7th Heaven (1927)
“Expect a Big Picture. We personally assure you that you’ll not be disappointed in “7th Heaven””
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard
Synopsis: A street cleaner saves a young woman’s life, and the pair slowly fall in love until war intervenes.
Strapping young Parisian sewage worker Chico (Charles Farrell) is a very remarkable fellow, as he is quick to inform anyone who crosses his path. He works in the sewers, he tells little Diane (Janet Gaynor) when taking her to his seventh floor apartment, but he lives near the stars. He also has an ambition to one day be a street cleaner, but despite asking God for help in achieving this ambition, he remains underground. So he might have lost his faith in the Lord, but he is still a man of principle, as we see when he refuses to look up the skirts of passing women on the street above in the way that his colleague, Rat (George E. Stone) does.
While eating lunch one day, he sees fragile young Diane being throttled by her sadistic, addict sister. As the women have no visible means of support, we must assume they are both prostitutes, although this is never made clear. Either way, when the possibility of salvation arrives in the form of a wealthy long-lost Uncle and Aunt, Diane blows it by confessing to a dissolute life, much to her sister’s ire. This is the reason Chico finds her with her hands around Diane’s neck. When Diane is then threatened with arrest for ‘vagrancy,’ Chico saves her by claiming she is his wife, despite not really wanting to get involved. The police assure him they will visit his home to make sure he’s not lying, which means he must now have Diane live with him until the visit has taken place if he wants to keep the new promotion he has wanted for so long. In the tradition of all Hollywood romances, it’s not long before Chico and Diane are falling in love for real…
Although it’s perhaps no longer as well remembered as other movies of the era, 7th Heaven nevertheless holds an important place in American cinema. It was nominated for the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony, losing out to William A. Wellman’s Wings, and was one of three movies made by Janet Gaynor to earn her the first Best Actress award. Frank Borzage won the Best Director Oscar, thus cementing his position as a director of Women’s Pictures, while screenwriter Benjamin Glazer received the Best Writing (Adaptation) award. 7th Heaven also marked the first pairing of Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, and they would go on to make a further eleven pictures over the next seven years.
If 7th Heaven comes across as a little hokey today — the overwrought final act in particular strains credibility to its limits — that’s because of its age and what audiences demanded from their stories rather than any deficiencies in the plot. Farrell and Gaynor make an appealing couple despite the disparity in their sizes. She’s like a fragile little bird while Farrell was a virile and robust leading man. Borzage takes his time capturing the hesitant nature of their growing feelings for one another which means that the time passes slowly compared to the pacing of modern movies, but this attention to the growth of their relationship adds immeasurably to the emotional depth of the movie’s final moments. The theme of this romance as a lesson in the unshakeable influence of religious faith on all classes is an intrusion that is undeniably outdated these days, but even that fails to detract from the overall quality of the picture.
(Reviewed 26th August 2013)