At the beginning of 1941, news of the
war in Europe was all
over the newspapers and the radio, and Americans couldn't help but feel
concern and uncertainty. Since Winston Churchill had announced
war with Germany in 1939, events seemed to only get worse.
Meanwhile, the Academy Awards were
still considered part of an 'insider's club'. Despite being
broadcast on the radio for several years already, most movie goers
weren't too concerned about who won and who lost. With the
aid of current events, the current president of the Academy was about
to change all that.
Walter Wanger had been producing films
in Hollywood for a number of years before he was elected President of
the Motion Picture Academy (AMPAS). By that time, his body of
work included classics like Queen Christina and Stagecoach.
By the late forties, his personal
life would take some horrible twists. A volatile marriage to
actress Joan Bennett ended in the brutal shooting of her agent,
Jennings Lang. Wanger was convicted of the murder, and he
reportedly did so after suspicions of extra marital
affairs. He would serve only a few weeks in jail for the
In 1940, however, Wanger, a man of
considerable clout at Paramount Studios, and was still
one of Hollywood's golden boys. Elected as President of the Motion Picture
Academy, primarily in light of his work in sorting out labor disputes
that tainted the organization throughout much of the thirties, Wanger
was a producer who seemed to do things on a grand scale.
To produce the show, which was scheduled
for February 27, 1941, Wanger took
advantage of the current mood in America. The world seemed to be
at war, with most of Europe in turmoil. America's closest ally,
Britain, was being devastated by nightly bombing raids from the enemy,
Germany, and the United States was doing everything it could to keep
its hands clean.
Among the events planned for the
ceremony was a special Award for Bob Hope, who had made several
appearances and numerous benefit performances, all in support of film
charities. Also, Colonel Nathan Levinson was presented with a special
award in recognition of his cooperation with the United States Army
Signal Corps in production of Army training films.
But Wanger didn't stop there. In January of that year,
to Washington to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
was able to entice the President to commit to an appearance on the
While the President wouldn't actually
attend the ceremony, he agreed to conduct a radio address as a
prologue to the ceremony. The President wasn't willing to leave
the White House, in light of the current events.
This coupe by Wanger impressed
Hollywood, and suddenly gave the Awards show a brand new air of
prestige. As Thomas Brady of the New York Times wrote on
February 23, 1941, "President Roosevelt's speech will be
broadcast on all three radio networks on a Hollywood-and-Washington
hook up, and will result in wider coverage for the banquet than it had
Leading up to the events, many were
accusing Wanger of playing politics, but he was quick to
respond. "Don't try to read anything political into this,
because there isn't any such thing in it."
The actual radio address lasted six
minutes, in which time Roosevelt gave praise to Hollywood for its
fundraising efforts. He also thanked the filmmakers for
'sanctifying "the American way of life."
The event served as a
comfort to many Americans who may have needed the injection of pride
during such uncertain times. For the Academy Awards, the show was
suddenly elevated to a new plateau of respectability. The
President's address at the start of the show increased the show's
ratings, and suddenly opened the festivities up to people outside of the