Before I get to the trivia today, I want to take a moment to say “Happy birthday!”, or rather “z okazji urodzin!”, to a good friend of mine, who’s been with me for three years now through thick and thin. He’s well-traveled, always down for a pint, and, as you’ll see, very photogenic. He’s an owl, and his name is Mortimer:
He also speaks Swahili, so furaha ya kuzaliwa, bundi rafiki yangu!
Mortimer’s retired (although he keeps up with mousing, he’s maintained his amateur status), so today I’d like to tell you about the various awards that have been retired by the Academy over the years.
The 1st Academy Awards, perhaps unsurprisingly, featured no less than four awards that were immediately discarded:
- Unique and Artistic Quality of Production
Won by Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this category was conceived on an equal footing with Outstanding Production. I think this category had legs, and the Academy should have tried it out a while longer. Perhaps they worried that the prestige of winning Best Picture would be weakened through the split. Still, I’d like to have seen what films would have been nominated here…most of the films up for Best Picture I’ve seen thus far would not have fit the criteria of being “unique” and/or “artistic” (with a few exceptions, such as Grand Illusion or even Lost Horizon).
Of course, had the Academy kept this category, my slate of films for this project would double and I’d never get through it (24 films each in 1934 and ’35…), so perhaps it’s just as well for my sake that they eliminated it early.
- Title Writing
Won by Joseph Farnham for The Red Mill, the decline and fall of silents is the obvious reason this award was dropped. This was an award for writing such gems as “A trip over the door still would have been a vacation for Tina” (from the winner), or, for pathos, the flowery prose of a D.W. Griffith drama, where characters’ “youthful dreams come to wreck against the sordid realities of life” (Broken Blossoms, 1919).
- Engineering Effects (eventually found an equivalent in Visual Effects)
Won by Roy Pomeroy for Wings (hardly surprising). Pomeroy would go on to be an important figure in bringing sound to film, although his strange ideas of how audiences would react to spoken dialogue made for some odd scenes in early talkies. He thought that without a noticeable gap between lines, audiences would get confused and fall into drink and vice (probably). In Old Arizona (1929) is the finest example of this dubious, and thankfully short-lived, technique.
- Best Director, Comedy
Won by Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights. With the relative dearth of comedy films represented by Best Picture and Best Director, this is a category that, had it survived, may have given some legitimacy to the genre within the Academy, but without splitting Best Picture into similar drama and comedy categories (which I am against), it probably wouldn’t have worked out in the long run.
Following that first cull, there have been four further categories that have come and gone over the years:
- Best Assistant Director (1933-1937) and Best Dance Direction (1935-1937)
These two came and went pretty quickly due to pressure from the Director’s Guild of America, who felt that recognition for “direction” shouldn’t be split up or shared. The latter category, you may recall, represented the only Oscar win by a Marx Brothers film (A Day at the Races, 1937).
- Best Original Story (1927/28-1956)
This category actually existed at the same time as Original and Adapted Screenplay for 16 years after the introduction of the former in 1940, until it was finally dropped as redundant. It was a confusing time and one of the reasons why my list of memorized Oscar categories does not include those for writing (yet).
- Best Live-Action Short Film, or at least a few subcategories thereof: Comedy (1932-1935); Novelty (1932-1935); Color (1936-37); and One- and Two-Reel (1936-1956)
It says a lot about short films back then that the only two categories the Academy could think of were Comedy and Novelty. Surely twenty minutes isn’t enough time to tell a serious story.
Novelty is one I’d like to see brought back, to be honest, and I’d expand it to include features as well. With so many cookie-cutter films being released nowadays, an Oscar recognizing silliness would inject some much-needed life into both the awards and Hollywood at large.
- There’s also the category of Best Original Musical, which hasn’t been awarded since 1984 but is still technically active. The Beatles won it in 1970 for Let It Be!
There you have it, the retired Academy Awards. For the most part they are things that were phased out as technology changed or the awards coalesced, but a few definitely got a raw deal.
Thanks for the inspiration, Mortimer! And, lest you think that he spends all his time since retirement just hanging out in luxury hotels, here he is taking in the National Air and Space Museum:
He’s a cultured owl.