TIME movies

Here’s the Greatest Year in Oscar History

The 12th Annual Academy Awards
NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images Actor Spencer Tracy and Vivien Leigh, winner of Best Actress for "Gone With the Wind," during the 12th Annual Academy Awards held at the Cocoanut Grove in The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Calidfornia on Feb. 29, 1940

This year marks the 75th anniversary of 'the most memorable twelve months in the history of the American cinema'

No offense to Neil Patrick Harris or to this year’s best-picture nominees, but this year’s Oscars ceremony is also notable for something that proves it has no chance of being the best: this is the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards ceremony that honored what is widely thought to be the best year in Hollywood history.

There’s not much of a public record of what happened at the 1940 ceremony between the giving-out of statuettes. It was the first such evenings hosted by Oscars-hosting champ Bob Hope, so presumably there were jokes, but it took place before the days of a national radio broadcast (much less a television broadcast) of the ceremony, though local radio stations may have broadcast a portion of the evening.

But we don’t have to know what Hope said to the audience there to know that it was epic. Here’s how TIME recounted the evening’s events, in the pages of the Mar. 11, 1940, issue:

Hollywood’s swank Cocoanut Grove was aflutter with ermine wraps and shimmering gowns as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made its twelfth annual awards. To Robert Donat for his role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and to Vivien Leigh for her Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind went Oscars signifying the year’s best performances by an actor and actress. Nobody was surprised. Academy selections of the best supporting actor and actress met with general approval: 1) Thomas Mitchell, for his whiskey-soaked doctor in Stagecoach; 2) Hattie McDaniel, for her sentimental performance as the hard-boiled mammy in Gone With the Wind. Cinemactress McDaniel was the first Negro to receive the prize. Posthumous were two awards: 1) to the late Douglas Fairbanks Sr. for international services to motion pictures; 2) to the late Playwright Sidney Howard for his Gone With the Wind script. Of the 17 major Oscars handed out, ten were copped by G.W.T.W. Producer David O. Selznick, pretty proud and getting richer by the minute, said he would send an extra check to Author Margaret Mitchell.

Winners from Gone With the Wind, however, aren’t the evidence that 1940’s Oscars were the best. For that, look to the losers.

The best picture nominees who weren’t good enough to take home an Oscar included some of the best movies ever: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Stagecoach;, The Wizard of Oz; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and Dark Victory, and that’s only a partial list, not to mention the famous movies (like Young Mr. Lincoln and Babes in Arms) that weren’t even nominated. Any year can have one instant classic; it’s a rare year that has dozens. That year had been a period that Gerald Clarke described in TIME, on its 50th anniversary in 1989, as “the most memorable twelve months in the history of the American cinema.” But, as Clarke explained, it took a while to realize what was going on: the theater was still seen as superior to the cinema, and the business-centric studio system was still in effect. Movies were low-culture fluff, and nobody was looking for history to be made. And yet, it was.

“There is no formula for magic, and what happened then is something of a mystery even today. Part of the explanation may be that the studio system, which had been born 20 years or so earlier, had come of age; it had reached its maturity but was still full of zest,” Clarke wrote. “The bosses may have been crude and often tyrannical, but they loved their business, they knew what they were doing, and they had created huge organizations whose only purpose was to send new pictures to thousands of theaters, most of which, in the U.S., were owned by the studios themselves. At the same time, moviemaking had reached a level of technical perfection that would have seemed miraculous even five years before.”

The night of the Academy Awards of 75 years ago was a celebration of that magic — but there is one way in which the 1940 Oscars flopped: as recounted by the Academy, the practice of tipping off newspapers in advance, to get the winners into the morning paper, backfired that year. The Los Angeles Times published the results in the evening edition rather than the morning edition, which meant the attendees already knew who had won.

Read the full 1939 cover story about Gone With the Wind, here in the TIME Vault: G With the W

Read Gerald Clarke’s examination of the best year in Hollywood history, here in the TIME Vault: Twelve Months of Magic

TIME language

In Soviet Russia, the Oscars Host You

Actors (L-R) Clark Gable Cary Grant Bob Hope and David
Leonard McCombe—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and David Niven laughing heartily together at one of Hope's recently-acquired Russian jokes during break from rehearsals for the 1958 Academy Awards

In 1958, Oscars host Bob Hope may have made comedy history

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

These days, an Oscars host is likely to wish only to avoid a complete disaster — but in 1958, veteran host Bob Hope may have introduced the world to a joke that, decades later, has become part of comedy’s common heritage.

Here’s how TIME described the ceremony in the Apr. 7 issue of that year:

As things got under way, Jimmy Stewart told the home audience that the uninterrupted program was “being brought to you in living black and white.” Bob Hope, back from his Russian junket, noted that there had been TV in all the rooms of his Moscow hotel—”only it watches you”—also called attention to the parades of expensive talent being given away free to television, proving that “the motion-picture industry isn’t frightened. It’s off its rocker.”

Comedy fans will likely recognize a very familiar construction in that first Hope joke. In Soviet Russia, the TV watches you!

These days, that construction is often known as the “Russian reversal.” Swap around the order in which things are usually done, add “in [Soviet] Russia” to the beginning, and that’s it. The joke has appeared on The Simpsons and Family Guy, and the Internet is flush with “t-shirt wears you” gear.

Most sources — from the spot-on Language Log blog at UPenn to the equally trustworthy (when it comes to viral jokes) Know Your Meme — trace the joke’s popularity to Yakov Smirnoff, a Russian-born comedian who came to the U.S. in the 1970s. And it’s not hard to see why he would get the credit:

Dig a little deeper, and some sources note that a similar joke (substituting “the Old Country” for “Russia”) appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which started airing in 1968 — which is, of course, a full decade after Bob Hope used the joke at the 1958 Oscars.

There’s some evidence that Hope’s joke was new at that time: LIFE magazine had a photographer on scene during rehearsals for the telecast, and — though the magazine ended up printing something different — the caption with one of the photos (seen here) indicates that Hope and friends were laughing at one of his “recently acquired Russian jokes.”

But, while Bob Hope may have introduced a national television audience to the Russian reversal, the real moral of the story is not that he was first — just that it’s hard to say who came up with something so common. After all, buried in the meme’s page on TVTropes.org there’s an example from a play written a full two decades earlier, before Bob Hope hosted the Oscars, before the Oscars were on TV, before the Cold War even started. In 1938’s Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me!, a man tries to tip a messenger. “No tipping,” he’s told. “In Soviet Russia, messenger tips you.”

Read the full write-up of the 1958 ceremony, here in the TIME Vault: The Oscars

TIME Tablets

Watch Apple’s New Oscars iPad Ad Featuring Martin Scorsese

It features Martin Scorsese

Five years after Apple’s first iPad ad debuted during the Academy Awards in 2010, its new iPad Air promo will again screen during the Oscars on Sunday and tout its filmmaking abilities.

The one-minute spot features students from Los Angeles County High School of the Arts as they make films using iPads—from writing to shooting, scoring to editing—while famed director Martin Scorsese narrates, via excerpts from his inspirational commencement speech to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2014.

“It’s the same for all you, all of us,” Scorsese says. “Every step is a first step. Every brush stroke is a test. Every scene is a lesson. Every shot is a school. So let the learning continue.”

Read More: Modern Family Episode Shot Almost Entirely on iPhones

TIME Television

How Television Changed the Oscars

Bob Hope Hosts The Academy Awards
J. R. Eyerman—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Bob Hope (1903 - 2003) hosts the 25th Annual Academy Awards, the first televised presentation of the annual award ceremony, Hollywood, California, Mar. 19, 1953.

The awards were first broadcast on TV in 1953. Bob Hope's advice that year? Watch the losers

It was, as TIME put it in 1953, a bit of a shotgun wedding: old-time Hollywood and his “child bride” television, as Bob Hope phrased it, had already effectively gotten together, and it was too late to go back. They made it official that year by introducing TV viewers to the Oscars, with the first-ever broadcast of the annual Hollywood ceremony.

The budget for the telecast of the 25th Academy Awards was a quarter of a million dollars, and veteran host Hope was chosen to MC the night from Los Angeles. And it was clear from the beginning that television would change things for the Academy Awards:

To the movie fans outside Hollywood’s RKO Pantages Theater, the show looked familiar: klieg lights crisscrossing the wet night sky and Cadillacs disgorging jeweled and ermined cargoes. But inside the palace, surrounded by TV cameras, zoomar lenses, floodlights and monitoring screens, the 2,800 top-drawer movie folk were acutely conscious that times had changed.

For the first time, some 34 million televiewers got a look at Hollywood’s most ballyhooed annual event. The TV technicians, bossing the whole show, did a slick job of switching back & forth between Hollywood and Manhattan’s International Theater, where a junior edition of the ceremonies was under way. All the cinema queens, some appearing for the first time on TV, looked as gorgeous as they ever did, but a few seemed to miss the careful direction they get in films. The cameras might have been less rigid (the losers in the audience were ignored, even though Bob Hope had advised watching them: “You’ll see great understanding, great sportsmanship—great acting”). But the show was still fascinating in an unrehearsed, star-studded way.

That first year, the presence of the cameras was perhaps the most notable effect of the televising of the Oscars. After all, movie fans had already been able to listen in on the radio, so the Oscars weren’t entirely new to them. Plus, TV didn’t get much respect at the time. Hope joked in his opening monologue that television was “where movies go when they die” and that some in Hollywood were reluctant to acknowledge it as a medium:

By the second year, about 40 million people tuned in — that’s not so far from the number for 2014 — and TIME commented that advertising to them was distracting from the actual ceremony. Already by 1957, the magazine complained that, “Any glamour that was left was promptly rubbed out by the split-second demands of television, which turned the parade of winners into a supermarket mob scene.” In just a few years, the small screen had pulled a Sunset Blvd.: the stars were still the same people, but they’d quickly gone from distant and magical to sadly normal, with a brief via “fascinating in an unrehearsed…way.” In the era of Seth MacFarlane regaling the at-home audience with a song about the anatomy of the industry’s most famous actresses, it’s clear that the progression away from that glamor didn’t stop.

The best picture award in 1953 went to The Greatest Show on Earth but the ceremony also introduced a new contender for “greatest show”: the broadcast was, according to the Academy, the most-watched show in commercial television history so far, and its effects are still being felt.

Read the full article from 1953 here, in the TIME Vault: The Oscars

TIME movies

Here’s How to Watch the Oscars Online

Live coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET Sunday

Can’t make it to Los Angeles to watch the Oscars Sunday evening? Here’s how you can livestream the event online.

If you pay for cable or satellite, there’s a good chance you can stream the ceremony here. Comcast, Cablevision, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, DISH, DirecTV, Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse are among the providers that allow you to livestream the Oscars, according to Variety. Subscribers to those services can also tune in to watch the Oscars on ABC’s Watch ABC app.

If you don’t pay for a TV subscription, you’re mostly out of luck when it comes to the main show. But you can at least enjoy free access to the Oscars red carpet and backstage cameras on the Academy’s website and ABC’s Facebook page.

Live coverage of the Oscars from the red carpet begins at 7 p.m ET Sunday.

 

TIME movies

Kirk Cameron Wins Worst Picture at Razzie Awards

Today - Season 61
NBC NewsWire—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images Kirk Cameron appears on NBC News' "Today" show.

Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz and Michael Bay also took home awards

Television star turned Evangelical minister Kirk Cameron took home the top prizes Saturday night at this year’s Razzie Awards, a celebration of the year’s worst films. Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which IMDB users have ranked as the worst movie of all time, took home four Razzies, including worst picture.

“It’s about on the level of a super 8 movie from when I was a kid. It has no cinematic value at all,” Razzie founder John Wilson told the BBC after the show, held on the eve of the Academy Awards.

Other big winners included Michael Bay, who won worst director for Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and Cameron Diaz, who won worst actress for The Other Woman and Sex Tape.

Read more: What Are the Razzie Awards?

Ben Affleck, who previously won a Razzie for Gigli, won the “Razzie Redeemer Award,” which acknowledges a recipient’s turnaround. The actor starred in the critically acclaimed Gone Girl last year.

Saturday’s ceremony, combining humor and biting criticism, marked the 35th Annual Gold Raspberries.

TIME movies

See Every Visual Effects Winner in Oscar History

When imagination becomes reality

Visual effects have come a long way since Star Wars took home the first Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1978. Revisit everything from a galaxy far, far away to a dream near you with a look at every Visual Effects Oscar winner since the award’s inception.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood’s diversity problem goes beyond “Selma.” Asian and Latino stories and faces are missing.

By Jose Antonio Vargas and Janet Yang in the Los Angeles Times

2. Shifting the narrative away from religion is key to defeating ISIS.

By Dean Obeidallah in the Daily Beast

3. Innovation alone won’t fix social problems.

By Amanda Moore McBride and Eric Mlyn in the Chronicle of Higher Education

4. When the Ebola epidemic closed schools in Sierra Leone, radio stepped in to fill the void.

By Linda Poon at National Public Radio

5. The racial wealth gap we hardly talk about? Retirement.

By Jonnelle Marte in the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com