The Academy has assembled a truly wonderful YouTube channel, in which they've deposited a massive quantity of clips from previous telecasts - not only the winners of the major awards, but more recently they've added opening monologues from many years.
Here's a vintage clip - the very first televised Oscar ceremony, held on March 19, 1953. The host, of course, was Bob Hope. (The running time of that show, by the way? an hour and 32 minutes.)
One of the interesting things about classic television is watching the transition from the black-and-white era to color, and the Oscarcast is no different. Oscar first came to us in color in 1966. (As Hope said in a promo, now you can see the losers turn green in living color.) Isn't it great hearing the notice at the beginning of the broadcasts of how regular programming is being preempted to present the special broadcast?
You can draw a few conclusions from endless hours watching these clips, hours that could have been spent doing productive things - like work. (Channeling Hope there, I guess.) Really, the opening monologue serves as a snapshot of the times - Hope's 1970 opening can't be embedded, but check it out here. (Just after the 11:00 mark if you don't want to watch it all.) His discussion of everything from nudity in movies to Ronald Reagan to drugs captures perfectly an America in transition and turmoil.
As always when waxing nostalgic, you have to be careful - the jokes from previous years were not necessarily funnier than they are today. And by that I mean that Hope's monologues often contain a lot of material that's either dated or inside baseball, and thus likely to go over the heads of any viewer not of that specific era. Having said that, they're still often very good, as was that one from 1966. I'd go on to add that Bob Hope is still the best Oscar MC outside of Johnny Carson.
Speaking of Carson, at first blush it seems strange for him to have hosted the show. He wasn't from Hollywood, wasn't part of the movie community, and the TV show that had made him famous was on a different network from that which was telecasting the Oscars. But there was more to it than that. He had experience, having previously hosted the Emmys several times, and more important, he was one of the most feared men in the entertainment business. He was able to speak from authority; even though he wasn't in the movie business, everyone sitting out there in the Oscar audience knew how powerful he was, and how important it was for them to remain on good terms with him in order to promote their latest movie. Though this clip isn't from the Oscar YouTube channel, it's a great look at Carson the unparalleled monologist:
And do you notice how Oscarcasts have changed over the years? I covered that in my previous piece, but in watching the clips from the 50s and 60s, it becomes apparent how the show has evolved from an event being covered by television to a television event. Look at that first clip from the 1969 broadcast (of the 1968 awards) - you can see the big, lumbering cameras, and the overture makes for very static television.
But for all that, I don't think that evolution has been particularly beneficial for the show. In gearing things toward the viewer at home rather than those in the live audience, the show has often become tedious and repetitive. There's just too much - too much glitz and flash, too much of the artsy camera angels, too much of the endless montage of film clips that too often remind you how much better movies used to be.
Back in the day, when the Miss America pageant was still big TV, there were two sets of hosts: Bert Parks, who emceed'd the live event in Convention Hall, and another host (Bess Myerson, for example) who, stationed somewhere else in the auditorium, would provide the television audience with the segways into and out of commerical breaks. In doing so, the producers were making a clear distinction between the event that was going on in Convention Hall, and the television broadcast that was bringing that show to the viewers.
As television took over the Oscar show, those awful production numbers became impossible to capture on the small screen, and so it made sense to reduce the scale so things didn't get lost to the home viewer. But in doing so, in concentrating solely on the entertainment of that viewer, I think something has been lost. At the start of the 1970 program, Gregory Peck refers to the Oscars as a "news event," not a television program. Perhaps if the Academy still felt that way, we wouldn't be having four-hour shows.
Well, a guy can dream, can't he?
*Bonus points to anyone who can identify the show from which the post title comes.