Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: 7th Heaven (dir by Frank Borzage)

The 1927 melodrama 7th Heaven tells the story of two people in Paris.

Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewers but lives by the stairs.  Though he spends all of his days under the street and dealing with literally the worst that the world has to offer, Chico remains an optimist.  After all, he has his small apartment, which sits atop seven flights of stairs.  He has his dreams, which involve eventually getting promoted to being a street cleaner.  He doesn’t have much religious faith, which concerns Father Chevillon (Emile Chautard) but who knows?  Maybe something can happen to change that….

Diane (Janet Gaynor) is a desperately sad young woman who lives in squalor with her older sister, the cruel Nana (Gladys Brockwell).  When we first see Diane, she’s lying on the floor while being whipped by Nana and that’s pretty much the way her life goes for the first fourth of the movie.  Nana treats Diane less like a sister and more like a slave, sending her out to steal food and buy absinthe.  Diane and Nana’s father has made a good deal of money overseas but when he sees how they’re living in Paris, he rejects both of them.

How bad of a sister is Nana?  She’s so bad that, when she’s eventually arrested by the Paris police, she points out her sister on the street and demands that they arrest her as well.  Fortunately, Chico just happens to present at the scene.  Having already protected Diane from Nana’s abuse once before, Chico steps forward and announces that Diane is his wife!  The police ask Chico if he’s sure and then remind him that, if it’s found that he’s lying, both he and Diane could go to prison.  Chico, however, insists that it is true.

To keep the deception going, Chico allows Diane to move in with him.  When Father Chevillon arranges for Chico to get promoted to street cleaner, he also requests that Chico keep an eye on Diane.  Chico agrees and slowly but surely, the two of them fall in love.  Chico’s apartment, sitting atop 7 flights of stairs, becomes their 7th heaven.

However, World War I looms in the distance.  With all of Chico’s friends and coworkers receiving their draft notices and being sent to fight, Chico and Diane knew that it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens to Chico….

As in so many other silent films, the shadow of World War I looms over every minute of 7th Heaven.  In the 20s, the Great War was still the main trauma that has shaped most viewer’s lives and one can imagine those viewers watching 7th Heaven and falling in love with the characters of Chico and Diane, all the while knowing that their happiness is only temporary.  If the 1st hour of 7th Heaven is a romantic mix of melodrama and comedy, the 2nd hour becomes a rather grim war film.  Even separated by war, Chico and Diane remain soulmates.  When Diane is told that Chico has been listed as having been killed in action, she knows that it’s not true because she can still feel their connection.  And yet, the final fourth of the film is so stylized and the final shot is both so beautiful and yet so artificial that the audience is left to wonder whether Diane is correct or if she’s simply dreaming what she (and, undoubtedly, the many other members of the audience who had also lost loved ones in the war) wishes to be true.

7th Heaven is a deliriously romantic film and watching it actually requires a bit less of an adjustment on the part of modern audiences than other silent films.  Director Frank Borzage keeps the action moving quickly and, even more importantly, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell both give sincere and naturalistic performances.  Never do they resort to the type of theatrical overacting that was featured in so many other silent films.  Instead, you watch the film and you truly believe that you are watching two people fall in love.  You’re happy when they’re happy and when tragedy strikes, you cry for them.  Their love is your love and their sadness is your sadness.

7th Heaven was one of the first films to even be nominated for Best Picture.  While Gaynor won Best Actress and Frank Borzage won Best Director, the award for Best Picture went to another World War I romance, Wings.

4 Shots From 4 Inaugural Oscar Winners: Wings, Sunrise, The Last Command, Seventh Heaven

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards ceremony!

On May 16th, 1929, a private dinner was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The dinner was largely meant to celebrate the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the AMPAS was founded to help mediate labor disputes between the studios and the unions.  As almost an afterthought, it was decided that AMPAS would also give out annual awards to honor the best films of the year.

12 awards were handed out on May 16th, before an audience of 270 people.  The entire awards ceremony took 15 minutes.  That’s quite a contrast to what the Academy eventually became.

In honor of that 15-minute ceremony, here’s….

4 Shots From 4 Films Honored At The Very First Oscar Ceremony

Wings (1927, dir by William Wellman) Won The Outstanding Production Awards

Sunrise (1927, dir by F.W. Murnau) Won Best Unique and Artistic Picture

The Last Command (1928, dir by Josef von Sternberg) Won Best Actor — Emil Jannings

Seventh Heaven (1927, dir by Frank Borzage) Winner Best Actress — Janet Gaynor

Along with her performance in Seventh Heaven, Janet Gaynor was also honored for her work in Street Angel and Sunrise.  Emil Jannings was honored for his work in both The Last Command and The Way of all Flesh,

Here’s what else won at the inaugural Oscar ceremony:

Best Direction, Comedy Picture — Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

Best Direction, Drama Picture — Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven

Best Original Story — Ben Hecht for Underworld

Best Adaptation — Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven, based on the play by Austin Strong

Best Art Direction — William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest

Best Cinematography — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise

Best Engineering Effects — Roy Pomeroy for Wings

Best Title Writing — Joseph Farnham for Fair Co-Ed; Laugh, Clown, Laugh; and Telling the World.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #9: A Star is Born (dir by William Wellman)


“Hello everybody.  This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

— Mrs. Norman Maine (Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born (1937)

When I first saw the red neon of the opening credits of the 1937 best picture nominee, A Star Is Born, I thought to myself, “This is a real movie movie.”  And I was so impressed by that thought that I even jotted it down in my review notes and now, looking down at my notes, I’m struggling to figure out how to explain just what exactly it was that I meant.

I think that what I was trying to say, in my own way, was that, when we think of a typical big budget Hollywood romance, A Star Is Born is the type of film of which we tend to think.  It’s a big, glossy film that is shot in vibrant technicolor and which features a self-sacrificing woman (Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor) falling in love with a self-destructive but ultimately noble man (Norman Maine, played by Fredric March).  It’s a film that has romance, humor, and tragedy.  It’s a film that’s designed to make you laugh, cry, and ultimately fall in love.  It’s pure melodrama, the type of film that would probably be made for Lifetime today.  (And, in fact, it has been remade for Lifetime a number of times, just never under the title A Star Is Born.)

It’s a familiar story that, if I may indulge in a cliché, as old as the movies.  Esther is a girl who lives on a farm in North Dakota and she wants to be a star, despite being told by her aunt that she need to start concentrating on finding a man and having children.  Esther’s grandmother (Fay Robson) tells Eleanor to pursue her dreams and loans her some money to take with her to Hollywood.

With stars in her eyes, Esther goes out to California and deals with rejection after rejection.  (She does, however, manage to rent out an apartment.  The weekly rent is $6.00.)  Esther does befriend an assistant director (Andy Devine) who gets Esther a job as a waitress at a party.  As Esther serves the food, she imitates everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Mae West, all in an attempt to get noticed.

And, amazingly enough, it works!  She meets film star, Norman Maine.  With Norman’s help, she gets her first screen test and, after her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is put under contract to a studio.  She and Norman also fall in love and soon end up married.  However, while Vicki Lester is rising to stardom, Norman is descending into irrelevance.  He’s an alcoholic who has managed to alienate almost everyone in Hollywood.  When Vicki wins her first award, Norman shows up at the ceremony drunk and destroys what little is left of his career.

Will Vicki be able to save Norman from his demons?  And will she be able to do so without destroying her own career?

Well, you probably already know the answer.  A Star Is Born is one of those stories that everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the film or not.  (And even if they haven’t seen the 1937 version, chances are that they’ve seen one of the many remakes or ripoffs.)  The original Star Is Born is an undeniably familiar and old-fashioned movie but it holds up as a celebration of both old Hollywood glamour and a heartfelt romance.

And it’s in the public domain!

Watch the original A Star is Born below!



Embracing the Melodrama, Part II: Sunrise (dir by F.W. Murnau)



Last year, I published 60 film reviews under the heading of Embracing the Melodrama.  Embracing the Melodrama was one of the first review series that I had ever done and I had so much fun doing it that I figured, “Why not try it again?”

In other words, welcome to Embracing the Melodrama, Part II!

Over the next three weeks, I will posting, in chronological order, 128 reviews of films that embrace the melodrama.  As before, these reviews will be in chronological order and they will include everything from Oscar winners to grindhouse exploitation to made-for-television dramas.  It should be fun!

And, considering that we’re talking about 128 reviews here, it should at least help me make a dent in my goal to see every single movie that has ever been made.

Let’s start things off by taking a quick look at the 1927 silent film, Sunrise.  Directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau, Sunrise is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made and for once, popular opinion is correct.  The film tells a simple story.  The Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston) takes a vacation out in the country.  (We know she’s dangerous because she wears black lingerie.)  She stands outside of a farmhouse and whistles.  Soon, the Man (George O’Brien) steps out of the farmhouse and joins the Woman.  Inside the farmhouse, the Wife (Janet Gaynor) can only dream of what life was like when she and the Man first fell in love.

The Man and the Woman meet at the edge of the lake and kiss as the moon shines down on them.  They’re having an affair, though the film — in its dream-like way — leaves it ambiguous as to just how long the affair has been going on.  (Indeed, the film almost seems to suggest that The Woman has sprung from the Man’s subconscious, a creation of his darkest desires.)  The Woman wants the Man to murder his wife and come back to the city with her.  At first, the Man refuses but, as the Woman talks to him, he starts to visualize the city.  And, make no mistake about it — the city that the man visualizes is a scary place that resembles the dreamworld of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  But, at the same time, it’s also a lot more fun than the farm.

Now, you may be wondering why this familiar sounding tale is considered to be one of the best films of all time.  The story itself is simple and deliberately allegorical.  The film is less about the story and more about how Murnau tells it.  Murnau fills the screen with hauntingly surreal images that are both beautiful and frightening at the same time.  When the title cards appear on-screen, the lettering literally fades in and out and adds to the entire movie’s dream-like feel.  Watch the scene below where the Woman first suggests killing the Wife and the Man visualizes the city:

Infatuated with the Woman, the Man plans to drown the Wife but, at the last minute, has a change of heart.  The Wife, however, flees to the city herself.  The Man follows her and attempts to win back her love.  The city itself changes when the Man and the Wife are in it together.  What seemed dark and threatening under the influence of the Woman is now revealed to be fun and vibrant.  The film transforms from being an early example of film noir to being a screwball comedy.

How many other films can you think of that feature both a murderous femme fatale and a drunk pig?

And yet, as much joy as the Man and the Wife find in the city, both the farm and the Woman await their eventual return.  And there’s a storm coming…

Interestingly enough, at the first Oscar ceremony, two awards were given for Best Picture of the year.  The first award — for Outstanding Production — went to Wings, a big budget action spectacular about World War I.  The other award — for Unique And Artistic Presentation — went to Sunrise.  I’ve read a lot of speculation about which film the Academy meant to name the best of the year but, to me, it’s fairly obvious that the Academy meant for Outstanding Production to honor the year’s big blockbusters while Unique and Artistic Presentation would honor the “art” films.

And, to be honest, I think that, way back in 1928, the Academy had the right idea.  Why should they only give out one award for best picture, as if all films can be judged by only one standard?  Why not give out separate awards for the best comedy or the best thriller or the best film made for a certain amount of money?  Why not bring back the Oscar for Unique and Artistic Presentation?

For whatever reason, the Academy discontinued the Unique and Artistic Presentation Award after the 1st ceremony and, in the future, only one film would be named best of the year.  Since Outstanding Production eventually become known as Best Picture, Wings has been immortalized as the first film to win best picture.

And, nothing against Wings, but the Academy would have been smarter to have gone with Sunrise.  Certainly, it would have won them the respect of future film students.

You can watch Sunrise below!