You are currently viewing 365 Days of Oscar: Remembering the First Televised Oscar Ceremony

365 Days of Oscar: Remembering the First Televised Oscar Ceremony

The first telecast of an Academy Awards ceremony by NBC on March 19, 1953, marking the beginning of a grudging truce: 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. 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. In a shock, 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.

This article is part of a special year-long series of anecdotes, reflections and thoughts about the Academy Awards.