And the Winner Is… FDR and the 13th Academy Awards Ceremony

By William A. Harris, Deputy Director

Movie producer and Academy president Walter Wanger invited the President to speak at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 4th and three weeks later, the President gave his remarks. The above cross reference in the President’s files tracks the process. (FDR Library, President’s Official File 73, Motion Pictures)

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.

A 1937 photo of screen stars visiting the President for his annual star-studded birthday celebrations. Here, Robert Taylor (third from left); Eleanor Roosevelt (center); and Jean Harlow (third from right) pose at the White House after lunching with the President. (Photo courtesy of Harris and Ewing Collection, Library of Congress)
The import of the motion picture industry is evident in this letter from a Paramount Pictures executive to the President suggesting that he include a reference in his Academy remarks to the importance of newsreels in relation to Lend Lease. (FDR Library, President’s Official File 73, Motion Pictures)

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 President’s edits on a draft of his remarks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, February 1941. (FDR Library, Master Speech File)
A recording of the President’s remarks to the Academy, February 27, 1941. (FDR Library, AFDR228)
The President addresses the motion picture Academy, February 27, 1941. (Universal Newsreel, National Archives and Records Administration)

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.

Thanks came in from Hollywood after the ceremony, including this letter from David O. Selznick, who produced the best picture winner, “Rebecca.” (FDR Library, President’s Official File 73, Motion Pictures)

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.