Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Enjoying the Oscar Broadcast....from 1955

The less said about this year’s Oscar show the better. It was awful. The tribute to Bond was an embarrassment, the sleep-inducing acceptance speeches and the genuine lack of class lay thickly over the entire proceedings.

Several years ago, my local video rental store was getting rid of its VHS stock, with tapes selling for $1 each or three for $2. Since I still have a functioning VHS player, I picked up a few tapes including this genuine oddity – a tape of the 27th Annual Academy Awards broadcast, honoring the best in cinema in 1954.

It’s a fascinating document and interesting to compare and contrast with the Oscar show we know today. I can’t say it was a better show, but it was certainly a more streamlined show. Still, I must say that, for all its faults, I’m glad some changes were introduced over the years.

The 27th Oscar show was hosted by Oldsmobile, and the venerable car company receives several plugs throughout the show. (The tape had all the commercials edited out, and minus those commercials, the show ran exactly 95 minutes. The tape is of variable quality, though it is certainly watchable).

I won’t go into a blow by blow account of the ceremony, or announce the winners in each category. This is more of an overall look at what an Oscar broadcast was like circa 1955, with some (for me) highlights described..

The 27th Annual Academy Awards is remembered primarily for several reasons: the year’s Best Actress competition between favorites Grace Kelly for “The Country Girl” and Judy Garland for “A Star is Born” is recalled by Hollywood watchers as one of the closest and most partisan in Oscar history; Dimitri Tiomkin’s acceptance speech is one of the most famous in Oscardom and made the famous composer even more of a household name, a rarity for a screen composer at the time; and for the genuinely bizarre sight of Bob Hope and Marlon Brando trading jokes and yukking it on the Oscar stage. It’s like a scene from an alternate dimension.


The show begins with Robert Cummings introducing the show, being broadcast live from the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. The show was also being broadcast from the NBC Century Theater in New York (because of the “On the Waterfront” connection, perhaps?) with giant screens in the background showing what is going on at each theater. For early television viewers, this must have been mind boggling.

As David Rose conducts the orchestra in the pit, playing a medley of songs from great musicals, including the standards “The Trolley Song” and “Long Ago and Far Away”, the camera pans the audience in Hollywood as all the categories and nominations are superimposed on the screen. Cummings invites the audience to look for familiar faces in the crowd, but the quality of the tape precludes that, though I did spot Jeff Chandler in the audience.

Seeing all the nominations upfront seems like a good idea, but when the awards are ready to be given out, the nominations aren’t read, so we have to remember who is competing with who in each category..

Academy President Charles Brackett comes out to tell the audience that there are 20 acting nominees, and rather than having them sit in the audience and biting their nails, many of them will be acting as presenters and handing out awards throughout the evening.

Brackett then introduces the Master of Ceremonies Bob Hope. Now I say this as a Bob Hope fan, but I’ve always thought a lot of his Oscar hosting duties were pretty corny and some jokes that weren’t particularly funny. Here are a few examples from the evening’s monologue:

“Welcome to You Bet Your Career. The secret word tonight is shucks.”

“There’s a lot of nominees sitting side by side. We’re sitting on an ermine time bomb.”

“Losers will be presented with monogrammed do-it-yourself suicide kits.”

“We’ll be presenting some new awards tonight to producers going above and beyond the call of duty in making a musical in regular screen and black and white. Also to the producer who made a movie without Grace Kelly.”

“The studios are really fighting for storied properties. Sam Goldwyn bought ‘Guys and Dolls’, Leland Hayward bought ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and Howard Hughes bought ‘The Yalta Papers.’ The only problem is which of the three parts will Jane Russell play.”

Hope then turns around to the giant screen behind him to say hello to the NBC Century Theater in New York, and introduces the evening’s Mistress of Ceremonies Thelma Ritter. The very visibly nervous Thelma looks wonderful all gussied up. She then introduces former Academy President Conrad Nagel, who will be assisting her throughout the evening.

The two gentlemen from Price Waterhouse are introduced, one in Hollywood and one in New York. They remain on stage for the entire broadcast and hand the already opened envelopes to the presenters.

There must have been an exceptionally long commercial break because Hope says, “:Remember me” to loud and sustained applause. He then says, “My clothes went out of style.”

The first award is for Documentary Short and it sets the tone for the rest of the evening. No nominations are read, the opened envelope is handed to the presenter, the winner in the category is announced and the winner comes on stage to accept the award. Often there is no speech, or if there is one, it’s a modest thank you and no laundry list of names unknown to the viewing audience. Even the famous Edith Head, who wins for Best Costume Design Black and White for “Sabina”, doesn’t make a speech, but merely nods her head to acknowledge the applauding audience.

When there is a speech, it’s typically short and gracious. For instance, Grace Kelly announces the next award, for Documentary Feature, to “The Vanishing Prairie.” Walt Disney accepts the award and merely says, “On behalf of all the people who brought this to the screen, I thank you.”

Most of the speeches are in that fashion and are about as long.  What’s also interesting about this show is often the banter between Bob Hope and the presenter takes place after the award has been presented.

After Walt Disney exits the stage, Kelly stays behind. Hope says there’s some concern about Judy Garland not being present at the ceremony, and wants to know how she is dong. Kelly says, “She’s fine and regrets not being here tonight.”

Hope says, “We don’t expect her to act out ‘A Star is Born’ here on the stage.”

Hope then introduces the first nominated song, “The High and the Mighty.” Hope says, “I know why they couldn’t land that plane. John Wayne couldn’t find the stirrups.”

Again, not the wittiest of repartee.

Some of the best repartee of the evening comes after Humphrey Bogart presents the Best Black and White Cinematography award. He and Hope are standing at the lectern and Bogart exclaims, almost like a Shakespearean actor, “There isn’t much they can with a face like mine, but yours presents vistas of opportunity. They must gaze on you with all the glee of a child contemplating his first new puppy.”

Hope says they are the two guys in town most grateful to the cameramen and then the two of them begin patting each other on the cheeks and stroking each other’s chins. It’s quite silly and very funny.

Another highlight is when a game Marlon Brando comes on to present the Best Director award. The winner is Elia Kazan, who accepts in New York. And then Brando and Hope go at it, and Brando is surprisingly relaxed trading quips with Hope.

Hope: How do you feel about Elia Kazan winning?

Brando: I’m thrilled to death Bob. He looked pretty nervous.

Hope: First time at the Oscars?

Brando: Yes.

Hope: Everybody got nominated for that movie but the pigeon? Why?

Brando: He’s well-adjusted.

Brando then tells Hope if he wants to get nominated to get a good director and a good script. “Have Tennessee Williams write your next movie.”

Hope: I get Tennessee Ernie.

Brando: Well, it’s a step in the right direction.

If simultaneous broadcasting from both New York and Los Angeles isn’t enough, the broadcast then turns to London, where Audrey Hepburn reads all the nominations- a first and only time for the evening – in the Best Screenplay Adaptation category. She opens the envelope to read the winner, and then we hear Bob Hope announce the winner, George Seaton for “The Country Girl.” Audrey seems surprised that Hope beat her to the punch. Don’t know what happened there.

The next highlight comes courtesy one of the greatest teams in show business history, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and one of the most famous speeches in Oscar history. Bing, nominated that year for playing a recovering alcoholic in “The Country Girl”, is on to present the music awards and while their repartee is scripted, they are both so relaxed and in sync with each other that it looks spontaneous and fresh.

The winner for Best Dramatic Score is Dimitri Tiomkin for “The High and the Mighty.” Poor Dimitri is seated way in the back and it takes him a while to get to the stage, but that’s OK, because we get to hear a lot of the famous theme music as he makes his way to accept the award. Onstage, both Hope and Crosby salaam and bow to Tiomkin as he accepts his award, who then goes into his famous fractured speech:

“Ladies and gentlemen, because I working in this town for 25 years, I like to make some kind of appreciation to very important factor what make me successful to lots of my colleagues in this town. I’d like to thank Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. Thank you.”

By the time he gets to the second Strauss, the audience is roaring with laughter and clapping. For many years, many felt that Hollywood’s screen composers were openly copying their classical masters, and here’s Tiomkin pretty much admitting that. He later said he didn’t mean it to sound the way it came out, but the damage was done. (Many of his contemporaries like Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman were furious with him).

Regardless, he leaves the stage and Hope and Crosby stand there stunned, like they can’t believe what they just heard. Hope looks to the wings and says, “You’ll never get on this show again” and Crosby just about loses it.

Other music awards are given and Crosby is about to leave. Hope grabs him by the arm and says, “Look dad, just because you’re nominated you can still talk to old friends, right?”

Crosby says, “I understand you have some very dramatic scenes in (yet-to-be-released) “Seven Little Foys.”

Hope notes, “Yes, and I did it without a drink.”

Crosby quips, “That might be your problem” and walks off stage, twirling once as he enters the wings to a very delighted Hope.

When Grace Kelly’s name is announced as the Best Actress, there’s a loud roar of approval. It’s as if all of Hollywood is breathing a huge sigh of relief that the hotly contested race has finally come to an end.  


Bette Davis, wearing a bizarre Dutch cap, but basking in the audience applause for her, announces the Best Actor winner, Marlon Brando, who runs on stage with a huge grin on his face to accept the award. Davis gives him a kiss on the cheek and tells him, “You were just great.”

Brando is very gracious in his speech, saying the statue is heavier than it looks and he forgot what he was going to stay, but does manage, “So many people have been responsible for making me so very glad, and I’m very indebted. It’s a wonderful moment.”

 “On the Waterfront” producer Sam Spiegel accepts the Best Picture award, merely saying, “I’m very grateful to all of you. All of us who worked on ‘On the Waterfront’ are grateful for your acknowledgement.”


The last award has been handed out and Hope says the receptions will continue at Romanoffs and Chasens. He then gives a plug to the evening’s sponsors, bidding the audiences good night and telling them to get an Oldsmobile and drive to the movies.

And the show still isn’t over. Hope introduces Academy President Charles Brackett, who takes over hosting duties for the last 15 minutes, where the Scientific and Technical Awards are presented by Lauren Bacall; the Best Foreign Film; a special Oscar to Bausch & Lomb; the award for Best Juvenile Performance (a now defunct category); the Humanitarian Award to Danny Kaye for his work with UNICEF; and a special Honorary Academy Award to Greta Garbo. Garbo obviously didn’t attend the ceremony, but Nancy Kelly, in New York, accepted the award on her behalf.

But the show isn’t over yet. Hope brings on stage Robert Cummings to take a bow, as well as the show’s producer and general director, Jean Negulesco, show, who says a few words of thanks. Hope than asks show coordinator Johnny Green to take a bow from the audience. 

With that, the show is now officially over. Hope walks off the stage to the strains of “That’s Entertainment” and “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

The good points about the show is how fast it moved. Part of that is due to the brevity or non-existence of acceptance speeches. While I like how everyone gets to say something during contemporary Oscar broadcasts, I wish winners would heed the advice of the Academy and say something besides an endless list of people to thank. Hearing a succession of names does not make a good acceptance speech.

One of my favorite Oscar speeches of recent years was when director Steven Soderbergh won Best Director for “Traffic” (2000). He said there were lots of people to thank and he would be doing so to those people in the next couple of weeks. But he really wanted to talk about art and why they make art and to encourage those who make art to continue to do so. That was a great speech.

I also prefer having the nominees be read for each category to remind us of who is competing with each other. And the opening of the envelope on stage adds to the evening’s drama.

I look forward to the Oscars every year and then about an hour into the show I wonder why I anticipate it so much. That happens every year and I have no doubt the same thing will happen next year.

I hope the Oscars returns to a real celebration of film, both past and present. Return the Honorary Oscar to the broadcast itself, so we can hear something resembling a real speech instead of a thank you speech.

And please hire someone who puts real thought into Oscar tributes. As I said earlier, the Bond tribute was atrocious. There’s more to 007 than chases and explosions. How about showing each actor who played the role, some of the famous quips, fabulous scenery, the gadgets, M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, etc. What a wasted opportunity that was.

No doubt next year I’ll be looking forward to the Oscars and then bemoaning the broadcast the next day. It’s the way of the world, I guess.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much for this terrific summary of the events of that evening. What a treat to find that on VHS. I wonder if others exsit? Great post.

Kevin Deany said...

Jacqueline, I'm sure there must be. This one was the only one the store had, alas.

I often wondered why the AFI doesn't sell DVDs of their past Life Achievement Awards...Cagney, Astaire, Bette Davis, Stanwyck, etc. I'd pick up those in a heartbeat.

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin, This was my first year of not watching even a moment of the Oscars. It's never been a great show, but at least it was interesting when I recognized all the stars in the audience. Really enjoyed your recap of the 1955 ceremonies. Fascinating that the competition between Grace Kelly and Judy Garland was considered so close at the time since now most think Judy was robbed. Interesting how perceptions change with the passage of time.

I'd love to be able to watch Oscar broadcasts of the past. The first I remember was when when Liz won just after she nearly died. Scar on her throat, whispery voice, stunning to look at. High drama.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm amazed, and just a little bit hopeful, that there was a time when they knew how to keep the telecast moving.

Kevin Deany said...

Eve, the Oscar broadcast at my house is a big event. I have some friends over, we order pizza from our favorite pizza parlor, and we each have a ballot where we play along to see who gets the most right. Winner gets a fake Oscar statue and bragging rights for a year. I haven't won in about eight or nine years. I tend to vote with my heart rather than logically. Still, I came in second this year. So we'll continue to watch the Oscars even while complaining about them. It's a fun get together for us.

CW, the length of the Oscar broadcast doesn't bother me too much. It's only once a year. If I was a football fan, I'd be devoting the same amount of time every week for 16 weeks or so not including playoff games and the Super Bowl.

So three hours or so once a year doesn't bother. It's what they do during that three hours that often amazes me. I mean, they know for months they're doing a 007 tribute and this sloppily put together montage is the best they can do? No excuse for that.

silverscreenings said...

I wish I had seen this awards show instead of the one I started to watch this year...

Do you know if today's award-winners are obligated to list all those names in their acceptance speeches? I wonder because everyone seems so obsessed with it.

Great post! I really enjoyed reading about this awards show.

Classicfilmboy said...

Thank you for this look at a past ceremony ... and thank you for lending it to me a few years back. If anything, the show demonstrates that things don't change much. For example, the listing of nominees at the beginning instead of reading them when the category is announced was an innovation that lasted just one year. Also, YouTube has many clips of past Oscar shows, especially in acting categories. They are fun to watch.

Kevin Deany said...

CFB, I suspected that the listing of the Oscar nominees at the beginning wasn't the norm, but wasn't sure, and my Oscar history book has been misplaced. I always forget about You Tube as the depository for the most interesting footage. I'll take a lok see.

Silver screenings, I know the Academy tells nominees ahead of time to say something else besides a laundry list of names, but they don't seem to remember that, do they?

Patti said...

What a fun post this is, Kevin. And how interesting to know that there is a commercially-available tape of old Academy Award shows. Maybe watching one of those could be my annual Oscar night viewing tradition. I haven't watched the actual events in years, as I'm not really interested in current films. So, normally, I watch a Best Picture winner that night..usually an old black and white, but this year, I DID watch a current film..."The King's Speech."

Anyhow, it would be fun to watch more of these events. I would be especially intrigued to find a copy of the 1961 show...the one in which a very emotional Jimmy Stewart accepted the honorary Oscar for Gary Cooper, who was dying of cancer at the time.

Anyhow, thanks for making me aware of the existence of tapes of these events. Thanks, also, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts about John Garfield taking on Gary Cooper's role in The Fountainhead.

Kevin Deany said...

Patti, I don't think this was a commercially made tape. The packaging is very bland and I suspect it was a bootleg tape that found its way into someone's collection. I think it would be fun to see some of these old shows, and if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants to make some money, I think they would find a ready audience for them.

But I don't think it's going to happen. I suspect there are some very thorny rights issues involved.

Griffin Mathers said...

Thank you for the sum-up, it wasn't boring for me at all. That year has always been huge for me as a fan and family member of one of the recipients. I have only seen a few clips, so hearing about the whole shebang was pretty nice. (I still think Grace deserved her Oscar and Hope's joke about movies w/o her was good, she worked in so many films that year!)

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks for writing, Griffin. Who was your relation that won the Oscar that year?