Misha Crews

Love stories about old houses and family secrets.

Wow, my first Movie Monday blog!  I’m so excited!

There are two movies we’re talking about this week: two of the three movies that were nominated for the first Best Picture Oscar!  (The third movie, The Racket, is supposed to be on its way from a rare movies web dealer.  I ordered it awhile ago but it’s taking it’s sweet time getting here.  Well, I guess it’s traveling all the way from 1928, so we should really give it a break, right?  I’ve listed it below but obviously I couldn’t give it the full treatment that the other two films received.  When it gets here I will do a special edition of Movie Monday and we’ll enjoy it then!)

And so on with the show!

I’m sort of making up the rules for this blog on the fly, and I’m looking forward to evolving it as we go along, so please feel free to leave honest feedback.  Is there something more you’d like to see?  Something less?  Let me know!

At first I wasn’t going to talk about the endings of the movies, thinking that maybe folks would prefer to see the films for themselves, and not have the endings spoiled.  But to be honest, I sometimes find it annoying when I read articles about movies that don’t tell me how the story ends – especially if the film is hard to find, or something I may not ever see for myself.  And so, fairly warned be thee, says I: for here be spoilers!

In later blogs, I don’t know if I will achieve the level of detail in my descriptions of the stories as I did in this one.  I only had two movies to write about this week; next week it will be five, and before long it will be ten per week!  (Hmmm, I may have to take a leave of absence from work to really see this thing through.  Well, if it’s gotta be done, it’s gotta be done….)


1929 was a a year of tragedy and triumph.  Wyatt Earp died and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.  Seven mobsters were gunned down in what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the first nonstop flight from England to India was completed.  In January, Herbert Hoover was inaugurated; in the inagural parade, he and his wife rode through the pouring rain in an open carriage.  On with the Show, the first all-color, full-sound movie debuted in New York.  The prosperous Jazz Age came to a close and the Great Depression began when the stock market crashed in October.  Babe Ruth hit his 500th major league home run against the Cleveland Indians.  Movie tickets cost around 35 cents each.  And on May 16, 1929, the very first Academy Awards ceremony was held.


The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was established in 1927.  By then, of course, the motion picture business was going strong.  It had been almost a full century since moving images were first produced on revolving drums and disks in the 1830s, and more than two decades had passed since “The Nickelodeon” – the first successful, permanent theatre showing nothing but films – opened in Pittsburg in 1905.  In those days, programs were about thirty minutes long, and consisted of several films which were several minutes each.  During World War One, the exhibition of films changed from short programs to the feature-length films we know and love today.  Those films were part of the Silent Era, of course, but by the end of 1929, Hollywood would become almost all “talkie.”

Louis B. Mayer reportedly claimed that the Academy Awards were more or less a way to manipulate actors and directors.  “I found the best way to handle [them] was to hang medals all over them.”

Hmmm, well, at least he was trying to catch his flies with honey (although I’m sure he used his fair share of vinegar, too!).

The first Academy Award ceremony honored the best films of 1927 and 1928. Nominees were notified by telegram in February 1928, judging started in August of that year, and winners were announced in February 1929, over two months before the actual awards ceremony.


For some reason I wasn’t expecting a lot from these first few films.  Although I’ve seen – and loved – many silent films, somehow I was anticipating three overly-melodramatic stories with cartoonish acting and cardboard sets.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Watching these movies I was reminded again and again of a scene in Hollywood Boulevard (one of my favorite films and a contender for the 1950 Best Picture Oscar).  Joe Gillis (William Holden) is trying to add dialgoue to a monsterously overblow script which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sees as her sure-fire comback to the bigtime.  She scoffs at his attempts, saying scornfully, “Words! We didn’t need words! We had faces.”

Oh, how true that was!  The faces in these films could recite a dozen lines of dialogue with the pressing together of trembling lips, or the starry shine of suppressed tears in the corner of an eye.  I am so thankful that these movies have been preserved so that I can watch them now, nearly a century after they were made.

And the nominees are….

The Racket
Starring: Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost
Directed by: Lewis Milestone

What’s it about? An honest police captain vows to bring down a powerful bootlegger who is protected by corrupt politicians and judges.

What makes it special? It was produced by the legendary Howard Hughes. According to my research, only one copy of the film is known to exist, and that one was found in Hughes’ private collection after his death.  The film was restored, and it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in 2004 and 2006 – the first public showing of the film in decades.  Oooh, I can’t wait to see it!

7th Heaven
Starring: Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor (winner, Best Actress for Sunrise, that same year)
Directed by: Frank Borzage (winner, Best Director)

Where did I find it?  I bought the dvd on eBay.  Generally speaking the video quality was good, but there was some distracting flicker and darkness in the corners of the screen.  It’s wonderfully orchestrated, however, with crashing symbols punctuating explosions, and subtle sound effects playing up the striking of the clock.

What’s it about?  Based on a stage play and set in Paris, this is a “feel-good” wartime romance about having faith and fighting for what you believe.  Chico (Charles Farrell) is a strapping young man who works cleaning the sewers.  He dreams only of being a street washer, so that he can work above ground in the sunshine and fresh air.  “That’s where I should be,” he tells Rat, his faithful friend.  “After all, I’m a very remarkable fellow!”

Diane (Janet Gaynor) lives in abject poverty, at the mercy of her cruel and alcoholic sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell).  When we first meet Diane, she is cowering on a filthy floor, being whipped by Nana.  “Stop your whining about stolen goods,” Nana orders when her arm has grown tired.  She hands Diane a bag.  “Take these and buy me some absinthe!”  A possible end to their destitution arrives in the form of a rich aunt and uncle.  But Diane’s honesty ruins their chance.  “Tell me, have you girls kept yourselves clean and decent?” the uncle asks.  “If you haven’t I won’t have you in my home.”  Although Nana is twisting Diane’s arm painfully behind her back, Diane can’t bring herself to lie.  She tearfully shakes her head no, admitting in that moment that both girls have debased themselves in their struggle for survival.  Nana is so incensed that Diane has thrown away their golden ticket, that she chases her down the street and tries to strangle her.

Witnessing the scene, Chico steps in and saves Diane’s life.  Gradually, the two of them fall in love.  Before they can get married, however, war breaks out, and Chico must leave to fight.  An open and defiant atheist, Chico declares “I’m going to give God one more chance.  Let this be a successful marriage!”  Instead of rings, he and Diane exchange religous medals.  As he walks out the door, he turns to look at her and says, “Let me fill my eyes with you one last time!”  And he promises that every day, at eleven AM, he will come to her and they will be together in their own Heaven.

No sooner has Chico departed than Nana returns, with the same riding crop she used to use to beat her sister.  She pulls the religious medal off Diane’s neck and starts to strike her, but Diane is having none of that.  She takes the crop away and drives Nana to the door, snatching her medal back and pushing her sad excuse for a sister down the stairs and out of her life.  She rushes to the window and watches below as troops are marching out of Paris.  She holds the medal triumpantly in the air.  “Chico!” she cries, as if he can hear her, “I’m brave!  I’m brave!”

Years go by.  Chico is a corporal, fighting in the thick of battle.  Diane works in the munitions factory.  But every day, as the clock strikes eleven, they grasp their medals and look upward, thinking of each other.

Chico is wounded in a terrible battle.  He manages to crawl into the foxhole, where he pulls off his medal and give it to an officer.  “Tell Madam Chico that I died looking up,” he says.

Back in Paris, on the day that the Armistice is declared, Diane gets the news that her beloved husband has died.  At first she won’t believe it, but when the priest gives her his medal, she breaks down.  She denies her belief in God, and declares that she thought Chico had come to her every day at eleven, but that she was fool.  “I’m right back at the beginning,” she says, slumped over in defeat.

Down in the street, Chico pushes his way through the crowd that is celebrating the end of the war.  He drags himself up the stairs, shouting for his wife, but he can’t be heard over the crowd.  Then, as the clock strikes eleven, he stumbles into the room.  He calls for Diane, his arms outstretched, his eyes wide and sightless.  At first Diane can’t believe it’s really him, but then she goes to him, and they collapse on the floor together.  She touches his blind eyes.  “My eyes are still full of you,” he tells her.  Then adds, “I won’t be blind for long.  I tell you, I’m a very remarkable fellow!”

What makes it special? The dialogue is wonderful.  Okay, I know that’s a weird thing to say about a silent movie, but it happens to be true!  In film – in any writing, actually – dialogue should be unique to the character; the words a character speaks should help us understand who he or she is.  Chico’s constant declaration of how remarkable he is, as well as his habit of referring to God as the Bon Dieu, reveal more about him than his mile-wide shoulders or golden (yet manly) curls.

Janet Gaynor as Diane was a revelation – for me, that is; I’m sure that most old movie buffs have been enamored of her for ages!  She was one of those actresses that was in the movie business from the very beginning, and she worked all her life; her final role was on The Love Boat in 1981.  In 1929 she won the Best Actress award for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (which is also an extraordinary film, if you ever get the chance to see it!).  She will cross this blog at least twice more: in 1933’s State Fair, and 1937’s A Star is Born.  I can’t wait!

As 7th Heaven opens, the first card says, “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars: the ladder of Courage.”  That sums up this movie beautifully, and the theme is carried right through the picture.  From the long, ladder-like staircase that leads Diane from the street to Chico’s apartment above the rooftops of Paris, to Diane’s own couragous confrontation with her wicked sister, to the triumphant “love conquers all” ending, this is a truly inspring film.
And the winner is…

Starring: Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow
Directed by: William A. Wellman

Where did I find it? I bought the dvd on eBay.  The quality of the was remarkably good – very little distortion.  It was a pleasure to watch.

What’s it about?  This is a truly classic war epic in which you can see the seeds of many war movies to come.  Jack Powell (Buddy Rogers) is a middle-class boy who dreams of flight.  David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) is Jack’s rich neighbor, sensitive yet manly.  Both boys are in love with beautiful society girl Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston).  Her heart belongs to David, but when war breaks out, she allows Jack to take a photo of her for good luck.  Meanwhile, Jack’s neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow, Hollywood’s first “It Girl”) is in love with Jack but he – like so many men before and after him – is too blind to see the charms of the girl next door.

When the movie opens, Mary is helping Jack complete modifications on his old jalopy.  He wants nothing more than to “make ‘er fly.”  He dubs his speedy new vehicle The Shooting Star.  Mary paints a star on the side of it, then bashfully says, “You know what you can do when you see a shooting star, don’t you?  You can kiss the girl that you love best.”  Unfortunately Jack doesn’t take the hint, and dashes off to find Sylvia.

When World War One begins, Jack and David both enlist in the newly formed Army Air Service.  Rivals at home, they face the horrors of war together and become friends for the first time.  Things turn especially tragic when David’s plane is shot down.  He manages to survive the crash and steal a German plane, but Jack, driven mad with anger at what he thinks is the death of his friend, is determined to kill at least “one more Kaiser” in revenge.  In a moment that is both horrifying and heartbreaking, Jack mistakenly shoots David and kills him.

The war is over, and Jack returns home to a hero’s welcome, but for him the homecoming is not so joyous.  Bravely he faces David’s parents, who know that he was the cause of their only child’s death.  They meet him stony-faced, their eyes accusing.  But then David’s mother breaks down and embraces Jack.  “I wanted to hate you,” she weeps,”but it wasn’t your fault.  It was war.”

In the end, Jack returns to his own parents’ house, and pulls the cover off of The Shooting Star.  He sees Mary, peering over the hedge at him, as she has done so often before.  Mary has had her own adventures in the years since they’ve seen each other.  She signed up for service and went oversees to be an ambulence driver.  She and David have both changed.

They sit together and look up at the night sky.  A shooting star – a real one – zooms across the heavens.  Jack says, “You know what you can do when you see a shooting star, don’t you?” Mary smiles and nods, remembering.  As Jack leans forward to kiss her, the screen fades to black.

What makes it special? Several things stood out out for me while watching this movie.  First and foremost is the incredible aerial photography.  In an age when most people had never been in an airplane, this movie may have been their first chance to see what the tops of clouds looked like!  Some amazing shots include aerial dogfights, soldiers parachuting out of blimps, bombs plummeting to earth and heart-stopping plane crashes.  This was moviemaking on a huge scale, and must have been a massive undertaking for the film makers. Toward the beginning of the film there’s also a beautiful (but not as dramatic) shot of David and Sylvia sitting together on a swing.  The camera follows their motion back and forth, making us feel like we’re in the swing with them.

The scene that I found most heartbreaking was the one in which David’s parents say good-bye to him as he leaves for training.  Call me a sap, but there was no way to avoid tearing up as David’s mother hands him a tiny stuffed bear that was his favorite toy as a child.  And when Jack returns the bear to her later, after David is killed…well, suffice it to say, I was glad to have a box of tissues handy!

Last but not least is the brief appearance of a young Gary Cooper.  He plays Cadet White, a seasoned flier who gives Jack and David their first taste of loss in the war.  He’s only on screen for about five minutes, but he cuts a rakish, impressive figure.  In front of the camera he’s charismatic, magnetic, and it’s easy to see how he became a legend in his own right.


So, how did we do with our first Movie Monday?

2 thoughts on “Movie Monday: 1929 – 1st Academy Awards

  1. Wow – wonderful post, Misha! You made me want to find these movies NOW. 🙂 I saw Wings years ago in a History of Film class in college, but have not seen the others. I've never seen Janet Gaynor in a silent movie – I'll need to rectify that problem. 🙂

  2. Misha Crews says:

    Thanks so much Karen! Any time you want to borrow my copy of 7th Heaven just let me know! 🙂

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