Film is an ever-changing artform, so it stands to reason that the awards that Hollywood created to help celebrate the industry should evolve. It’s more apparent when you realize that the Oscars began when the industry was in flux as sound was in its infancy.
Film has twice adapted itself in competition with other media arts. Synchronized sound came on the heels of the popularity of radio and a shift in aspect ratio, away from 1:33 to widescreen formats was introduced to distance itself from television. The same competition with television helped push films away from black and white film and towards color. With just these technical changes its natural that some award categories would fall in an out of favor over time, some aren’t so obvious. Some, surprisingly, should have never left. I will discuss the categories that are no longer around.
Best Picture, Production and Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (1929)
The Academy Awards began with two different iterations of Best Picture. In 1929 the winners of these two respective categories were Wings (Production) and Sunrise (Unique and Artistic). My interpretation of these trophies is that one is more akin to a PGA (Producers Guild of America) award. Whereas, the logistics, accomplishments and merits of the production are highly impressive and well-executed even if the picture mat not be the best overall. Unique and artistic would then be a more narrative-award with special emphasis on creativity. This is a distinction that could’ve proved highly useful in later years. Imagine if it had been around in 1998 (the first year that jumps to mind) give Production to Titanic and Unique and Artistic to As Good as It Gets or L.A. Confidential or Good Will Hunting. Or earlier maybe How Green Was My Valley could get Production and Citizen Kane can get Unique and Artistic and everyone can leave the former alone already, and stop hating it for something that’s no fault of its own.
Ultimately, I understand how the two awards would forever cause confusion and why they needed merging, but it is interesting to consider.
Best Director, Comedy Picture and Dramatic Picture (1929)
The Golden Globes still have Comedy/Musical and Dramatic categories for Films and Actors, but not directors. The directing job is highly different in both aspects. Are comedies far too overlooked when it comes to award shows? Yes. Does each year really merit having both categories? Probably not, and surely enough it was not a category the following year.
Best Title Writing (1929)
To be quite honest considering that the industry was already in flux awkwardly transitioning from silent to talkie I’m a little surprised this was a category at the first awards. Granted some were trying to dismiss synchronized sound as a fad, but it was clear it was coming. Some categories held on longer, but silent films in the end virtually vanished quite quicker than black-and-white fare or 4:3 aspect ratio films.
Yes, titles were crucial in the silent era, and silents did win Oscars, but it’s slightly unusual that this was actually a category for one year.
Best Cinematography, Color and Best Cinematography, Black and White 1936-1939 (Special Achievement) 1940-1966
This split became a mainstay of the Academy for 27 editions of the Awards. This is quite a long time and indicates that despite the business-related impetus for color cinematography the necessity of occasionally going into more ethereal monochrome remained and undeniable siren’s call for filmmakers for many years to come.
As wide as the gap between color productions and black-and-white ones have become they are not extinct as recent films like Ida, The Artist and The White Ribbon indicate. Yet, color cinematography in unquestionably ubiquitous enough such that the split no longer makes sense. It most definitely did at one time: color and black-and-white are two different ways of seeing the world. The reason for splitting the two was due to that and the fact that they were fairly equally split. With little equality superlative black-and-white films do have to compete against chromatic ones be it fair or unfair; it’s just a reality.
Best Effects, Engineering Effects (1929)
The awards for Special Effects were ones that had many names an iterations before becoming a mainstay. A category for “Special Effects, Engineering Effects” existed at the first ceremonies. They returned in 1938 with and Honorary Award. From 1939 to 1962 Visual and Sound Effects shared an award titled Special Effects. In 1963 Special Visual Effects took over. From ’72-’77 it was awarded under Special Achievement Award. The current Special Visual Effects title debuted in 1995.
However, going back to the original trophy it puts me in a mind that perhaps the Academy does need to encourage and reward different kinds of effects work. Maybe split it between practical and computerized. It actually would encourage creativity and be fair. For example many of the most impressive feats in Inception (like the spinning hallway) were done practically. This could highlight those creative moments but still reward highly-creative, ever-evolving computerized effects work.
Best Writing, Achievement 1930
This was the category introduced for the 2nd Annual ceremonies and for that year only. It was an attempt to transition away from three categories (Original, Adaptation and Title Writing) to just one. The only other award I ever saw merge all screenplays into one category was my own for a while. However, adaptation and original screenplays are games with similar rules but different approaches and need different skills. They should be separately awarded and this change is one that was needed.
The Juvenile Award (Awarded intermittently from 1935-1961)
This is an award I’ve already written about at length here. In that post I chronicled those young people who were honored by the Academy. I also followed-up on that by listing who since 1961 would have earned the honor, or could have, if it was still something awarded. Since my personal BAM Awards have started offering parity (meaning the same categories for mature and young performers) I have become convinced the Academy could fill a roster of five nominees a year for a category with this same concept. The term juvenile may be dated, and have poor connotations now, but the idea is one worth revisiting.
Best Short Subject, Cartoons (1932-1957) Short Subject, Comedy (1932-1937), Short Subject Novelty (1932-1937), Short Subject Color (1937-38) Short Subject One-Reel (1937-1957) and Short Subject Two-Reel (1937-1957)
You can almost always look to the Academy for some kind of indication as to what the state of the art at least in terms of trends. One thing that would be apparent to someone looking solely at the Oscars with no other film knowledge would be that short films used to be a much more integral part of Hollywood films than they are now. For six years Live Action films were split into Comedies and Novelties, which featured, as the name implies varied subjects and approaches. Starting in 1937 animated films (then referred to as Cartoons by the Academy) were split off and Live Action films were bifurcated by length either one-reel (about 10 minutes or less) or two-reel (about 20 minutes or less). In 1958 Live Action was introduced as the only short subject category for live action, Cartoons still the term used, and the category changed to Best Short Subject, Animated Films in 1972. It is notable that serials never had a category somehow. Maybe because Poverty Row and “lesser” majors specialized in them.
Best Assistant Director (1933-1937)
Assistant Directors back at the beginning of the film industry had a far different role than they do as the industry and art evolved. There used to be far more directing for assistant directors. First ADs now are far more administrative and keep the production running, most of their direction geared at background performers. Therefore, its interesting that the Academy once underscored the greater level of responsibility this job had with an award.
Best Dance Direction (1936-1938)
There are a few instances of the Oscars highlighting the elevated place that the film musical once held. This category specifically aimed at choreography on film is one.
Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration Black-And-White and Color 1940-1966
This is the second of three categories that for year offered two prizes owing to the unique challenges and distinct differences in working in black-and-white and color. In simplest terms in color there are temperature, palette and tone considerations but in monochrome there is a transliteration of actual colors to gray tones for desired effect that must be considered and calculated by all department heads.
Best Music, Scoring of a Drama or Comedy (1946-1957) Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (1942-1945) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (1942-1957)
Here’s one more testament to the potency the musical once hand in the cinematic landscape of Hollywood’s output. In 1958 the distinction in scoring ended. For 16 ceremonies musicals were a category apart. They were so prevalent, significant, and thought to be so different that it had its own category for scoring.
The issue with genre-splitting is: where does it end? Comedy was excluded for three years, and then added. If musicals had stayed at their zenith would further scoring splits have occurred? Unlikely, but it may have been clamored for. Clearly, the loss of a category did not shut the door on the musical winning Best Score, The Sound of Music jumps immediately to mind, but it’s fascinating that it was a class apart for years.
Costume Design Black and White and Costume Design Color (1948-1966)
If there’s one thing that you can laud the Academy for it’s that there was uniformity in when categories stopped being subdivided by color and black-and-white. In all cases when there was such a division, either from the inception of a category like costume design, or later in the game like with cinematography, that split ceased after the 1966 Awards.
Similar to Cinematography and Art Direction costuming for both media is a different game. Black-and-white requires a more abstract understanding of colors and textures and how they’ll read when exposed. Thus, its a bit more intuitive, at times counterintuitive, and far less literal than working in color. Again the time had surely come for the category to merge due to ubiquity but the task is by no means an easy one in monochrome.
In most of the these cases it is just interesting and important to note how far the artform and industry have come. It’s important in aesthetic appreciation to note some things that used to be taken for granted and to acknowledge different trends and forms of the past. However, in some of these cases these categories could still be highly useful and be brought back today.