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The Greatest Show on Earth

The first Oscar telecast had it all: politics, controversy and no-shows

Sometimes Hollywood serves up history, sometimes history comes up with a Hollywood ending.

It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time during the late ’40s and early ’50s when the Hollywood establishment saw any relation with the television industry as tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. TV, which had become a staple of mushrooming postwar suburban life, was keeping so many potential moviegoers glued to “I Love Lucy” and Uncle Miltie’s latest crossdressing antics that the film industry feared collapse. And in 1952, when four studios withdrew financial support, it looked for sure that the 25-year run of Academy Awards would come to an end.

But marriages of convenience, one way or another, are made over a price. In this case, $100,000, the amount RCA ponied up for the first Oscar telecast, which took place via an NBC bicoastal feed — no satellite uplinks then — on March 19, 1953. Bob Hope hosted at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater on a rainy night when official greeter Ronald Reagan had trouble recognizing a number of arrivals. Conrad Nagel hosted in New York, where it also rained, and the numerous empty seats that caught the camera’s eye made the Century Theater look the gloomy site of a show ready to fold on opening night.

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Even though MGM rescinded the ban on any of its contract players appearing, there were plenty of no-shows. Actress nominee Susan Hayward (“With a Song in My Heart”) summed up the feelings of many when she said, “I’m not going to make a TV spectacle of myself in front of a few million viewers and that’s that.” (This has been a persistent problem in a ceremony actress Glenda Jackson likened to “a public hanging”). Best director John Ford (“The Quiet Man”), best actor Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and supporting actor Anthony Quinn (“Viva Zapata!”) were out on location.

There was controversy, as there usually is at the Oscars. Some people were miffed that the fine performances of Katy Jurado in “High Noon” and Ethel Waters in “Member of the Wedding” were overlooked, and when Terry Moore was nominated for supporting actress in “Come Back, Little Sheba,” one columnist wrote that the supporting nod should have gone to her brassiere.

But the announcement that drew an audible gasp was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth’s” best picture award. Though it was the top-grossing film of the year, bringing in $12 million — a record that would stand for a decade, the smart money was on “High Noon,” which had already won the New York Film Critics award. Nobody in the New York audience applauded. Viewers heard an indignant voice mutter — a recurrent question in Oscar history — “Who votes for these things anyway?”

Celebrity smiles froze for an instant at the unavoidable recognition that, economic pressures aside, Hollywood was still trapped in the political nightmare that had begun in 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee began hearings on communist subversion in the film industry. Ten witnesses, mostly writers, refused to name names and were fined and imprisoned. The Hollywood blacklist had begun, a virtual reign of terror with a Kafkaesque warp — to implicate colleagues made one a pariah; not to name names guaranteed studio suspension.

A lot of people saw “High Noon,” in which townspeople shrink from aiding a marshal in his stand against vengeful gunmen, as an allegory of the time. So did the film’s blacklisted writer, Carl Foreman, who wrote “There are scenes in the film taken from life. The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers. And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks, ‘Where are the others?’ Cooper says, ‘There are no others.'”

On the right, columnist Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, among others, formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s film pioneers, was also one its most outspoken conservatives. Was the fix in?

“HUAC was a fascist, anti-Jewish cabal that wanted to paint Hollywood as an industry run by Jews,” says one observer. “The studios’ response was panic. They fired people left and right. They voted in blocs and put the word out to people on the lot how they wanted them to vote. Sometimes the note came with the paycheck. It’s very possible that they got together and decided they’d never let a movie win that had been written by a communist.”

Film historian Damien Bona, co-author (with the late Mason Wiley) of “Inside Oscar, The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards,” thinks the award may have come from a split vote. “My feeling was that the politics were tangential,” he says. ” ‘High Noon’ was the incredible favorite and DeMille was a prominent conservative. But ‘The Quiet Man’ was well-regarded, too. The probable reason it didn’t win was that no one wanted to give the award to a minor studio like Republic. I think the vote was close.”

The Hollywood minute passed, and though the studios would come up with 3-D, Cinemascope, VistaVision, Todd A-O and even Smell-o-Vision to lure people back to the movies, a 42.1 rating and 76 share — three-quarters of the country — that first night meant TV was not such a cunning little vixen after all. “High Noon” and “The Quiet Man” would endure as classics (as would the slighted “Singin’ in the Rain”). And “The Greatest Show on Earth” would bequeath us a great train wreck and a fair working title for Oscar night’s annual telecast.