Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 12
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 12: 1929
Wings: A little adventure, a little romance, and a whole lot of reading.
The spirit of youth propels Wings, the first movie to ever win the prestigious Academy Award for Best Picture. Released just two years after The Jazz Singer wowed audiences as the first talking picture, Wings was one of the last silent films to see such immense popularity. Through daring stunts and whimsical romances, Wings took viewers back a mere ten years to what was, at the time, the most pivotal and traumatic event of the new century: World War I.
The film begins in an anonymous small town, where Jack Powell (Charles Rogers), a baby-faced, polo-wearing young lad is customizing his hunk-of-junk Ford with the help of Mary (Clara Bow), the dough-eyed girl next door. Mary is head over heels for Jack, but he doesn’t notice (which is shocking because this poor girl is literally THROWING HERSELF at this guy). For Jack has his eyes on someone else…
Enter “the girl from the city”, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Clad in wealth and beauty, Sylvia is entertaining the hearts of two men. Jack is in competition with the wealthier David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who Sylvia prefers for his money and looks. However, Jack misreads her signals and believes she only has eyes for him. Typical lovesick puppy dog.
Enticed by patriotism, Jack and David decide to join the armed forces and become pilots. Their rivalry over Sylvia has them hating each other at first, but the two eventually become close friends, watching over each other in air and on the ground.
Ironically, this relationship between Jack and David is the real emotional core of Wings. They share something that isn’t romantic but still goes beyond the realm of traditional friendship. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Jack mistakenly shoots down David’s plane, resulting in a horrible crash. After realizing his mistake, Jack holds David in his arms, stroking his hair, and the two share what would become one of the first male same-sex kisses on screen. It was a beautiful moment, one that surely would have spoken to all those watching who had lost loved ones in the war, and especially those who had lost comrades in battle.
That being said, the real wow factor of this film was in its effects. Director William Wellman, himself a wartime aviator, had the full cooperation of the US War department at his disposal. The US Army provided 220 planes and hundreds of skilled extras to fly them. Remember, this was a time when special effects were far more primitive, so what you see most likely transpired as you see it. Crashes actually happened. People were actually injured (one stuntman did die in an accident), and the crew had to wait days to shoot until they had the right cloud formations.
Since a good portion of this film actually takes place in the air, the planes had to be designed to fit an actor and a camera. Cameras were mounted to the front of planes to capture Richard Arlen, who learned to fly in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, and Charles Rogers, who learned to fly DURING PRODUCTION. These shots are gripping and terrifying because they are real. These brave men did all their own stunts, thousands of feet above the ground. Take that, Bruce Willis.
In terms of budget ($2 million in 1927 – which would equate to about $30 million today) and scope of the project, Wings could easily be compared to the likes of James Cameron’s Titanic. It was wildly successful, playing for more than a year in first-run theaters.
Wings ends on a bittersweet note, as most war films do. Though parts of it are almost comical when you consider the accompanying organ music and pantomime of the silent picture era, there are still elements of real sadness. Friends are lost. Families are torn apart. In one particular scene, one Cadet White (played by a very young Gary Cooper) gets out of bed and is killed in a matter of minutes – the imprint of his body still on his sheets, the teeth marks still on the candy bar he was eating. It’s real and it’s raw and, as one French solder proclaimed, “c’est la guerre”.
The Racket: For years after its initial release, historians believed this film had been lost to the ages. It wasn’t until one, singular copy was found in the private collection of Howard Hughes (who produced the film) that The Racket was able to be restored and viewed again.
And, if you’re asking me, I think the universe was trying to tell us something by hiding this film from humanity.
I really tried to like this one…I really did. Whenever I go into one of these old films, especially the silent ones, I try to take it all with a grain of salt – but this one was just a snooze.
Thomas Meighan stars as the straight-laced, honest policeman, Captain James McQuigg, who will stop at nothing to take down the corrupt criminal underworld. The only problem is that he’s working for a force that’s currently sitting comfortably in the back pocket of bootlegging crime boss, Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim).
With a rough physical appearance that had Wolheim typecast as a thug his entire career, Scarsi is the godfather of all the godfathers. Since The Racket was one of the first films to tackle the subject of a mafia-style crime ring, Scarsi became the inspiration for crime bosses throughout the rest of cinematic history. His trademark broken nose, his black bowler hat, even the way he held his gun would become stereotypes of “the boss”. Not a bad legacy!
Throughout the movie, McQuigg and Scarsi engage in a game of cat and mouse, egging and taunting each other with smirks and quips. Sure, McQuigg can try to arrest Scarsi, but he lacks evidence. Scarsi knows McQuigg can’t do anything when the DA and mayor share Scarsi’s twisted views. The two are at a stalemate, and neither is willing to make the first move.
While it isn’t explicitly clear where The Racket takes place, it’s thought to be set in Chicago – and really, it may as well have been. In fact, due to the controversial portrayal of the corrupt police force and city government, the film (and the play it was based on) was banned in The Windy City. Yup, doesn’t sound guilty at all.
If films like this have proven anything, it’s that power leads to corruption. Whether it’s on Wall Street, in the White House or on the city streets we all know and love, it’s becoming harder and harder to trust the people who supposedly have our best interests at heart. When every hand in the pocket has a gun, it’s impossible to know anyone’s true nature. And even those that hide behind a badge or a power suit can do just as much damage, if not more, than the “criminals” they chase.
Seventh Heaven: Love conquers all. True love never dies. Love is patient, love is kind. The world is full of these lovey-dovey verses. They’ve become the backbone to every cheesy rom-com and melodramatic story in existence, and you have movies like Seventh Heaven to thank for that.
Starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in the first of 12 movies they would make together, “America’s Favorite Lovebirds” are cast as Diane and Chico, two social outcasts who embark on an unlikely romance in the midst of the First World War.
Chico (Farrell) is a lowly sewage worker in Paris whose greatest ambition in life is to be elevated to the level of street washer. Diane (Gaynor) is a young prostitute who is relentlessly bulled and beaten by her drunk sister, Nana (Gladys Brockwell). During one intense fight between the sisters, Diane runs outside looking for help before Nana pushes her down and begins choking her. Chico comes upon the brawl and throws Nana off, ultimately saving Diane’s life.
Though a “very remarkable fellow” in his own mind, Chico lacks religious faith, believing God has disappointed him to the point of becoming an atheist. He struggles against his own impulse to do good, acting callous towards Diane in front of his friends, but finding it in himself to save her not once, not twice, but three times.
When the police finally arrive on the scene, Nana is arrested. She convinces the police that her sister is also to blame, but Chico claims Diane is his wife, and the police let her go. However, Chico is warned that the police plan to make an unannounced visit to his home and, if he’s caught lying, he will be arrested as well (what is this rule?!). In an effort to keep them both safe, Chico invites Diane to live with him to keep up the ruse.
Thus it is there, in Chico’s 7th floor apartment, where the two “find heaven” and begin to fall in love. Diane is like a lovesick puppy for the man who saved her life, and Chico quickly realizes how nice it is to have a woman around to cook and clean for him. As their mutual bond grows stronger by the day, they agree to actually get married, just moments before Chico is shipped off to war. It’s a sweet moment – not unlike the Post-It exchange from Grey’s Anatomy – filled with ooey, gooey kisses and embraces that surely had ladies of the day reaching for those paper fans!
As a bonified “woman’s picture”, Seventh Heaven opened to rave reviews. It was the first film to earn a Best Director Academy Award (Frank Borzage) and an award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Janet Gaynor also became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Diane.
In true romantic fashion, the movie ends as you might expect – with a ‘twist’ you can hear stomping up all 7 flights of stairs. Though it’s clearly meant to tug at the heartstrings, I think the ending really weakened this film. It lost the chance to stress the inhumanity and heartbreak of war, something the women of the audience knew all too well.
Not a bad set of films for kicking off the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony. With amazing visual effects and a budget to match, there’s no question that Wings was deserving of the win. The Racket was a bit of a clunker and Seventh Heaven was engaging, if not a bit too sappy for my taste.
At first I was a little worried that my overactive brain wouldn’t be able to focus during these silent films, but I actually quite enjoyed them! Wings is certainly worth a watch, especially if you’re interested in movie effects or World War I aerial history. And much like Louis Wolheim helped create “the gangster” character in The Racket, Wings set the bar for all the war films to come. It was beautifully shot, told a lovely story about friendship and companionship, and brought the heartbreaking reality of war to light. Though it’s not technically a hidden gem since it did win, I’m still super glad I watched it!
As a lover of cinematic history, it was really cool to see the beginnings of the Hollywood I’ve come to love. Like listening to my grandpa recount his days in the war, these films felt like a well-worn memory, complete with sepia tones and caricatures of people long gone. Though silent, their messages of hope, survival, love and eternal optimism, still ring loud and clear.
Onto the next pull!