From the presenters, to the host bits, to the musical numbers, Oscar night is filled with comedy. But if you want your movie to actually win an award, your best bet is to be as serious as possible. The last movie to win Best Picture that you could conceivably file under comedy was Birdman in 2014, preceded by The Artist in 2011 (and even those would be considered untraditional comedies). Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to 1977 for Annie Hall to find another example. However, there was a time in the history of the Academy Awards when one didn’t have to wait decades for comedy to be recognized.
The early days of the Oscars found the Academy still defining what its awards would be. The first ceremony, held in May of 1929, couldn’t be more different than it’s modern version. About 270 celebrities and producers attended the private dinner, paying $5 a ticket. It’s the only Academy Awards not to be broadcast by television or radio, but there wouldn’t have been much drama for anyone tuning in: The winners were announced three months earlier, and the award presentation portion of the dinner only took 15 minutes.
But beyond being the first ceremony, this Oscars night was notable for several divisions in categories that did not last. Rather than selecting a single Best Picture from the films of 1927 and 1928, the Academy handed out prizes for Outstanding Picture and Best Unique and Artistic Picture, a move designed to separate the art films from the commercial ones (similar to the Best Popular Movie category announced and abandoned in 2018). And instead of just one Best Director award, the Academy split the genres here as well, giving a Best Director of a Dramatic Picture statue alongside one for Best Director of a Comedy Picture.
The comedy directing award went to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights (a film considered lost for years until a print was found in Howard Hughes’s vault after his death). The only other nominee was Ted Wilde for the Harold Lloyd film Speedy, which is notable for containing what is believed to be the first filmed appearance of “the finger” (even if this alone probably wouldn’t make it award-worthy).
The following year brought several changes. The awards were streamlined and the ceremony went from 12 prizes to 7. The act of reduction saw the comedy and drama directing awards merged into a single Best Director Oscar, making Lewis Milestone the only person to win an Oscar for Best Direction of a Comedy.
This was not the last time comedy would have its own category at the Academy Awards, though. Beginning with the fifth Oscars in 1932, the short-subject category was broken into three separate awards: Cartoon, Novelty, and Comedy. The films that fell into the Cartoon and Comedy sections are self-explanatory; looking at the various nominees over the years that the category existed, Novelty appears to have been a catchall classification for everything else, nominating mostly documentaries and educational and sports films.
The first winner of the Comedy Short Subject award was the classic 1932 Laurel and Hardy short The Music Box, the only recognition the Oscars would give the team while both members were alive. Among their best-known films, it features the famous sequence in which they attempt to move a piano up a large set of outdoor stairs.
The Comedy Short Subject award’s inaugural year also contains a mystery: When the nominations were initially announced, the RKO film Stout Hearts and Willing Hands was named as one of three potential winners. But, by the time the ceremony rolled around, this short had been replaced by the same studio’s Scratch-As-Catch-Can. The reason for Stout Hearts’ disqualification has been lost to time, with the Academy stating it has no record as to why the replacement occurred.
The Comedy Short Subject award lasted four years, and of the four winners that hold the distinction of winning one of the very few Comedy Oscars, The Music Box is by far the best remembered. The following year, the prize went to So This Is Harris!, a comedic look at the life of Phil Harris, now best known as the bandleader and comic foil of The Jack Benny Show.
In 1934, La Cucaracha, a musical-comedy short, took the prize. Its legacy has less to do with its comedy and more with the process used to create it. La Cucaracha was an early color short, and one of the live-action films to use Technicolor Process No. 4, the first to allow full color.
The category’s final award went to the 1935 short How to Sleep, which was written by and starred Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley. It’s punchy and anarchic in ways reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, and plays more like a Tex Avery cartoon than a live-action short. The short was filmed in two days and resulted in several more Benchley-penned shorts being rushed into production. While it’s a shame that the Comedy Short award came and went in only four years, it’s bookended by a pair of worthy winners.
So, why don’t the Oscars have a comedy category today? The apparent reason has less to do with taste and more to do with a shift in the industry as a whole. When the Academy Awards began, a ticket to the movies would get you access not just to that evening’s movie, but a newsreel, cartoons, possibly a live act of some kind, and a variety of short films. During this time, most movie theaters were owned by the studios, allowing them to control both the creation and distribution of their films, ensuring that no matter what sort of film they made, one of their theaters would run the film somewhere in the country.
According to A History of the Hal Roach Studios by Richard Lewis Ward, when the Great Depression hit, the smaller movie theaters that weren’t affiliated with the big studios couldn’t afford to produce elaborate stage shows like their corporate contemporaries. As a cost-saving measure, they invented the double feature. Depression-era audiences were looking for escape from the sadness that surrounded them, and all the better if they could save some money at the same time. So, as you might expect, the idea of two movies for the price of one became quickly popular in these independent theaters, forcing the studio-owned movie houses to follow suit.
With theaters now projecting two feature-length films at each showing, usually paired with a cartoon or a newsreel, there was no longer room for many of the medium-length films that once accompanied these movies. In 1936, Hal Roach Studios, which produced Laurel and Hardy’s films and many other comedic shorts, largely got out of the double-reel short-subject business. Julia Lee’s book Our Gang: A Racial History, points out that Roach’s main rivals in the world of independent short comedy, Sennett, Christie, and Educational, would very quickly fold up shop as well, with none of them making it to 1940.
Initially, the aforementioned Our Gang shorts were going to be discontinued along with the rest of Roach’s work, but Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, intervened and the series continued. However, in an effort to take up less screen time alongside the double features, they were shortened to single-reel comedies, shrinking them to half the length they once were. Animated cartoons from Warners and Disney, as well as other short comedies under ten minutes, would continue to be produced for the next few decades, but with such a limited amount of time to work with, the Rascals, the Three Stooges, and others — like animated stars Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse — needed to set things up quickly and pack as many gags into their shorts as possible. With a few exceptions, the days of the not-quite-a-feature, two-reel comedy were over.
Just as Laurel and Hardy switched from shorts to features, in 1936, the Comedy and Novelty Short Oscars became the One-Reel, Two-Reel, and Color Short Film Oscars. Rather than subject matter, the categorization was now all about the production process: Was it color or black-and-white, and how many canisters of film did it take to screen it? Initially, a few comedies received nominations, and in 1936 Bored of Education, an Our Gang short, took home the award (though, historians Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann refer to the win in their history of the shorts as “a product of whim or timing, rather than strictly a consideration of merit”), but the comedy nominations became more and more scarce, and by 1941 the field was almost entirely dominated by documentaries and drama. The Color Short Oscar lasted two years, and the One-Reel and Two-Reel categories were combined in 1957 into Best Live Action Short Film, as it remains today.
Perhaps the argument that the Oscars don’t recognize comedies as being as important as dramas is the wrong one to be having. Instead, the answer may lie in the specialized comedy categories of the past. The Music Box is widely regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made. It received an Oscar because of the specific comedy category. If we want to see comedy being better represented by the Academy, the most elegant answer may be one that’s already been done: Make a Best Comedy category. It takes a different set of skills to make audiences laugh, so why make comedies compete against an entirely different genre? The Academy has established again and again that its awards need to evolve. But for once, maybe they got it right the first time, way back in 1932.