communist, he stood on his First and Fifth Amendment rights and refused to say whether he had been one in the past. Career-wise, the result was instant radioactivity. Kramer fired him and Foreman, now blacklisted, fled to exile in England. Still, the Feinberg forecasters of the day had pegged High Noon to take all the top honors it was up for — picture, director, star, and screenwriter.
Things tuned bad early, though, when John Ford not Fred Zinnemann won best director for The Quiet Man. Accepting the award for the man he calls “Mr. Ford,” John Wayne names some of their collaborations (“naturally, as I ham, I’d remember the things that I was in”) and pledges to go by Ford’s house and place this latest Oscar on the mantel along with Ford’s five other Oscars. “It must be great to have a shelf like that,” says a wistful Hope.
Next, a seemingly tipsy Gloria Grahame won the best supporting actress for her role being both in The Bad and the Beautiful (she “looked as if she could use a little support herself,” remarked television critic John Crosby). In an upset — Richard Burton was the favorite for My Cousin Rachel — Anthony Quinn won best supporting actor for Viva Zapata! Quinn was on location in Mexico shooting Blowing Wild, so his wife accepted for him. “I am sure Tony will be a very happy man,” she says, when she tells him the news by telephone. Hope: “It must be great to get those calls.”
And then the most suspenseful envelope-please moment, in Hollywood if not in American living rooms, the presentation of the award for best screenplay. So toxic were the times and so dreaded the fear of blowback from mere association with a blacklisted artist, that no one on the Kramer team wanted to accept the award if Foreman won for High Noon (preferring, presumably, to lie a coward in their grave). According to Hollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connolly, before the show, “they drew for the ‘honor,’ and Rudolph Sternad was stuck with the short straw!” Sternad was the production designer on High Noon.
Dore Schary, head of MGM and a former screenwriter himself, was tapped to read the winner’s name. (They were still called “winners” in those brutally frank times; the no-less-painful circumlocution “the Oscar goes to—” was not introduced until 1989.) “The writer — whether he be dramatist, novelist, or screenwriter — is by nature a lonely man,” intones Schary, before the Big Reveal. He sounds delighted to read out the name of his friend Charles Schnee for The Bad and the Beautiful. At the New York Times, critic Otis Guernsey wondered aloud what many suspected—that politics, the macro HUAC kind not the micro AMPAS kind, were involved when “a staple workmanlike job like The Bad and the Beautiful takes the gold figurine away from one of the tightest, soundest, technically most perfect American movie scripts on the record.” Anyway, Rudolph Sternad must have breathed a sigh of relief.
Janet Gaynor, winner of the very first as yet unchristened Oscar for best actress for her work in three films, Sunrise (1927), Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928), walks out to a thunderous ovation to present the best actor award to Gary Cooper for High Noon, bestowed more to honor the well-liked star than the controversial film. Doing double duty, John Wayne accepted the trophy for Cooper, who was in Mexico shooting Vera Cruz (1954). (Like DeMille, Wayne was a high-profile member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Cooper had testified as a friendly, albeit tight-lipped, witness before HUAC in 1947.) In later years, Wayne would call High Noon “un-American,” but in 1953 he confessed to some very Bob Hope-like Oscar envy. After drawling that Cooper was “one of the nicest fellas I know,” Wayne said he was going to berate his management “and find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper!”
At 11:40 p.m. New York finally got some airtime when Shirley Booth won the best actress award for her first film, Come Back, Little Sheba. Booth, who was starring in The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire Theater on Broadway and 40th St., had cut the timing perilously close. The minute the curtain dropped, she bolted uptown to the International Theater at Columbus Circle, arriving at 11:15 p.m. When her name was announced, she smiled radiantly, removed her fur wrap, and (hello, Jennifer Lawrence) tripped on the hem of her gown while walking up the steps of the stage.
Recovering quickly, she was handed her Oscar by Fredric March, who kisses her on the cheek and joked that she had twenty-five minutes to make a speech. She was short and sweet. “I am a very happy and a very lucky girl,” she said. “It’s been a long, long climb — I guess this is the peak, but the view has been wonderful all along the way.”
Mary Pickford was selected to hand out the best picture Oscar. Gesturing to the monstrosity behind them, Hope tells the silent screen superstar and founding mogul that she poured the batter and put the icing on the Oscar birthday cake. Shockingly — I think I heard gasps from the crowd — the award went to DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
Before saying his thanks, DeMille reminds Pickford that they first worked together as juveniles in The Warrens of Virginia at the Belasco Theater. That was in 1907. “Excuse me,” quips Pickford good naturedly, “while I braid my long white beard.” DeMille thanked his cast of thousands and the stars and circus workers who “literally risked their lives,” and said modestly, “I am only one little link in a chain that produced that picture.”
In the annals of jaw-dropping decisions by the Academy voters, the selection of The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon as best picture remains hard to top. The choice was roundly lambasted at the time and generally attributed to a craven motive. “We don’t like to think it, but it appears that High Noon was punished because it was written by Carl Foreman,” read an editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser, which called the DeMille spectacle “kid stuff” and the Zinnemann drama “close to a masterpiece.” And that’s how they felt in Alabama.
After the best picture award, the show turns anti-climactically to the honorary awards, handed out by producer-screenwriter and AMPAS president Charles Brackett.[‡] Bracket seems rightly embarrassed that it took AMPAS so long to give George Alfred Mitchell an award for the 35mm workhorse motion picture camera that bears his name. Other recipients include industry pioneer Joseph M. Schenk, producer Miriam C. Cooper, and silent comedian Harold Lloyd.
Then Brackett makes a surprise addition to the list of honorees — Bob Hope. When Brackett hands Hope the long-coveted Oscar, the comedian seems genuinely touched and momentarily tongue-tied: “I’m flabbergasted!” DeMille’s return to the stage to accept the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award from three-time Thalberg Award winner Darryl F. Zanuck allows Hope time to consult with his writers. Back in form, he holds up his statue and asks, “Is this the same size as Crosby’s?” It’s a good sign-off line.
The smackdowns of the first Oscar telecast began the morning after the first Oscar telecast. New York Times film critic-curmudgeon Bosley Crowther responded in full Addison DeWitt mode, calling the show “a routine and pointless affair, “pedestrian and conventional,” with an atmosphere both “retrospective and rococo.” Billboard was bored stiff by the “long stretch of ennui inducing programming,” by which it meant “the stiff dull reading of nominees in secondary categories like costume design, set design, cinematography, etc., ad infinitum.” Everyone knew that “Joe and Jane Public” cared only about six awards — best picture, the four top acting awards, and best song.
Actually, not in 1953: the ratings were through the roof. Trendex gave the show a 35.5 rating with an astonishing 70.2 share, for an estimated viewing audience of 50,000,0000. (By comparison last year’s Oscar telecast drew 9.85 million viewers, with a paltry 1.9 rating for the prime 18–49-year-old demo.) “Whole Nation Watches Oscar’s Annual Bow,” proclaimed Motion Picture Herald, in a headline unlikely to be typeset again anytime soon.
For many, the technological virtuosity of the show was an Oscar-worthy performance in itself. Even hardcore video-phobes praised the smooth switchovers from LA to NY and back again. Television had jump cut between the two coasts before (on November 18, 1951, Edward R. Murrow debuted his news magazine See It Now with simultaneous views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge on two different monitors) but never had the cross-country teleportation been handled so seamlessly. “The set owner’s sense of being in three places at once — New York, Hollywood, and at home — was thoroughly real,” marveled New York Times television critic Jack Gould.
Finally, a good deal of post-Oscar buzz focused on a clever commercial for RCA Victor television. An announcer appeared in two images, each in the shape of an RCA television screen. One was a real RCA set, the other a TV screen-shaped hole in which he was actually appearing. Which was the image on the set and which was the one being directly shot by the TV cameras? At the end of the commercial, he put his arm though the empty frame. Allegedly, viewers could not tell which screen was which.
That’s right: one of the best reviewed segments from the first televised Academy Awards show was the television commercial for television.
[*] A kinescope is a 16mm film of a live television show, taken directly from the television screen. Before the introduction of the Ampex Videotape Recorder in 1956, it was the only way to capture and preserve a live television event. A video transfer of the 25th Academy Awards Show, courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, can be viewed at the Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and Los Angeles. The running time is one hour and forty-four minutes, without commercials, which, alas, were deleted from the preservation copy (we hate the commercials of the present and love the commercials of the past).
[†] For a comprehensive account of the convoluted politics surrounding High Noon, see Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2007).
[‡] The AMPAS website states that the honorary awards portion of the show was not telecast, but the honorees in the last section refer to the television audience as if they are on the air and several critics reviewed the last section. Many television stations went off the air at midnight in 1953, and not all NBC affiliates played the full show.
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