Los Angeles Times

Reunion for a gold man group

Times Staff Writer

If anybody knows the whereabouts of the Oscar statuette for "Wings," the first film to win the best picture honor back on Feb. 17, 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would love to hear from you.

The academy wanted the early Oscar for its new "And the Oscar Went to ..." exhibition that opened last week in the Fourth Floor Gallery at the organization's Beverly Hills headquarters.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards, the exhibition that continues through April 17 features an original statuette from each year of the Oscars presentation -- plus a photo of the winner accepting the award -- that was lent by the recipient, the recipient's heirs or whoever has custody of the award.

Fifteen Oscars were given out for the best of 1927-28, and the academy wanted to reunite all of those original statuettes for this exhibition. Ellen Harrington, exhibitions curator and special events programmer, found 10, including Charlie Chaplin's special award for "The Circus," and Emil Jannings' best actor award for "The Way of All Flesh" and "The Last Command."

"Emil Jannings' was actually at the Berlin Film Museum," Harrington says. "For Oscar's first year, recipients actually were told before the ceremony they had won. And since Jannings was leaving the country, he requested his before he departed for his native Germany. So it was physically the first one that was ever given."

Harrington knows who has the 11th award -- Janet Gaynor's best actress Oscar for "7th Heaven," "Street Angel" and "Sunrise." According to Harrington, though, the person and the academy didn't come to an agreement.

Besides the best picture Oscar for "Wings," three other Oscars from that first year appear to be missing, notably director F.W. Murnau's statuette for "best unique and artistic picture" for "Sunrise."

"We have done every possible search," Harrington says. "We even did a little a little bit of a publicity campaign." But the trail to each of those Oscars is cold.

The Oscars included in the exhibition came from all over the world, using what Harrington called "the most sophisticated art handling and security systems you can imagine. They are being insured for a tremendous amount of money. Some of these were extremely difficult to locate. It took about five months' worth of full-time detective work to put this together."

Harrington also didn't always go for obvious choices. For 1929-30, for example, she selected Frances Marion's Oscar for writing "The Big House." And Walt Disney's special Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse represents 1931-32.

The Disney family, Harrington says, has been especially generous, even lending a charm bracelet with 32 1-inch Oscars representing each statuette Disney won during his lifetime. Flown in from Disney World was his 1938 special Oscar for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which consists of one regular-size statuette and seven miniatures.

"We have the wooden statuette that was presented to Edgar Bergen in 1937 for the creation of the [dummy] Charlie McCarthy," Harrington says. "It has a movable mouth."

Representing 1940 is Jimmy Stewart's best actor Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story." For 20 years, Stewart's father proudly displayed the statuette in the front window of his hardware store in Indiana, Pa.

The exhibition is also a family affair. John Huston's 1948 Oscar for directing "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" is included, as well as daughter Anjelica's best supporting Academy Award for 1985's "Prizzi's Honor."

Last year, Halle Berry became the first African American to receive a best actress Oscar when she was given the Academy Award for "Monster's Ball." Harrington says it was important to have the groundbreaking award in the exhibition.

"She was very generous," Harrington says of Berry. "I actually went to pick it up from her. She had only had it for nine months and it was difficult for her to part from it."

Harrington says 99% of the people contacted for the exhibition were enthusiastic about lending their Oscars, although a few couldn't bear to part with them even temporarily.

Some of the Oscars show the ravages of time.

"Some people have had theirs restored and re-metaled," Harrington says. "We offer that service so they can look fresh because metal does corrode. Some of these are newly re-metaled and pristine-looking, and many are not. Some of them really show they have been lived with. They have been in people's homes and they have traveled with these people."

Just as the exhibition represents all branches of the academy, so does the companion exhibition, "Academy Treasures: 75 Years of Collecting and Preserving," mounted in the main lobby. The display is culled from artifacts from the academy's Margaret Herrick Library, housed at the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills.

"We have over 7 million stills in our collection," says graphic arts librarian Anne Coco. "There are 23,000 posters and 400 special collections." Because the library has an embarrassment of riches, Coco says, it was very hard to choose one item to represent each Oscar year.

"For 'The Hustler,' I used a production design sketch," she says of the 1961 film. "But we have a dozen or so production designs -- one more beautiful than the other. Which one do you choose? Likewise, for 1945, we had a really beautiful illustrated poster for a documentary film, but we also had this absolutely beautiful production design sketch from 'Mildred Pierce.' "

Coco eventually opted for the production design sketch "because it shows Joan Crawford's character in a really crucial moment in the film."

One of her favorite items in the exhibition is the last piece she worked on. "It represents the very first Academy Awards year," Coco says. "This past December, a really generous donor came in and left us this really beautiful Hans Dreier production sketch from 'Wings.' It's a pen-and-ink drawing that shows a street scene in Paris. Dreier worked most of his career at Paramount, but his work on 'Wings' is actually uncredited."

Coco represented 1966 with pages from director Fred Zinnemann's annotated script for best picture Oscar winner "A Man for All Seasons."

"To my mind they are as much a scrapbook as a screenplay," she says. "They are filled with notes and ideas and images. They are truly a working document and allow people to process what artists go through when they are working on a project."

The exhibitions What: "And the Oscar Went To ...," and "Academy Treasures: 75 Years of Collecting and Preserving" Where: "Oscar" is at Fourth Floor Gallery and "Treasures" is at the Grand Lobby Gallery of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; weekends, noon-6 p.m. Through April 17 Admission: Free. Contact: (310) 247-3600.

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