restricted access Oh, Pioneers! The Academy’s Embrace of Early Film History, 1945–51
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Oh, Pioneers!
The Academy’s Embrace of Early Film History, 1945–51

The twentieth annual Academy Awards presentation, which was held on March 20, 1948, at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and broadcast live on ABC radio, was not only an event honoring the year’s best films but also an opportunity to celebrate both the history of movies and the twentieth anniversary of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Near the end of the program, Academy president Jean Hersholt took the stage to announce the Special Awards, which he explained had been selected by the Board of Governors at a meeting the previous evening. According to the script for the show, Hersholt’s introduction of one of the awards took a decidedly nostalgic tone. He said, “There can be no more fitting moment than this 20th anniversary to look back through the years, far beyond the beginning of the Academy, far beyond the great industry that we know exists today—to those first days when the arts and sciences of making films were born. How fortunate we are that our profession is so young that we may honor tonight men still living who were pioneers. We take a happy pause in this sentimental journey to pay tribute to four of these men who, as far back as 1895, had faith in what we have become today. Their names are: Colonel William N. Selig—pioneer. Albert E. Smith—pioneer. George K. Spoor—pioneer. Thomas Armat—pioneer.”

Two of the recipients, Colonel Selig and Mr. Smith, both residents of Los Angeles who were able to attend on short notice, then came on stage to accept their Oscar statuettes from Hersholt. There is no indication that the eighty-four-year-old Selig made an acceptance speech, but the Academy’s records do note that Smith took the microphone and thanked the Academy for this honor. After saying that he “saw the movies when they were in their swaddling clothes,” and reminiscing about the early years of Vitagraph and the production and success of their film The Battle of Santiago (1899), Smith concluded by saying, “I feel very proud and very happy to have seen that little child in swaddling clothes grow up to be such a big and beautiful lady. And I want to thank everyone who has had a part in so doing and I want to thank the Academy for remembering the forgotten man.”1

I came across these speeches, and the other information about this special award, in 2010, when I was preparing to give a presentation to Domitor, the organization dedicated to the study of early cinema. After doing some additional research, I found that this recognition of four elderly movie pioneers, which has gone down in Oscar lore as a minor footnote, actually represents a fascinating moment in the history of the Academy. Between 1945 and 1951, despite having a small staff and limited funding, the Academy was not only pursuing its usual membership and educational activities but was also actively working to celebrate and preserve early motion picture history. The most ambitious undertaking was the restoration of the paper prints from the Library of Congress, a project that, to be successful, would require a great deal of funding and technical support from the film industry. But even before the Academy agreed to take on that project, it began collecting early film prints for a moving image archive, organizing retrospective screenings, and taking steps to expand the holdings of its research library to include archival collections. As a Hollywood institution, the Academy has always had to negotiate what Alison Trope calls “the great divide between art and entertainment, culture and commerce, and elusive myths and tangible industrial goals and profits.”2 Was this new enthusiasm for film history simply the Academy facing that challenge, this time by trying to define itself in the emerging landscape of film archives and museums? Or, in a time of upheaval in the motion picture business, was this celebration of early film an appeal to the Academy membership’s nostalgia for a bygone era? I have not yet been able to completely discover and analyze the...