The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born 86 years ago this June. Its conception was announced at a banquet dinner, and all 36 attendees were named founding members. Though created to celebrate the burgeoning film industry, the Academy was unable to escape its ties to theater, specifically the Broadway stage. The first president of the Academy was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who moved to films after a solid Broadway career. His wife took her stage name, Mary Pickford, before starring in the original Broadway run of The Warrens of Virginia. She was the only female actress amongst the 36 founding members.The connection between the early Academy and Broadway wasn’t limited to the people involved. Often the early films celebrated by the Academy drew heavily on stories originally told on stage. The most nominated film in the first annual Academy Awards was based on the 1922 stage hit 7th Heaven.
A romance between a street cleaner and a young prostitute that blooms under the shadow of World War I, the film garnered five nominations, winning in three categories: Best Writing – Adapted Story; Best Actress in a Leading Role; and Best Director, Dramatic Picture. The movie starred Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. The song “Diane” was written specifically for the film version.
The Academy began hosting its awards show just as the silent film era was coming to an end. The Jazz Singer, the first full-length feature film with synchronized sound, shared an Adapted Story nomination with 7th Heaven. (The Jazz Singer began its life on Broadway in 1925 play.) By the 2nd Academy Awards, only one out of the five nominees for Best Picture was a silent film. It was called The Patriot and was based on Ashley Dukes’s Broadway translation of Alfred Neumann’s German play.
The Patriot depicts the life of Emperor Paul I of Russia. It won for Best Writing, but was recognized in several categories (it tied for most nominations with In Old Arizona), including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The following year George Arliss won for Best Actor, reprising in film the title role he originated on Broadway in 1911′s Disraeli. As the British Prime Minister seeking control of the Suez Canal, Arliss starred in a 1917 revival production and a 1920 film version before getting an award for his 1929 film.The Academy continued a strong connection to Broadway through the Best Actor category. Lionel Barrymore won for his portrayal of an alcoholic lawyer defending his daughter’s former flame from a murder charge in A Free Soul. In the film’s final scene, Barrymore delivers an intense 14-minute courtroom monologue. Below is the same scene from the 1928 play starring Lester Lonergan. Two movie adaptations of Broadway plays took major awards at the 5th Academy Awards. Frank Borzage won Best Director and Edwin J. Burke won Best Adapted Screenplay for Bad Girl, based on Vina Delmar’s 1930 play. Here are Sylvia Sindey and Paul Kelly from the Broadway production, perhaps giving a clue to the source of the title. The Best Picture honor for that year went to Grand Hotel, a movie about the residents, guests, and staff of a Berlin hotel. Like Bad Girl, the film came from a 1930 Broadway production. The early years of motion pictures were full of creative borrowing from the Broadway stage. Though the industry began to develop more and more original material over time, the connection has never entirely gone away. The past decade alone has seen wins for film versions of the Broadway musicals Chicago (2003) and Dreamgirls (2007), with adaptations of straight plays like Frost/Nixon (2009) and War Horse (2011) garnering Best Picture nominations. This year the movie version of the Broadway smash hit Les Miserables is nominated in 8 categories including Best Picture. Oscar can’t seem to let go of the Great White Way.