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Emil Jannings, a German actor who would go on to make propaganda films for the Nazis in the 1930s, was the first recipient of the legendary Oscar.

Had there been a mistake? Well, yes. Reputedly, the real winner that year – 1929 – was Rin Tin Tin, the 11-year-old German Shepherd rescued from wartime France in 1918 by a US airman. Rin Tin Tin had gone on to become one of the most popular and profitable Hollywood stars at the time when silent movies were giving way to the talkies.
Rin Tin Tin starred in 27 films, four of which were released in 1929 alone. The then recently formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, under the aegis of Louis B Mayer, head of MGM, decided that giving a dog the first of the soon-to-be legendary gold-plated 13.5in (34.3cm) statuettes – in the guise of an Art Deco medieval knight holding a long crusader’s sword and standing on a film reel – would give the wrong impression.
If not entirely barking, the decision would set a curious and eccentric precedent. So even though Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for best actor in first-round voting – a rumour New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean confirms in a biography of the canine star – the Academy held a second round of voting with human contenders only.
Ever since, the Oscars have been controversial. Walt Disney received 26 awards – the record to date – while Alfred Hitchcock was never recognised, except with an honorary statuette. While hosting one of the Academy Awards, Bob Hope is said to have quipped, “If we have any of these statues left over, we’ll just send them to Walt Disney.”
Whatever the internal politics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there is clearly no doubt that Oscars are coveted and alluring. The poster for this year’s Awards depicts the golden outline of the unmistakable statuette shimmering from a jet-black background. “We all dream in gold”, it says.
Oscar’s model
The striking statuette itself has changed precious little since the first 1929 ceremony presided over by Douglas Fairbanks, the ‘King of Hollywood’ and the Academy’s first president, at the Spanish Colonial-style Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The golden icon had been designed, on paper, by Cedric Gibbons, chief art director at MGM, and transformed into a sculpture by the LA artist George Stanley.
The debonair, Irish-born Gibbons was one of Hollywood’s most influential stylists. The son of an architect, he was possibly the only Hollywood designer who travelled to Paris in 1925 to visit the cradle of Art Deco, the Expositions des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
Back in Hollywood, Gibbons created the ‘Big White Set’, characteristic of so many Hollywood Art Deco-style productions at the time, and ideal for musicals and song and dance spectaculars. He even designed his own Art Deco house, with the architect Douglas Honnold, in the Santa Monica Hills with a Big White Set interior. It was completed in 1930 in time for his marriage to Dolores del Río, the glamorous Mexican star of the silent screen. Gibbons’ passion for Art Deco lives on each year when the Oscar statuettes make their glittering appearance at the Academy Awards.

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