7th Heaven (1927)


Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.

Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.

Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”

He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.

What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.

The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.

7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.


List: Countercultural Classics


Throughout September, Turner Classic Movies is having a spotlight each week on films that represent countercultural phenomena of the 1960s. I love that idea, but I’m not limiting my list to movies from or about the 60s. These are movies from all film eras representing an individual’s or small group’s involvement in a much bigger countercultural movement. Those movements are parts of very different dominant cultures (both real and fantasy cultures) as well, unlike the American focus of TCM’s spotlight this month. So, here are the greatest countercultural films of all times.


10. Conrack (1974)

A white teacher accepts a job on a South Carolina island community  in the 1960s that is entirely black except for the mailman. Separate but equal is no longer law, but this island has no choice but to be separate. The teacher’s job is much more than just teaching but helping the whole town see that there is life outside their island and more importantly pushing those off the island to see that there’s life on the island, to respect that life, and to give them the same opportunities that the white people on the mainland have. Pat Conroy created a countercultural movement built on love and equality that most of the mainland wouldn’t get behind.


9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2006)

Depicting an early part of Che Guevera’s life when he was still a young doctor, we follow him and his friend on a trip they took that helped to form many of Che’s convictions and philosophical beliefs. Through that we get to see the very start of his movement.


8. The Robe (1953)

It’s hard for Americans to think of Christianity as ever being a countercultural movement, but The Robe reminds us of what its earliest existence was like. When its main character, the fictional character Marcellus Galio (Richard Burton) confronts the very real, very mad Caligula, we are confronted with the truth of how deeply the faith offended the world it developed in.


7. Holiday (1938)

George Cuckor’s romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant may seem like a strange film to call a countercultural classic. But the family that the movie is about represents a very rigid devotion to American capitalism. The break from that rigidity that the couple in the movie seeks reflects a lot of what was seen in America after WWII, growing and becoming the most prominent in the hippy movement. Back in 1938, this movie shows characters who wanted to identify themselves by who the are rather than by what they do, the very heart of American counterculturalism. So I thought it important to include this movie here as it predates all these movement and so may have even played a role in some of them.


6. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Just as a young couple begins a romantic relationship, the girl is promised by tribal leaders as a sacrifice to the gods. The couple’s fight against tradition does not get a whole lot of help, but the help they do get creates a small movement to stand against the murderous tradition and to protect their love.


5. Freaks (1932)

The types of people rejected from “normal society” that found themselves in the freak shows of circuses create a rebellion in Tod Browning’s compassionate film that, despite the title, allows us to see them as people not freaks. Their movement is a movement against discrimination and stereotype and for inclusion. “Gobble gobble munch munch. Gobble gobble munch munch. We accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us.”


4. Loving (2016)

The Lovings, as the couple whose case ended all American laws opposing interracial marriage, never fought their battles for themselves alone. Mildred, as played by Ruth Negga, expresses hope that everything they go through will help others. Richard, played by Joel Edgerton (in last year’s best acting performance) is much quieter in how he fights the fight, but his fight is also for much more than his own family and even bigger than the struggles other families in similar situations. His fight is for the very concept and reality of love itself. And of course their struggle did create a movement in court and in all society that helped make it so interracial marriage in general would not stay a countercultural movement as it was for them..


3. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

“Sugar Man” Rodriguez wrote and performed brilliant Bob Dylan-esque folk music in the 1960s and 70s that was a very important part of a countercultural movement, just not the one he knew about. His music and lyrics fit his own time and location in Detroit very well, his own desire for a countercultural movement that he never saw come to fruition. What he never imagined was that copies of his music serendipitously became popular in South Africa and influenced the anti-Apartheid movement. Getting to see “Sugar Man” perform in South Africa many years later once he finally realized that he was a star is one of the most inspiring scenes in film history in this monumental documentary.


2. Easy Rider (1969)

This one goes without saying, and is obviously why I picked the picture I did to introduce this list. Breaking away from hippy culture Wyatt and Billy create a counter-countercultural movement. Their movement includes mostly drug dealers, and while they claim to share ideals with the hippies are actually ruining the hippy movement and falling much more in line with the darkest side of American capitalism that they’re supposed to resisting. The hypocrisy of their movement makes for a profound view of counterculturalism.


1. Woodstock (1970)

And the documentary Woodstock is the most profound of all film views of counterculturalism. Far more than a concert film that shows the events of those days of the festival, Woodstock encompasses the hippy movement, and in many ways Woodstock is the hippy movement.

Notorious (1946)


Identity and guilt are common themes in Alfred Hitchcock movies, and especially in his romances. Of course Hitchcock was the master of suspense. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him a master of romance, but he was. Olivia De Havilland’s character in Rebecca needed to come to terms with her own identity as separate from the identity of the titular character for the sake of her marriage. Gregory Peck’s character in Spellbound needed to confront guilt from his past and learn to identify himself as his doctor and eventual lover does so that their romance can be what they want it to be.

In Notorious, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is an alcoholic with a reputation for sordid sexual behavior. The movie opens with her father accused of treason against the U.S. for Nazi espionage. The people she surrounds herself with makes her look like she’s involved in the same criminal political activities as her father. But Devilin (Cary Grant) knows better. He’s the only person who knows her, even before he’s met her thanks to his own expertise in espionage.

Once they meet, they fall in love very quickly as people in 1940s movies usually do. Fast as is it, though, it is real. We know it’s real, but it’s harder for them to convince each other that it’s real. Alicia tries to change her ways. She desperately wants to change her ways. But she depends on him to see her as a different person than she was in the past before she really believes it herself. He wants her to change just as desperately as she does, and he knows that he loves her but he’s not sure if he believes her. Is her change really an act of love or is it just a momentary whim?

As they fall in love, they know they’re going to be working together, but they don’t know that her espionage work will be of a sexual nature. This work brings in all the suspense that Hitchcock is known for, but the heart of this story is not the criminal justice work they do but the way the work tests their love. She has to learn to accept herself as a person capable of loving and worthy of receiving love. She needs to stop identifying herself by the guilt of her past and become transformed by love. He needs to do the same thing as far as she’s concerned, he needs to learn to see her first as the woman he loves rather than the woman he knew her to be in the past.

Watching Alicia and Devilin struggle to make their romance work is a thriller in itself. Of course I’m thankful to Hitchcock for all the spy-related plot twists, the discovery of war crimes, and all the revelations that come as their investigation goes on. Every second of Notorious is intense and gripping, but none of it would work if it weren’t for Alicia’s transformation, essentially a spiritual journey that’s necessary to make their romance work. Whether or not Devilin believes Alicia at any particular moment determines whether or not he steps in to protect her from some of the most dangerous circumstances that she has no control over. Hitchcock was at his most brilliant when he tied together thrilling, romantic, and spiritual themes all into one perfectly composed masterpiece like Notorious.


Other Alfred Hitchcock movies I’ve reviewed: Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942); Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Psycho (1960)

List: The Films of Jennifer Jones


Jennifer Jones is Turner Classic Movie’s star of the month. I haven’t seen a whole lot of her films, but here’s the list of those I have with my grades for her acting and only her acting, not the movie as a whole.


The Song of Bernadette (1943) A+

Playing a teenager in the beginning stages of the events that would lead to her eventual sainthood, Jennifer Jones beautifully captures her character’s innocence and conflict between the church and her own experience with the divine.


Duel in the Sun (1946) F

Playing a character who is supposed to be part Native American, Jennifer Jones certainly didn’t look the part, but that was the least of the problems with her acting. Experiencing her mother’s horrendous murder by her father, she acts more like she’s inconvenienced than any kind of grief or trauma. The character isn’t intended to be such a brat but that’s how se comes off in Jennifer Jones’ hands. After her brilliance performance in The Song of Bernadette, she showed how great she can be, but in Duel in the Sun she showed how clueless she can be to any real human emotion and experience.


Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953) C-

As she showed a complete lack of empathy towards the victim she played in Duel in the Sun, she lacked any sense of of passion, desire, or lust playing the wife of indiscretion. The movie was about as boring as they come but at least her performance didn’t involve the racism so prominent in Duel in the Sun.


Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) B+

And finally things got a lot better for Jennifer Jones’ career in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but nowhere near her spectacular performance 10 years earlier. With all the potential of being a pathetic soap opera and just as racist as Duel in the Sun, Jennifer Jones’ performance is exactly what prevented those potentialities from becoming a reality for this movie. She takes us into her romantic passion, her suffering, her grief, and her love letting us feel with her and for her. Everything she lacked in the last 2 movies I mentioned, she makes up for here.


Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)


Vincente Minnelli’s classic movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis follows a family at the turn of the 20th century beginning at the end of the summer, right around Labor Day. It opens with the title song saying “meet me at the fair.” All are excited about the knowledge that the World’s Fair will be in their home town of St. Louis at the end of the year. Following the family from Labor Day through their experience at the fair right after Christmas, we take a delightful journey of Americana nostalgia, probably the best trip like this the movies have ever given us.

Films in the 1940s and 50s with this type of nostalgia tended to be either patriotic sap or nationalistic propaganda. But Meet Me in St. Louis takes us to a different world altogether. Yes, it’s supposed to be America at the turn of the century, and many parts of the movie are easy to accept as the way life was then. But there’s an equal amount of oddity that keeps the movie from going over any sentimental edge. It’s that oddity that makes this movie so special.

The main oddity is Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a four-year-old girl who’s as macabre in the way she talks as she adorable in the way she looks. I heard Quentin Tarantino call this his favorite movie on an episode of “Under the Influence” on TCM. For him to say that about an Americana family musical would sound very weird, but once you’ve heard Tootie talk, it’s hard not to think about committing murder while eating a tasty burger. The first time we see Tootie she’s singing an obscure hymn from several centuries earlier for the funerals of children who died of the Black Plague. It was obscure long before the turn of the 20th century, so before Google made us able to research these things instantly, somebody would have to be completely obsessed with death and dying to even know this hymn, and Tootie certainly is. The hymn became slightly less obscure when people in the 1940s wanted to know what Tootie was singing, and the answer to that question shows just how twisted this little mind is. She built a cemetery for dead dolls. When trying not to get in trouble, she quickly changes the subject to something that involves blood. She gleefully talks and sings about the most cheerless realities of existence, all with a joyous gleam in her eye.

Over the four months that we get to follow this family, we join them in every holiday they experience. Thanks to the dark goofiness of Tootie, the best of course is Halloween. The traditions that Tudi and her sister take part in probably have no basis in reality. This is one of the great joys of Meet Me in St. Louis, we’re taken to a specific place at a specific time in history, and it all seems pretty believable for the most part except for some of Tootie’s excursions, but we don’t need to know or care if these traditions had any basis in reality. We get to know and love the family so much that we believe these are their traditions, and that’s all that matters.

September may seem way to early to start thinking about holidays, especially when this is the movie that introduced the world to the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but it starts right in the season we’ve entered as the time for as sense of excitement for all that the rest of the year holds. Without ever wandering into ungenuine   sentiment, Meet Me in St. Louis is a great film about family and tradition, odd enough to stay constantly entertaining and hilarious but holding dear the joys, hopes, and promise that can come through family, holidays, and tradition.

List: The Movies of Russia

MV5BMjUyODQ0OWItOWNlZS00YzBmLTkxY2EtYTNiYzhiM2I2YzczL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjQ2NDA2ODM@._V1_As we finish up our trip to Europe in the movies that we’ve taken throughout August, we go to Russia for our last European excursion. These are not necessarily the best movies that happen to be set in Russia, but the 10 best pictures of the country that the movies have given us.


10. Ninothcka (1939)

While set mostly in Paris, Ernst Lubitsch’s masterful screwball comedy gives an astounding picture of the USSR during Stalin’s regime. Through the Russian characters that have traveled to France, we get a picture of the cold, harsh, brainwashed reality of the times of Russian communism.


9. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)

While no longer Communist, the Russia depicted in this fascinating documentary on the punk band Pussy Riot isn’t much different than that of Stalin’s. The band took a bold stand against the corruption of the union between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church. Staging a protest/concert during a mass the state run Cathedral of Christ the Savior, they sing “Mother of God, drive Putin away.” The film intensely portrays the cry for help among the nation of Russia under its present leadership and corruption, showing just how quick Putin is to deny human rights to his people.


8. Reds (1981)

Following John Reid (Warren Beatty), a journalist who covered the 1917 Russian Revolution, we get a great epic of Russia in the early 20th century involving the rise of Communist and all its supporters and detractors. Reid became one of those followers who tried to bring the ideals he saw in Russia to America. Reds is the best film I know of to show a more neutral, if not positive side of Russia’s Communism at least in its earliest days.


7. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

The sights, culture, and of course all the “traditions”  in the opening song of a small Jewish village are delightful. Even though we know the beloved characters will not be staying there much longer after the tzar ordered the deportation of Jews, we get to join them in all the exuberance and beauty of their last days in Anatevke.


6. Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

With sets and costumes more extravagant than any film version of War and Peace (the only good one I know of is the 1966 adaptation directed by Sergey Bondarchuk, but I haven’t been able to see the whole film yet being over 7 hours which is why it’s not included here), this masterful epic is set during the war between Russia and Japan in 1904.


5. Anna Karenina (1935)

Greta Garbo played Tolstoy’s title character in a way that shows the hypocrisy of the 19th century Russian elitist society and its moral codes that carried great consequences even when the enforcers were more guilty than the perpetrators. She takes us to this culture through what looks like a very genuine love for the character she played.


4. Anastasia (1956)

Of course a list on films about Russia would not be complete without a take on the partly historical and partly legendary story of the country’s most famous grand duchess. Many have been made, but only this one with Ingrid Bergman really succeeds.


3. Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Sergei M. Eisenstein begins with the mutiny that took place on the titular battleship. The movie is set in segments, each of which tells of a different part of the 1905 Russian Revolution that involved the Battleship Potemkin.


2. Russian Ark (2002)

300 years of Russian history, art, and culture all in the same building in one very short movie set in what is now a museum. We see all the different eras of the building, what it has been over the years, and the role it has played in its country’s state of affairs at each given time.


1. Old and New (1929)

The old Russia is prior to the later Revolution, and the new Russia is the rise of Communism. Like Battleship Potemkin, this film was also directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein, one of the greatest masters of the silent film era. He shows an old Russia full of desperation and a new Russia full of hope. That new Russia full of hope has its hope in its newfound adoption of Communism, so as the new Russia becomes more fully Communist, the new Russia is new in ideology but in practicality it looks a lot like the old Russia.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)


D.W. Griffiths made his share of epic films in the 1910s in America, but the Russian filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein broke brand new ground with Battleship Potemkin. The film is an epic to be sure, set during several of the most crucial moments of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. But each of the five moments covered are set almost exclusively within the battleship, and the whole Revolution is seen from the view of the soldiers on that one battleship. It’s the first intimate epic and without it there would never have been a Gone with the WindLawrence of Arabia, or Barry Lyndon.

Battleship Potemkin is barely an hour in length but immerses us fully into every detail of this group of soldiers and their involvement with each of the five important moments of the war. The first section is an introduction to the battleship and the horrible conditions that the soldiers are subject to. It’s made clear that the military officials have access to much better and do not need to feed the men with the rotten meat they’re always given.

The first section sets the stage as the foundation for the episodic way that the rest of the movie is going to unfold. We’re shown the injustice of the Russian military and the greater Russian government of the time all through the horrendous conditions of the soldiers aboard this one war ship. The rest of the episodes show the soldiers’ revolt, a mini-revolution as part of the bigger Russian Revolution that coincided with the war against Japan.

More than anything Battleship Potemkin is a cry for justice. Just as the soldiers are unnecessarily forced into conditions that are not fitting for any human, their actions during the four later episodes are filled with heroic stances against tyranny. Their own victimization brings urgency to their stands, but none is doing it for himself. The last two episodes take a outside the battleship for a very short time, but it’s just long enough to know that the stances these men have taken against tyranny has had an effect on the whole nation.

The actions of heroism depicted in Battleship Potemkin are selfless acts of sacrifice. Within the ship, every act is done for the protection of the brotherhood created in that battleship. We know they have bigger views and bigger ambitions that see their service as for their country and possibly the world, but whoever it is they’re fighting for and whoever they’re fighting against, there is never an ounce of self interest in what these people do.

Eisenstein’s film is an extremely powerful picture of the power of unity and brotherly love. Although it was a very small victory that didn’t stop the tyranny already existing or prevent the rise of the further tyranny that marred most of 20th century Russia, it was still a victory. The movie shows this victory as entirely the result of selflessness and unity.

There’s a scene in the fourth episode that looks a lot like what we saw on the news a couple weeks ago from Charlottesville, Virginia. The soldiers get off the battleship celebrating what looks like a victory with many people greeting them when an ambush is arranged against them that looks a lot like the way the car suddenly became a weapon in Charlottesville. The evil of the tyranny around them and the system allowing it to happen is a lot like our own political climate where the hate groups have a newfound voice thanks to our president who won’t admit any responsibility in the attacks, but anyone who heard him talk during his campaign knows that he made the way for this to happen and for many more situations like it.

But even in the midst of that reality that was opened to our eyes, there is hope as long as there are people willing to selflessly stand against hatred and injustice. The mutinous soldiers of Battleship Potemkin are a wonderful example of that through their unity and brotherhood. Their example shows us that there is always room for victory even if it looks like we’re losing the war, but that victory only can come through selfless acts of unity, love, and peace.