Since we’re onto the inaugural year of the Oscars, I feel a little history is in order. The very first Academy Awards was held on May 16,1929 and honored the films made in 1927 and 1928. There were only twelve awards presented and of those twelve categories, only six are still honored today: lead actor, lead actress, cinematography, director, art direction, adapted screenplay and picture. The whole ceremony was only fifteen minutes long, with no live coverage and the winners were notified three months prior. Today, we’re in the middle of the 83rd Oscar season, clucking about ten Best Picture nominees and two dozen awards to be announced over nearly four hours on a Sunday night. My, times sure have changed.
Our first-first Best Picture nominee, is Seventh Heaven, a silent film about hope, love and war. In Paris, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewers and dreams of becoming a respectable street washer. Diane (Janet Gaynor) is poor and at the mercy of her absinthe addicted sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) who beats her regularly. A relative offers to take the sisters in, but only if they have been keeping themselves clean and decent. Diane is an honest girl, confesses to Nana’s drinking and the girls are left on their own. Nana is so furious, she chases Diane, beating her in the street. Thankfully Chico pops out of the sewer and intervenes, saving Diane.
For his good deed and to help Chico gain some faith, he is appointed to street washer. But when the police try to arrest Diane, Chico saves her again claiming that she is his wife. Now, he has to let Diane stay at his place so that when the police check it can look like she lives there. Chico is a tough guy and tells Diane not to get comfortable, her stay will only be temporary. To his surprise, they fall in love, but when war breaks out Diane and Chico may not have much time together.
One moment that really impressed me in this film, was the long shot up the stairs when we first go to Chico’s apartment. The camera rises steadily as we watch Chico and Diane ascend six flights of stairs and one ladder without cutting away. The idea for making this set is quite ingenious for the time and when we count the floors we realize where the title comes from.
The best thing about silent films is that they have to show and not tell. That’s where so many movies today go wrong, they make dialogue a crutch and leave us nothing to interpret through our eyes. Here, dialogue must be boiled down only to the most necessary lines and they must fit on the screen in large type.
With less dialogue comes more expression from the actors, a huge mark in the silent era. Nana must always look menacing while Diane more meek and downtrodden. As the film goes on, Diane becomes more confident and independent, but again this must be shown, she can only explain it in so many words.
I realize the silent film enthusiast are far and few, but seeing a few really is key to understanding film history. If you’re on the fence or merely curious, there are plenty of silent era bits on YouTube, including the very first Best Picture winner, Wings. Seventh Heaven is available on DVD through Netflix, it’s a miracle how well these films have survived the past eight decades.
“I work in the sewer, but I live nears the stars.”