Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Oscar Wins*: Best Actress (Janet Gaynor), Best Cinematography (Charles Rosher, Karl Struss), Best Unique and Artistic Picture
Oscar Nominations: Best Art Direction (Rochus Gliese)
* All of these Oscar were awarded at the very first Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929. At the time, there was an award for Outstanding Picture, and one for Best Unique and Artistic Picture. The latter was only awarded at this first ceremony, after which the two were combined into Best Picture. The Academy considers the winner of Outstanding Picture, Wings, to be the Best Picture from that year. In addition, at the time of this ceremony, the Best Actress and Best Actor awards were given for an entire year of work, so Janet Gaynor’s work in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel were part of her win.
SUMMARY: A young Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) is taking a vacation in the country for a time, and falls for a Man (George O’Brien) who lives there with his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and young child. Though the marriage between the Man and Wife was once happy, financial hardship has severely strained it. The Man returns the affections of the Woman from the City, and wants to start a new life with her. She wants him to sell his farm and come live with her in the city, which he also wants to do. There is only one problem: his wife. The Woman from the City suggests that he stage an accidental drowning, which initially angers the Man so much he tries to choke the Woman from the City. However, he stops himself, then agrees to drown his wife under the guise of a boating accident. The Woman picks a bundle of reeds, which he can use as a flotation device to save himself. The Wife is completely unaware that her husband has fallen for somebody else. She does know that their relationship has been strained, so when he asks her to go for a boat ride she is thrilled. However, not very long into the trip, the Man’s strange behavior makes her suspicious. When they are some ways away from land, her suspicions are justified as he tries to throw her overboard. She begs him not to do so, and the Man finds himself unable to kill his wife. He rows them back to shore, and the Wife immediately runs away.
The Man manages to catch up to her on the trolley into town, where he tries to talk to her. This continues when the trolley reaches town, as he buys her flowers and sweets in an effort to stop her crying. When she finally stops crying and can look at him again, the two spontaneously attend a nearby wedding. The Man remembers his own wedding, and begs his wife’s forgiveness. She does forgive him, and the two rediscover their love for each other. They spend the rest of the day having fun in the city, including having their picture taken, eating in a fancy restaurant, and visiting a carnival. When it is finally time to go home, they take the trolley before returning by the same boat they used earlier. A violent storm suddenly arises, and the two quickly run into danger. With no other options, the Man ties the hidden bundle of reeds to his wife to keep her afloat. He awakes sometime later after being washed onto the shore, but cannot find his wife. He assembles a search party, but all they can find is a trail of reeds. The Man goes home, where he finds the Woman from the City waiting for him. She has heard the news of the Wife’s drowning, and assumed that the Man had killed her as they planned. She is now ready to leave for the city with him. The Man flies into a rage, and again tries to choke the Woman. He nearly succeeds this time, but is stopped by the news that his wife has been found, and is alive. He returns to the house, where he sits by her until she wakes up; the Woman from the City leaves alone.
MY TAKE: I was actually surprised twice by this movie: I didn’t anticipate the direction it was going to take. It starts with a sinister feeling, as the Man and Woman are planning to murder the Wife so that they can be together. I totally did not expect the lovey-dovey reunion that followed, because it was a complete 180 in terms of mood. Then, I actually thought that the Wife died at the end. It seemed like poetic justice — the Man tries to drown her, realizes he loves her and reconciles, and then she drowns anyway. I actually thought that he would go on trial for her murder, because the Woman (whom he would now scorn) would testify to their plan (which was essentially what happened by accident). I was shocked that the Wife was found alive, but being that I’m a total sap, I was also very happy. I think the Wife might be a little more forgiving than is totally believable — if somebody tries to kill me, even if I am married to them, it’s going to take more than a few hours for me to get over that. You can certainly bet that I wouldn’t be getting back into a boat with them. Despite the fact that a big chunk of the middle of the film is the pair wandering around town, blissfully in love again, I did enjoy the film. There seems to be a subtle message about life and marriage there, perhaps about letting life’s hardships ruin personal happiness, which I liked. It was also nice because although it’s a silent film, there are very few intertitles. You can understand most of the story just by watching — you don’t have to hear or read anything. Not that I don’t love talkies way more, but it was interesting. And I have to give this film credit for fooling me not once but twice.
MY TAKE: Worth seeing.