In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are Wings (Best Picture) and Seventh Heaven (Best Director), the winners from 1927-1928. Which is the better film?
The Best Director film: Seventh Heaven, a story about love and war. You can apply that sentence to almost every movie in the 20s and 30s, but there are few you can entirely describe with it. Seventh Heaven is about absolutely nothing else. Diane (Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress award for the role) is a poor street girl in pre-war France. Diane’s ticket out of poverty is her rich family, but when they return and ask her and her sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) if they have been good, Diane must be honest and say that they have not. Her family leaves immediately and Nana whips Diane (literally whips her, with an actual whip, for real) in the French streets. It’s all designed to start the Diane character as low as possible, but since it happens in about three minutes the result is very jarring and upsetting, and not in the way it’s intended. Diane is rescued by Chico (Charles Farrell) and they slowly fall in love after merely pretending to be married to avoid the police. Then Chico goes to war. Can love triumph in wartime? Will Diane be safe from her murderous sister? Did families really abandon each other after exchanging two sentences in the 20s? You’ll have to watch to find out!
Two Arabian Knights also won for Best Director (Comedy Picture) in 1927-1928, but it’s out of print as far as I can tell. This is also the only year they awarded two Best Director awards, and the dramatic version feels like the correct predecessor to today’s Best Director award.
The Best Director director: Frank Borzage, who won two Best Director Oscars in his life. After the inaugural Seventh Heaven, he won in 1931-1932 for Bad Girl. I really want to save my thoughts about Bad Girl for that post, but it’s enough to say that this one is significantly less bizarre through modern eyes. Borzage was one of 14 children and one of only eight to survive childhood. That certainly explains the bleakness in both movies.
The Best Picture film: Wings (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 63rd on my list of all the Best Picture winners. Wings is mostly a historical footnote as the only silent film to win Best Picture. It plods along by modern standards, but it’s a little more watchable than most of the other first 10 winners. There’s a compelling love story in it and the combat is exciting. Unexpected characters die and it lacks some of the predictable nature of many early films. I can’t honestly recommend it unless you want to watch “the first Best Picture winner” for exactly that reason, but there are very watchable chunks throughout and you could do much worse.
The Best Picture director: William A. Wellman, who flew in World War I and seems to have hated actors even more than the average director in his era. He worked for three decades after Wings, but you’re unlikely to recognize much in his filmography. There are worse things to be known for than directing the first Best Picture, though.
Did the right movie win Best Picture? Yes, though it may depend on what you want from a movie. Wings is a technical marvel, and though it looks dated to modern eyes it still seems impressive given the era. There’s something in Wings for a modern audience, then, and that just isn’t true in Seventh Heaven. Chico and Diane are non-characters who don’t establish personalities very well. Chico brags that he’s remarkable, but he does so by saying things like “I am a most remarkable man!” While every movie has to be judged through the lens of time, that feels pretty lazy even for 1931. You may find Seventh Heaven sweet, but by the conclusion it’s full-on soap opera and it’s way too much.
Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than Crash? No, but they’re both much less watchable. Both Seventh Heaven and Wings drag a lot and you’re likely to find them boring if you watch them today. That said, it’s not a good sign when the movie with a murderous, mindless alcoholic with a whip doesn’t have the least sympathetic character in it. The contemptuousness of Crash drags it beneath even other dark stories about the heart of mankind.
Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932) |
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.