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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

Seventh Heaven

May 3, 2024
Flicks with The Film Snob
Seventh Heaven

Frank Borzage’s 1927 romance was a major success and reflected a popular sense of spiritual loss still evoked by the First World War.

If you want to experience Hollywood silent melodrama at its most refined, I suggest you watch Seventh Heaven, the 1927 film by Frank Borzage. Borzage was one of the most important directors of that era, making over fifty silent films that are cited by other directors of the day as influences. Tragically, as was too often the case with movies of that time, only a handful of these films survive. After a move to the Fox studio in the mid-’20s, Borzage entered into his most fruitful period, extending into the 30s and the coming of sound. Seventh Heaven was his breakthrough film, a huge popular and critical success which won him an Academy Award, in that ceremony’s first year.

In Paris, an orphaned waif named Diane (played by Janet Gaynor) is whipped and almost murdered by her vicious sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell). The girl’s life is saved by Chico (Charles Farrell), a sewer worker embittered against God for his bad luck. When the police come to take Diane away on Nana’s instigation, Chico claims that they are married in order to protect her. They must keep up this pretense for awhile, so Diane moves into Chico’s little flat on the seventh floor of a tenement. He’s a bit insensitive, and a braggart too, but their arrangement gradually turns into love. Then the advent of the Great War forces them apart.

The story, based on a play by Austin Strong, is extreme melodrama, and in less talented hands it could have been pure schmaltz, but Borzage knew how to combine passion with a kind of ethereal spirituality, and this is reflected in the film’s look, especially the lighting and camera movement. The nighttime sequences, and the action in the little attic and on the rooftops, seem almost lit from within, as if suffused with romantic memories. The crane shots with the lovers running up to the seventh floor, the overhead shots of Paris (these are all Hollywood sets of course), Gaynor walking across a plank through the window in a wedding dress, Farrell holding her up in the air when he declares his love, a ray of light falling on the couple—the picture is filled with such beauty, like an intoxicating and sometimes feverish dream.

The plot becomes even more outlandish during the separation of the lovers by war. The villainous sister returns, and then the tragedies pile up. Meanwhile, Diane and Chico are shown to have a supernatural connection with one another. They communicate across time and space. Nowadays we’ve grown out of these kinds of dramatic devices, but with Borzage we willingly suspend disbelief most of the time. What I find most interesting is that this elevated notion of love is at the same time grounded in the life of Paris and in relationships with friends. Spiritual love, for Borzage, does not retreat from the world, but transfigures it.

The 20-year-old Gaynor is luminous. This was the big year in which she also starred in Sunrise, and won the Best Actress award for Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, another Borzage film. She has great chemistry with Farrell, and after Seventh Heaven became a smash hit they were paired together eleven more times. Now, after years of being unavailable, Seventh Heaven has been released by Fox, in an excellent print, as part of a Borzage box set.

melodrama,   Paris,   Poverty,   romance,   World War One,  


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