Due to the ongoing pandemic, the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday will take place with very few people in attendance — just the nominees, their plus-ones and presenters — at several “hubs” which have been set up around the world. The main one will be in downtown Los Angeles at Union Station.
It will be the smallest Oscars ceremony in decades, certainly since before the 16th Oscars, in 1944, when the Academy abandoned the banquet-style gatherings that it had held up to that point and moved to a large theater, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Ever since, at various venues around Los Angeles, thousands of people have attended the annual gathering.
The first 15 Oscars ceremonies, though, were — relatively speaking — intimate affairs, featuring dinner, dancing and speeches not just from winners, but from dignitaries of all sorts. The Oscars wasn’t televised until 1953, so, for better or worse, there was no pressure to meet a specific runtime or deliver ratings, and attendees generally let their guard down more than in subsequent years.
The 7th Oscars, held 86 years ago on Feb. 27, 1935, took place, like this year’s will, in downtown Los Angeles, specifically at the Biltimore Bowl, a magnificent two-story, 1,000-seat ballroom within the Biltmore Hotel, where the show had been held once before and would be held six times thereafter before it was destroyed by a fire in the 1950s.
That night marked the first time that a single film truly dominated the awards: Frank Capra‘s romantic-comedy It Happened One Night, a production of Harry Cohn‘s Poverty Row operation Columbia Pictures, swept the top five honors — picture, director (Capra), screenplay (Robert Riskin), actor (Clark Gable) and actress (Claudette Colbert) — something that only two other films, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, have done since.
Nobody had expected much from It Happened One Night, including its stars. Gable had been sent by mighty MGM, where he was under contract, to lowly Columbia as a punishment, and Colbert, who had clashed with Capra on their 1927 collaboration For the Love of Mike, had refused to do the film unless her salary was doubled and the film was completed in just four weeks.
The film, which was originally titled Night Bus and was shot in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, centers on a spoiled heiress (Colbert) who runs away and is pursued — first for a story, and eventually for love — by a working-class newspaperman (Gable). Upon the film’s completion, Colbert told a friend, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”
But critics and the public vehemently disagreed, as It Happened One Night garnered rave reviews and became Columbia’s biggest box office hit to date, not least due to its sexual overtones, which were risque for its day (e.g., Colbert hitchhikes a ride by lifting her skirt above the knee, Gable donned just an undershirt and the two sleep together separated only by “the walls of Jericho”).
The members of the young Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences also proved to be fans, nominating it for a total of five Oscars, just one behind the field-leader, One Night of Love, and as many as were accorded to Cleopatra and The Gay Divorcee. Even having received a personal nomination, though, Colbert did not alter her longstanding plans to embark for a vacation in New York on the very night of the Oscars ceremony, figuring that she stood no chance against a field that included not just fellow nominees One Night of Love‘s Grace Moore and The Barretts of Wimpole Street‘s Norma Shearer (the wife of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg), but also Bette Davis, whose denial of a nomination for Of Human Bondage prompted such widespread outcry that the Academy agreed to allow write-in votes for the first time.
Consequently, when Oscars host Irvin S. Cobb announced at the Biltmore Bowl that Colbert had won the best actress Oscar, she was, according to numerous reports, at Union Station, already seated in her compartment aboard the luxury Super Chief train, waiting to depart for Chicago and then go on to New York.
With It Happened One Night‘s sweep progressing, Cohn, anxious for photographs to immortalize the night and publicize his film, reportedly screamed at Columbia publicists, “Find her!” Three of them, accompanied by Academy publicist Leroy Johnston, hopped into a limousine and, with motorcycle escorts, rushed to Union Station a mere 1.7 miles away. There, they located Colbert and told her to come with them. “I’ll miss my train!” she protested, but they had convinced the Super Chief to delay its departure. “I’m not dressed!” she continued, to which Johnston reportedly replied, “It’s the Nobel Prize of motion pictures!” (He apparently also reminded her that it might help with future contract negotiations.) Colbert reluctantly acquiesced, joining them in the limo for a quick trip back to the Biltmore.
Self-conscious about being in a traveling skirt-suit (albeit one designed for her by the great Travis Banton) rather than a gown, she insisted on accessing the podium not through the crowd, but rather via a side entrance, and holding her mink coat up in front of her. Shirley Temple, who was in attendance to receive a special “juvenile award” later in the ceremony, was enlisted to make the presentation, and was plopped up onto a chair to do so.
“I’m afraid I am just going to be very foolish and cry,” Colbert said as she accepted the gold statuette that had only been referred to in print as “Oscar” a year before. Then she posed with Temple for a few photos, before excusing herself and being rushed back to Union Station, where she caught her train.