D.W. Griffith and the 1936 Oscars®
by Jon Mullich

Synopsis

The Special Award takes place during a period of crisis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1936. While today we think of the Academy only as the benign guardian of the Oscar® telecast, its origins are actually much darker. It was the brainchild of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who started the organization as a trade arbitrator controlled by the studio heads. When the real unions like SAG and the WGA started growing in Hollywood, they took umbrage against the Academy as the puppet organization it was. It all came to a head at the 1936 awards, when unions pressured their members not to attend the banquet (this was before the days of the secret ballots and the awards being held in a theatre) and climaxed with the Oscar actually being turned down by screenplay winner Dudley Nichols.

In an act of desperation, Academy President Frank Capra came up with the tactical master stroke of presenting a special award for lifetime achievement to legendary director D.W. Griffith (the first time such an award was ever presented at the Oscar ceremony) in a last-ditch effort to generate some excitement for the banquet. The ploy worked, and not only did the Oscars survive but Griffith received the first standing ovation ever given at the Academy Awards® ceremony.

The Special Award takes these historical events and imagines them as a kind of a war between the union and Academy factions with Griffith caught in the middle. Griffith is portrayed as a burned out alcoholic who sees the award ceremony as a last-chance shot to revive his fallen career by peddling a project to the Hollywood big shots who claim to be honoring him. But in addition to being caught in the union dilemma and plagued by the disappointments of his career downslide, Griffith must also contend with the never-ending controversy surrounding the racism of his masterpiece Birth of a Nation.

Notes

"Oscar" and "Academy Award" are registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The Special Award is neither authorized nor endorsed by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

   
Setup One set. Eight characters. The characters of Evelyn Griffith and Lillian Gish are envisioned as being performed by the same actress but can be cast with two different actresses.
     
Dramatis Personae

Frank Capra
Howard Strickling
D.W. Griffith
Angelo Holo
Lillian Gish
Louis B. Mayer
Dudley Nichols
Evelyn Griffith

David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) was the first great titan of the motion picture industry and was its major creative force both before and after the debut of his masterpiece The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Griffith was born in Kentucky and spent his early years as an itinerant actor, primarily performing in melodrama in Southern states, when he entered the motion picture business in 1908 as a means to make some fast cash. He was the first to recognize the medium’s artistic potential and invented or advanced the techniques of parallel editing, crosscutting, and close-ups. The making of The Birth of a Nation was an enormous uphill battle, as nothing of its magnitude had been attempted before and most pundits predicted that it would be a financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be the case, as it became one of the two greatest financial blockbusters of the silent era (along with MGM’s The Big Parade in 1925) and the first film to be screened at the White House (where Woodrow Wilson made his famous quote “It’s like reading history by flashes of lightning”), although the appalling racism of the film has greatly diminished its current reputation. Griffith continued making great films after Birth, including Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920), but bad money management forced him to lose his independence and ultimately his artistic vision failed to evolve with his audience. The quality of his work degraded badly through the 1920s, and his final film The Struggle (1931) was considered such a disaster that many newspapers refused to review it out of respect for his former accomplishments. Griffith went into a decline during the 1930s and 40s, becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol, although he continued to be a revered figure within the motion picture industry.

Frank Capra (1897-1991) was the most popular filmmaker of the 1930s, with his movies single-handedly taking B-List Columbia Studios to front-rank status. Capra admitted to being obsessed with the Academy Awards early in his career, and received his first nomination for Lady for a Day in 1933 and won it for It Happened One Night the following year. Capra became president of the Academy in 1935 and remained in the post through 1939, winning two more Oscars during his tenure for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). He privately cared little about the Academy’s union activities but took a hard public line, criticizing the Writers Guild in print and challenging the boycott of the awards. Ironically though, after he stepped down from his position at the Academy he became president of the Directors Guild of America in 1940.

Lillian Gish (1893-1993) made her debut with Griffith in the one-reeler An Unseen Enemy in 1912, and would go on to become arguably the greatest actress of the silent era with her performances in the classics The Birth of a Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920). She wrote that her favorite project for Griffith was Intolerance (1916) despite playing only a cameo part in the film because she had such a large role in its preparation, and she would become one of the very few women to direct a film in the 1920s when she made Remodeling Her Husband for Griffith’s company in 1920. She signed a lucrative contract with MGM in 1926, although her box office appeal was not as great as the company hoped for and she was released after making her final silent masterpiece The Wind in 1928. She continued her acting career on stage (notably as Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Broadway performance of Hamlet in 1936) and later television and starred in her last film, The Whales of August, at the age of 94. She was nominated for only one Academy Award, for Duel in the Sun in 1946, but received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1971. The degree of intimacy that she shared with Griffith can only be speculated, as they were discreet people living in a discreet age, but she remained devoted to him throughout his lifetime and titled her autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Griffith is quoted as saying “Everything went downhill after Lillian left me.”

Evelyn Baldwin Griffith (1910-2004) met Griffith in 1927 when she accompanied her mother to a charity event at the Astor Hotel in New York where Griffith was living, and he told her that he wanted to cast her as Little Nell in a film he was planning of The Old Curiosity Shop (she would go on to act in only one film, a small role in Griffith’s last feature, The Struggle). It would take another two years for their relationship to develop into romance, but Griffith was unable to dissolve his early first marriage, which had become a drain on his finances because of the constant money demands of his wife. He was finally able to obtain a divorce and marry Evelyn in April of 1936, one week before he received his honorary Oscar. But the thirty-plus year difference in their ages and Griffith’s increasing dependency on alcohol put an enormous strain on their relationship, and they were divorced in 1947, one year before his death. She later remarried.

Louis B. Mayer (1882-1957) was the head of MGM Studios from 1924 to 1951 and, in his time, the most powerful man in Hollywood. The Motion Picture Academy was his brainchild and he had such influence over the early voting for the awards that he was able to block the Best Director Oscar going to King Vidor for The Crowd (a film Mayer detested). Mayer began as an independent producer and first made his fortune when he acquired the New England distribution rights for The Birth of a Nation. The windfall allowed him to form Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1918, which merged with the Metro Pictures Corporation (which Mayer had co-founded in 1915) and the Samuel Goldwyn Company to form MGM in 1924. Mayer was an intense, volatile individual who was locked in a power struggle with MGM production head Irving Thalberg until Thalberg’s death in 1937, when Mayer consolidated his influence in an incredibly successful fifteen-year reign that saw Mayer become the highest paid American during the 1940s. He was ultimately forced out of MGM in another power struggle, this time with production chief Dore Schary, a move that proved so disastrous for the studio that Mayer was asked to return to the job shortly before his death, a proposition that he declined.

Dudley Nichols (1895-1960) was one of the preeminent screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, responsible for the scripts of such classics as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Stagecoach (1939) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). He was nominated for four Oscars, winning his only statuette for The Informer. Since Nichols was a dedicated member of the Writers Guild of America, he recognized the Guild’s boycott of the Academy and bravely turned down the honor (although he would play a game of Hot Potato with the award for weeks after the ceremony, with the Academy continually delivering the Oscar to him and Nichols repeatedly sending it back). When the Academy finally got out of the union organization racket in 1938, Nichols consented to accept his Oscar.

Howard Strickling (1896-1982) was the head of the MGM publicity department from the silent era into the mid-1960s. A gentleman who was respected throughout the industry for his classy and genuine personality, one of Strickling’s primary duties was concealing scandals that involved MGM stars. This resulted in some fanciful urban legends (such as the myth that Clark Gable killed a pedestrian while driving drunk, and MGM paid an employee to go to prison in his place) as well as some genuinely chilling cover-ups (like the strong possibility that Three Stooges creator Ted Healy was beaten to death by MGM star Wallace Beery in 1937, and the studio managed to bury the evidence).

Angelo Holo is the one completely fictional character in the play; a publicist work at MGM of Italian descent.


   
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