The Silent Oscars

On May 16, 1929, the very first Academy Awards were handed it. Not yet called the Oscars, these newfangled prizes were no surprise as the winners had been announced months in advance.


The first Academy Awards had several categories that were never repeated. The best picture award was divided in two, best production (Wings) and most artistic (Sunrise). Frankly, I think dividing best picture into art film and crowd-pleaser would be an excellent idea today but what do I know? The best director category was likewise divided into best dramatic director (Frank Borzage) and best comedic director (Lewis Milestone).

Today, though, I am going to focus on a different behind-the-scenes category, the writing! The categories were very similar to our modern awards, screenplays are divided between original and adapted material. (Interestingly, the best writing award was combined into one for the second Academy Award go-round and did not separate again until the fourth ceremony.) There was, however, one additional writing category: best titles.

Many people unfamiliar with silent film may not realize that story writing and title writing were very different talents. While the writer in charge of story had to make an interesting tale with good flow and rhythm, the title writer had the challenging task of displaying wit, brevity and just the right tone to match the picture.

(via Wikipedia)
Ben Hecht (via Wikipedia)

This difference is illustrated by the fact that the winning story writers did not match the winning title writer. Ben Hecht won for Underworld (anyone who says that gangster films came about with the talkies does not know what they are talking about) and Benjamin Glazer was honored for adapting 7th Heaven.

The winner for best titles was Joseph Farnham. While online sources list assorted films as the nominated films (the first awards ceremony allowed multiple films for each nominee), the official Academy Award website merely lists Farnham’s name. Therefore, we can assume that he was nominated for the films he worked on that received release from August 1, 1927 to August 1, 1928, the official period being considered. Yup, all seventeen of them, starting with Mockery and ending with Telling the World.

Farnham was remarkably versatile. He wrote the titles for Lon Chaney films (London After Midnight), Marion Davies vehicles (The Fair Co-Ed), as well as realistic productions like The Crowd. Such talent should have assured a long career but Farnham died just two years later, the victim of a heart attack.

So, if you are an award watcher, why not take a little bit of time to appreciate some winners of forgotten categories, lost in the shuffle of the sound transition.


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  1. Le

    I, too, believe that should be two best picture winners every year. For example, in my ficticious 1925 Oscar I did for the last blogathon, Be-Hur would be the artistic winner and The Big Parade the film winner.
    Ben Hecht is a great guy. It’s not uncommon to me to watch several films written by him, years apart, in a matter of days.

    1. Movies, Silently

      Two best picture winners would solve so many problems. Art films for the critics, crowd pleasers for the public

  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    It is nice to learn about Joseph Farnham and gratifying that his work was recognized in that brief window of time.

    If the Academy returned to dividing the drama and comedy categories it would amend many oversights. That is one thing that the Golden Globes get right.

      1. Emily

        Indeed it doesn’t. It’s a shame because comedy and tragedy are both so beautiful. I can only think of two or three occasions where a comedy won best picture.

  3. girlsdofilm

    Was so interesting to read about the first ever Awards – they’re such a part of the contemporary film landscape it’s hard to imagine a time when they DIDN’T exist! I love that the winners were announced in advance, although it must’ve made for a pretty anti-climatic ceremony!

    1. Movies, Silently


      The organizers were afraid no one would show up if they didn’t know they were winners. How things have changed… 😉

  4. Paula

    I guess I’m not the only one who wishes they would go back to Best Production and Most Artistic. Also, I had to chuckle at the award winners being announced ahead of time, considering the crazy secrecy around the awards now. Thanks for this super-informative post, Fritzi 🙂

    1. Movies, Silently

      Glad you liked it! Yes, the splitting of the best picture prize is definitely a change I will make if and when I rule the world. 😉

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