Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is Wings Better than Seventh Heaven? (1927-1928)

Seventh Heaven

Alex Russell

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 winnersWings 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 CrashNo, 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 or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Wings Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1927 and 1928 winner Wings. Is it better than Crash?

The story of movie history isn’t the story of how we got to 12 Years a Slave any more than it is how we started with Wings, the first Best Picture winner. Different movies achieve immortality for different reasons. Wings was the first Oscar winner, back before they even called them that, but is it anything more than that?

It’s surreal to watch Wings in 2014. I try to keep the time period a movie is from in my mind when I watch it, but that’s not the challenge here. Rain Man is a fantastic movie that someone spilled 80s all over; Wings is pure 1927. It’s the only true silent movie to win (The Artist doesn’t count and should be ignored), for starters. A two-and-a-half hour silent movie seems like it would be a tough sell in 2014, but it’s worth exploring the first Best Picture.

Wings is the story of two boys who love the same gal, Sylvia. They both want to date her, but she only likes one back. The other guy’s cute friend is into him, but he’s only got eyes for Sylvia. I had to look up Sylvia’s name because she’s in about sixteen seconds of this movie. The boys go off to World War I, plucky female friend goes off to drive an ambulance in the war, and Sylvia presumably dies of Spanish flu, or something. Everyone kinda forgets her. It’s weird. The movie is unbelievably long, but that’s the end of that plotline, let’s go to war.

If Wings has a claim to fame beyond the first Best Picture Oscar, it’s two million dollars worth of plane combat effects. They’re impressive (to a degree, don’t expect much) considering what they had to work with in 1927. The conventions of silent film mean that you’re going to watch a lot of flying time, so at least it’s well done.

The main characters — Jack and David — are completely nondescript. They both love America, flying, this possibly dead woman, and just about nothing else. Wings is a patriotic movie before it is anything else, and it too often is willing to forego any interesting characterization to sell that patriotism. Of particular interest is a German-American character played to be incompetent and useless. He consistently mucks up simple tasks and has to demonstrate that he belongs in the war because he has an American flag tattoo. The creators of Wings knew that people wouldn’t buy him any other way.  The third or fourth time that happens, though, you start to wonder if this might have even been too long for people in 1927.

Clara Bow got top billing on Wings. She was a movie star of the highest order, and her portrayal of the rough-and-tumble “best friend/love interest” for Jack is as close as the movie gets to “interesting characterization.” It never quite gets all the way there, but she at least gets to drive an ambulance around and tell Jack that he’s brave and strong. Hoo-boy, that sentence really tells you where 1927 was at, doesn’t it?

The Best Part: Wings is not especially worth your time in 2014, but if you decide to watch it you’ll end up with a compelling movie. It’s way, way too long (largely because it feels totally unedited) but it eventually turns out an interesting climax that is somewhat surprising.

The Worst Part: Jack and David get some leave from the military and go to Paris to get drunk on champagne. They’re called back to provide needed air support, but Jack is too drunk to remember what the military is. Internet tells me that Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the guy that plays Jack, had never been drunk before the scene. To create a realistic portrayal, they just got him drunk in real life. It comes through like that, and it’s as hard to watch as any real-life drunk. Clara Bow eventually shows up to try to get him to go back to war, which helps, but the scene ends with Jack seeing “bubbles” everywhere. The mixture of a real drunk person on screen and some terrible bubble special effects creates a really, really bad scene.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashThe discussion of race in Wings is one of “real” Americans. The German-American is hated because he is not “authentic.” The women are hated because they are not men. Men are hated because they are not “real soldiers.” The world of Wings has no room for diversity, and it’s roughly as interested in a positive message about diversity as Crash is. But there’s 78 years between Crash and Wings, and honestly, I felt like Wings was a little more progressive. The only message of Wings is “be a man, fly a plane!” Crash would be improved by being just about that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.