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    Follow the Stories | Bismarck, North Dakota (2006)

    Standing Up to the Academy


    Posted: 4.24.2006

    owner and appraiser with screenplay

    Appraiser Mike Gutierrez explains that Dudley Nichols, author of the script, initially declined his Academy Award.

    cover of screenplay

    A leather-bound "presentation copy" of The Informer screenplay.

    signature of John Ford

    John Ford, the director of The Informer, signed the screenplay.

    other signatures on the screenplay

    The cast and crew of The Informer signed the screenplay as well.

    At the 2005 Bismarck ROADSHOW, a woman brought in a leather-bound screenplay for the movie The Informer, one of the nominees* for the 1935 Best Picture Oscar. The screenplay was based on the Liam O'Flaherty novel, telling the story of a man who is paid a pittance to inform on a revolutionary in 1922 Ireland, and ultimately pays the price himself. The owner told appraiser Mike Gutierrez she found the script "tossed on the side of the road" by a landlord, and scooped it up. When she looked inside, she discovered that it had been signed by the cast and crew, including director John Ford, who won the 1935 Oscar for Best Director for the movie, and Victor McLaglen, who won best actor, and Max Steiner, who won for best score. The leather-bound script is known in the business as a "presentation copy," which is given to cast and crew as a keepsake.

    "The most interesting aspect to this," Gutierrez said told the owner, "is that Dudley Nichols, who won best screenplay for this movie, was the first person in Academy Award history to decline an Oscar." ... But why did he do it?

    Why did Dudley Nichols turn down his Oscar in 1936 ... only to accept it after all?

    Dudley Nichols, Activist
    Dudley Nichols was a former reporter for the New York World who became one of the great Hollywood screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, writing screenplays for 60 movies. But he was also a political and labor activist who fought for the rights of Hollywood creative talent. His refusal to accept his screenwriting award was part of a boycott against the Oscars in 1936, organized by the fledgling guilds of actors, screenwriters, and directors. They were fighting for the right to form unions independent of Hollywood's oppressive studio system and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which had established compliant in-house talent unions, known as "company unions." In reaction, screenwriters and actors organized their own guilds in 1933, and directors did the same in 1936.

    Yet the competition between these independent unions and the Academy's company unions persisted as the March 5, 1936, Academy Awards day approached. Two days before the event, actors such as James Cagney and Gary Cooper, leaders in the Actors Guild, sent out personalized telegrams to other stars asking them to boycott the ceremonies. "We consider the Academy a company union with nothing in common with the Guild," said Ernest Pascal, president of the Screen Writers Guild, in the Los Angeles Times. "We believe our members should have nothing to do with it under any circumstances."

    Studio bosses, such as Louis B. Mayer, countered with their own telegrams telling their stars to show up. "It was like the iron fist in a velvet glove," said star Jeanette McDonald, a guild supporter, of the telegram she received from Mayer. To draw people to the awards celebration, Frank Capra, the movie director and the Academy's president at the time, came up with the idea to give a special award to D.W. Griffith, one of the giants of early filmmaking. The show went on — and both sides claimed victory. The guilds claimed that only 20 members from the Actors Guild and 13 from the Writers Guild were present and that many stars stayed home. But Capra called the night a victory for the Academy. "The boycott fizzled — most of the winners were there."

    Academy Boycott
    Capra was right. All the winners showed up to accept their awards except for Nichols and John Ford, director of The Informer. "Nichols Jilts Acad. Doll," read the page-one banner in Variety, the Hollywood newspaper, which went on to say, "It's the first instance in eight years of Academy voting that a winner in the balloting refused to accept an award." Ford, perhaps fearing retribution from those who hired him, was diplomatic about his absence. "I am proud to have received the honor," he said afterwards. "If I had planned to refuse it, I would not have allowed my name to go in nomination."

    Nichols showed more spine. After the event, he returned the Oscar mailed to him by Capra with a note saying that "to accept it would be to turn my back on nearly a thousand members who ventured everything in the long-drawn-out fight for a genuine writers' organization." Capra sent Nichols the Oscar a second time, adding his own note this time: "The balloting does not in any way take into account the personal or economic views of the nominees nor the graciousness with which they may be expected to receive the recognition." Nichols sent the Oscar back again.

    The stand that Nichols and others took might have made a difference in Hollywood's labor battles. The day after the awards ceremony, Capra, speaking to the Academy's board, insisted that it disband its "company unions" for talent, and they eventually would. Two years later, the Screen Writers Guild, strongly supported by the actors' and directors' guilds, won a bargaining election, and on August 10, 1938, the National Labor Relations Board formally certified the Screen Writers Guild as the sole bargaining representative of motion picture writers. Five years had passed since the Guild first demanded studio recognition — and now they would get it. And that same year Nichols, seeing that the Academy was out of the union-busting business, finally took home his 1935 Oscar.

    Successful and Principled
    In the end, Nichols' decision to turn down the Oscar didn't hurt his career, which spanned four decades, and he went on to collaborate with the best directors of his day, such as Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Fritz Lang. He wrote screenplays for some of Hollywood's classic movies, including Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), and Stagecoach (1966). Despite his stand against the Academy, that institution continued to recognize his talents, giving him Oscar nominations for his screenwriting in The Long Voyage Home (1940), Air Force (1943), and The Tin Star (1957).

    Editor's Note 4.09.12: Originally this article incorrectly stated that The Informer won the 1935 Oscar for Best Picture. Back to top.

    See the Bismarck, North Dakota (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    Information for this article was taken from the following sources:
    The Real Oscar: The Story Behind the Academy Awards, by Peter Brown. Arlington House Pub, 1981.
    Inside Oscar, by Damien Bona and Mason Wiley. Ballantine Books, 1996.
    Oscar Dearest: Six Decades of Scandal, Politics and Greed Behind Hollywood's Academy Awards, 1927-1986, by Peter H. Brown and Jim Pinkston. Harper Collins, 1998.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Books & Manuscripts category:
    Dakota, Lakota, Nakota: Languages of the Sioux (Bismarck, 2006)
    Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
    Rare Portraits Survive Museum Blaze (In a Way) (Mobile, 2007)
    Eleanor Roosevelt Archive (Philadelphia, 2007)
    Early Mormon History Explained (Salt Lake City, 2007)

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.