By William A. Harris, Deputy Director
With the Oscars upon us for the 93rd time, we highlight President Roosevelt’s address to the 13th annual ceremony on February 27, 1941, honoring films released in 1940. FDR was the first President to address the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at their annual awards celebration. FDR recognized the power of movies to influence public opinion both in the United States and around the world. He also liked movies and movie stars.
His address was carried live during the ceremonies which were broadcast from the Biltmore Bowl in Hollywood. The President spoke from the White House via radio. He commended the motion picture industry for its role in advancing democratic ideals in an era of authoritarianism and war, a provocative perspective considering many isolationists believed Hollywood was actively promoting interventionist and pro-war sentiments.
The 13th awards were a glittering affair, hosted by Bob Hope. It was the last gala dinner prior to the commencement of America’s involvement in World War II. Tuxedos and evening gowns highlighted a gold-plated evening that saw Ginger Rogers and James Stewart win the main acting awards and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” take best picture. The Universal Newsreel above provides good visuals of the star-studded evening and the President’s remarks.
The following year, war had reshaped America and the Academy Awards. For the first time, formal wear was banned, and, and soon the banquet format would be replaced by a simpler stage show all in recognition of the war effort. For the duration, there would be no fancy dress, and even Oscar temporarily became gold-painted plaster. FDR would make one more appearance at the Academy Awards, but in letter form only, as actor Donald Crisp read greetings from the President in 1943. He again noted the importance of motion pictures, more specifically to their role at home and abroad in winning the war.