The Oscars

The Oscars Before the Oscars

The Photoplay magazine Medal of Honor, voted on by fans, predated the Academy Awards by almost a decade.

Image by Slate

Popular as the Oscars may be, they are forever derided for being out of touch with the movies that fans actually watch. The rare Titanic win is supplanted, in the public eye, by the artsy movies they don’t care about and the Dark Knights that don’t even get nominated. The Academy Awards are a contradiction: both the film industry’s authoritative arbiter of “excellence” and a painfully stuffy institution that’s often tilted toward insidery favoritism rather than merit. The Oscars aren’t for the people, they’re for the studios and stars who know how to play the game.

You can trace the Oscars’ uneasy double role way back to their creation—in fact to before their creation. Several years before the first Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1929, Photoplay magazine, one of the earliest and most successful movie fan publications, began awarding what are considered to be the first major prizes for moving pictures, the Photoplay Medal of Honor, and these were decided on by the devoted, paying public.

From the contest’s inception in May 1921, the Photoplay Medal of Honor oozed lofty ambition: “PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE has determined to permanently establish an award of merit,” said one of the magazine’s earliest full-page announcements, “a figurative winning post comparable to the dignified and greatly coveted prizes of war and art.” The Medal of Honor would be crafted of solid gold by the illustrious Tiffany and Co., and presented only to the producer (not, to be clear, the director or the distributor) “whose vision, faith, and organization made the Best Photoplay a possibility.” At the bottom of the page, loyal readers were provided with a handy short list of suggested Best Pictures of 1920—which included such frothy titles as Suds and Remodeling a Husband—and a ballot with which to cast their vote. And thus was born the precursor to the Academy Awards, a distinction that, “like Abraham Lincoln’s ideal government,” was “by, of, and for the people.”

Such florid language was par for the course in the magazine, which was first published in 1911 and in its earliest days focused on story adaptations of popular movies. Starting in 1915, James R. Quirk became the editor and oversaw the magazine in its most influential period through 1932. The magazine featured full-page portraits of glamorous movie stars, such as Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Gilbert, interspersed with industry gossip; brief, to-the-point moving picture reviews; puffy interviews; and the occasional reader contest. As overblown and laughably self-serious as Photoplay’s award pronouncement may read now, its intensity and vigor is an oddly charming glimpse into movie fandom and criticism from when cinema was still in its relative infancy. Like the magazine overall, the Medal of Honor presented to readers a fascinating combination of populism and slight, subtle paternalism by ostensibly entrusting them with the power to choose the best of the best while nudging them to make the “right” choices. A typical Medal of Honor ad in the lead-up to the results would include something along the lines of this advice: “Choose your picture because of merits of theme, direction, action, continuity, setting, and photography, for these are the qualities which, in combined excellence, make great photoplays.” The very first award, for the year 1920, was awarded to William Randolph Hearst, the producer of Humoresque.

The viewing public ultimately knew better than the critics, and even the studios themselves, what made cinema “art.” Photoplay made that clear in what appears to be a general press release sent out to newspapers across the country during that initial contest. (“Experts don’t always hold the same belief as the average motion picture theater goer,” it read. “This is attested by the great number of pictures adjudged ‘knockouts’ in the projection rooms, that result in flivvers in the theater, and vice versa.”) And with this coronation by the public, Photoplay envisioned its honor as contributing to the improvement of the moving picture as an art form, fostering a healthy competition among producers and filmmakers to create their best work. (The magazine claimed that the Medal of Honor made some producers excited to “overcome the purely mercenary side of the art of picture production.”)

The Academy Awards, as they were conceived by MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer, were a decidedly more exclusive affair from the beginning, with an emphasis on self-preservation. As Jim Piazza and Gail Kinn recount in their “complete unofficial” history of the Academy Awards, the very first ceremony, held in 1929, was organized as a “public relations coup” to add some esteem to the industry and distract “concerned mothers and clergymen” who were beginning to call for on-screen censorship. The following year, at the second ceremony, scandal was afoot, as all of the winners that night were either on the Board of Judges or had close ties to it; Mary Pickford’s surprise win for her “stiff” role in Coquette in particular led many to believe that the whole affair was rigged. It’s safe to say that “artistry” wasn’t at the forefront of the Academy Awards in those early days.

Photoplay was decidedly not a fan of the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the July 1927 installment of Quirk’s recurring feature “Close-Ups and Long-Shots”—an opinionated, snarky take on in-the-news movie stars and filmmakers—he quipped: “I trust, however, that these academicians do not take their arts and sciences too seriously, because if they do, Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin may get down to real acting and howl for admission, and, if the academy starts to discriminate, folks are going to say it’s run by a clique.”

This was only the beginning of the publication’s antagonistic relationship with the academy and its increasingly influential awards. Quirk frequently riffed disdainfully on the institute’s apparent contempt for fan magazines like Photoplay and the way in which they wrote about those in the industry. He also became one of the first to engage in the now time-honored practice of questioning the academy’s judgment: “Marie Dressler was no great shakes as an actress in Canada,” he wrote of the star’s role in the 1930 film Min and Bill. “But she won the academy prize just the same.”

Quirk and Photoplay had reason to be wary of the rise of the academy, and of the studio system in general. For one, the Academy Awards contributed to the decline of the significance of the Medal of Honor (later renamed the Gold Medal Award). In its early years, an upcoming film like Frank Borzage’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford could be touted in the press as being directed by the same guy who made Humoresque, “the gold-medal picture of 1920.” and that would carry some weight. But as the academy gained importance and grandiosity, the Medal of Honor came to hold less sway.

The academy also went against Photoplay’s pseudo-outsider persona, which the publication seemed to relish—a magazine that both idolized and smirked at celebrity, all while attempting to push forward the art of moving pictures. It was the kind of magazine that took pains to note that head honchos of the time like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille weren’t necessarily shoo-ins for its distinguished award—that independent, less acclaimed producers made some excellent pictures as well.

The Photoplay honorees over the years and the academy’s Best Picture winners rarely align. A few of the winners resemble a Fury Road or a Dark Knight, beloved by audiences but too attached to genre for the academy to ever honor for the big prize: Pillow Talk, The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby. And some of them have withstood the test of time better than the academy’s picks—Rosemary’s Baby, for example, is now a classic while in the same year the Oscar went to Oliver! Some Photoplay choices were, of course, just as baffling as the academy’s— but the award remained of and for the moviegoing public, separate from the favoritism and elitism of Hollywood.

Save for a short break in the early 1940s and in 1960, the Photoplay awards were given out yearly until the magazine folded in 1980. (While the Photoplay Wikipedia page only lists winners through 1968, newspapers reported on ceremonies being held and named winners for more than a decade afterward.) It evolved with the times, adding awards for Most Popular Actor and Actress (by the ’60s, TV stars like Marlo Thomas were often the victors), while televising the awards via various variety programs and late night shows, including the The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Late-era Photoplay Gold Medal winners included The Godfather (also a Best Picture winner) and Jaws. By then, however, it was clear that the academy had secured its standing as the pre-eminent judge of Hollywood excellence while Photoplay had fallen precipitously.

Look no further than Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw’s then-agent Sue Mengers: When the Love Story stars won the Photoplay favorite actor and actress awards, respectively, in 1971, Mengers reportedly “put her foot down.” According to a Copley Press report, they were “too important” to appear at the ceremony’s broadcast; “no real movie stars, she said, would participate in a thing like that.” As the ’70s wore on, it became clear that the magazine’s focus had shifted almost entirely, proclaiming that it was “All about the celebrity world: who, what, when, and where,” which probably explains why I have been unable to track down the movie that had the honor of being the final Gold Medal winner in the awards’ decades-long history. Whichever film it was, no one seemed to care. When Photoplay dissolved in 1980, its remaining staff was moved to Us Weekly.