The 1954 Academy Awards: New Technology and Old Standards

By Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan is a 21-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, interviewer, copywriter, fashion historian, travel writer, and vintage lifestyle enthusiast. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
February 5, 2020Updated: February 5, 2020

On Feb. 9, the 2019 Oscars will be televised, a technology that we take for granted. On March 25, 1954, however, the thought of seeing the Oscars was enticing. For the first time, anyone who owned, borrowed, or was invited to sit before a television could enjoy the mysterious, glamorous event: Hollywood luminaries would be honored for 1953’s greatest film achievements at the 26th Academy Awards ceremony.

According to cultural historian Thomas Doherty, NBC broadcast live from the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and the Center Theater in New York, sponsored by Oldsmobile. The cameramen’s full-dress suits did not prevent old-school Hollywood folks from feeling invaded by the television staging. Many saw the film industry’s collaboration with television as joining the enemy, but Hollywood was simply following an old motto: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That year, “From Here to Eternity” dominated the Oscars, winning eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), and Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed). It was the first film to equal the eight-award record of “Gone with the Wind” from 1939.

“From Here to Eternity” was the big winner at the 1954 Academy Awards. (Columbia Pictures Corporation)

William Holden won his only Best Actor Oscar for playing a selfish American POW in 1944 Germany, who is accused of betrayal in “Stalag 17.” In “Roman Holiday,” in her American debut, Audrey Hepburn played a lonely princess who enjoys one glorious day in Rome, earning Best Actress and a place among Hollywood royalty. However, these were not the most important Hollywood achievements recognized by the Academy that year.

William Holden in Stalag 17
In 1954, William Holden won Best Actor for his performance in “Stalag 17.” (Paramount Pictures)

An Unusual Oscar

Not all Oscars went to stars. Academy Honorary Awards are given to deserving people the Academy wouldn’t recognize otherwise. In 1954, four Honorary Awards were presented. One was bestowed on Pete Smith, who produced and narrated the comical shorts “Pete Smith Specialties.” Since 1935, his humorous vignettes on various aspects of American life had been popular precursors to feature-length MGM films. In February of 1954, he had announced his intention to retire that autumn.

Two Honorary Awards were given for technical achievements. The first went to Twentieth Century Fox for developing CinemaScope technology. This widescreen process was used in 1953’s historical blockbuster in Technicolor, “The Robe,” which was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Richard Burton), and Best Color Cinematography. It won Best Color Set Decoration and Best Color Costume Design that evening.

The other went to the Bell and Howell Company, which manufactured motion picture machinery, “for their pioneering and basic achievements in the industry.” Founded by two projectionists in 1907, this company was widely respected for its projectors.

When announcing the award,  Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Charles Brackett stated, “Without their contribution, the movies of today would still be the movies of yesterday.” While the movie industry was embracing a new technologytelevision—the Academy also was giving “a tardy acknowledge to a great indebtedness” to Bell and Howell’s technology, which had been vital for years.

The fourth award was given to Joseph Breen for managing the Motion Picture Production Code. As Thomas Doherty stated in his biography of Breen, few television viewers were familiar with his name in 1954. Unlike actors, directors, or writers, he was never credited on the silver screen.

Since then, his memory has faded into obscurity. Who was Joseph Breen, and what is the Motion Picture Production Code which he managed?

Honoring an Old Friend

In 1934, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formed the Production Code Administration (PCA), their latest attempt at enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code, film decency rules adopted in 1930, which hadn’t yet been effective.

motion picture code seal of approval
The first PCA Seal of Approval, for the 1934 film “The World Moves On.” (Remastered photo by Mark Vieira, courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

The PCA was one last try at industry self-regulation before federal censorship would replace local censors to finally curtail the obscenity in early 1930s films. Thankfully, the PCA was destined to succeed, since something was different this time: Joseph Breen had never been in charge before.

Joseph Breen in the 1950s
Joseph I. Breen in the 1950s, working at the Production Code Administration. (Courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

Breen vowed to make all films “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” Self-regulation throughout production ensured they were decent from the start.

A family man, Breen didn’t want to ruin films through rigid morality; he wanted to make them as entertaining as possible without offensive content. He became the filmmakers’ friend by making them obey the Code that they had themselves adopted.

He and his staff of eight tirelessly reviewed every script, lyric, and costume to help each film receive a PCA Seal of Approval, which was necessary for U.S. distribution.

After 20 years of unswerving service, Breen retired on Oct. 14, 1954, due to poor health. The Honorary Award seems like an obvious farewell gesture. Did he deserve this honor?

In the Academy’s 1953 Rules, the requirements for the award were: “For outstanding achievements not strictly within the categories listed in Rules Two (competitive awards) and Three (achievement awards). Honorary Awards shall only be given, however, for superlative and distinguished service in the making of motion pictures or for outstanding service to the Academy.” His years of turning objectionable material into decent, profitable films made him more than qualified.

When Charles Brackett presented the Oscar, he said: “The Motion Picture Production Code is a strong protection against self-appointed wildcat censorship groups. For his conscientious, open-minded, and dignified management of a difficult office, the Academy’s board has voted an Honorary Award to the administrator of the Code, Mr. Joseph Breen.”

Breen took his Oscar, thanked Brackett, and exited without speaking into the microphone. He had nothing to say to the audience; it was a gesture of thanks between his industry friends and himself. In the background, the orchestra played “Don’t Fence Me In.”

He kept filmmakers in line, but Joe Breen never fenced them in.

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.