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20th annual Academy Awards celebrated

Hollywood’s elite braved freezing temperatures and strong winds to attend the 20th annual Academy Awards ceremony, which took place on this day in 1948 at the Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California.

The first Academy Awards had been given out in May 1929, in a banquet held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. They were the preeminent honors in the motion-picture industry, awarded by the fledgling non-profit organization the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, formed in 1927. The actual awards were gold statuettes, designed by Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by George Stanley; the were dubbed “Oscars” after 1931, when a secretary at the Academy noted the statuette’s resemblance to her Uncle Oscar.

For the 20th anniversary of the Academy Awards, producers of the ceremony turned the stage at the Shrine Auditorium into an enormous birthday cake. Twenty large-scale Oscar statuettes stood in place of the candles. In addition to celebrating the best in film produced in the year 1947, and the 20th anniversary of its organization, the Academy was celebrating the film industry itself and how far it had come in the past two decades. In 1929, Hollywood was going through the sometimes painful transition from silent film to “talkies.” As studios struggled with technical difficulties with sound recording and editing, some of silent film’s biggest stars were pushed out of the limelight due to their inability to learn lines, their heavy foreign accents or less-than-melodious voices. The economic structure of Hollywood was also changing, as smaller studios like 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers built themselves into major corporations in order to compete with already-established powerhouses such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount.

In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, the Hollywood studio system produced and distributed more than 500 films. In an average week, 90 million Americans (out of a total population of 151 million) went to see a movie, paying around 40 cents for a single ticket. At the Shrine on that March night, the Oscar for Best Picture of 1947 went to Gentleman’s Agreement, produced by Fox. The film starred Gregory Peck as a journalist who poses as a Jewish man in order to investigate and report firsthand on anti-Semitism in America. Gentleman’s Agreement was an example of a new type of film that came out of Hollywood in the post-World War II years. Far removed from a typical genre film (musical, Western, gangster, etc.), it was a realistic, socially conscious drama that reflected some of the country’s darker realities. The film’s director, Elia Kazan, a former stage director, took home the Best Director Oscar.

As in 1929, the movie industry stood at another crossroads in 1948. Aside from the threat of a new, exciting entertainment medium–television–looming on the horizon, Hollywood was in the grip of anxiety over the attempts of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to root out Communist influence in the movie industry. For his part, Kazan earned the enduring contempt of many of his peers in 1952, when he complied with HUAC’s request to give the names of colleagues in New York City’s Group Theater who had been secret members of the Communist Party. The era of the so-called “Red Scare” would change Hollywood forever, as the studios began blacklisting suspected Communists under pressure from Washington, ending the careers of many talented artists.

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