Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Gladys Brockwell
I haven’t seen a ton of silent pictures but more than the average film goer. People in the Bay Area are blessed by having an old movie house — The Stanford Theatre — which is the only place in the vicinity that shows silents accompanied by a live Wurlitzer player. Back in February, I had the fortune to screen Seventh Heaven and it just so happened to be my first silent witnessed under those conditions. Simply put, seeing the 1927 Best Picture winner ranks among my finest motion picture viewings. There are certain movies you see — Jaws, Apocalypse Now, and Mulholland Dr. come to mind — where you are stunned by the time you vacate the theatre. Borzage’s spectacular love story impacted me to that extreme.
I was somewhat skeptical on the way to The Stanford. Katie is always pimping out Borzage’s work and Seventh Heaven is one of her favorites. Having seen A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, and Liliom I was somewhat underwhelmed. Especially in the case of the latter in which Charles Farrell was a stiff. Fortunately, he was working in the presence of a great actress in this film. Janet Gaynor’s portrayal of Diane is one for the ages and it earned her an Oscar. She plays a street urchin/prostitute in Paris during the days immediately preceding WWI. Chico (Farrell) is a sewer worker. Macho and full of braggadocio, the blue-collar laborer also hides a big heart. Diane and her sister Nana struggle under squalid living conditions. The older woman also harbors an addiction to absinthe. Gaynor’s character is timid and soft spoken. Nana sadistically preys on her pliancy by beating her sister 24/7.
One day the sisters’ wealthy uncle and his wife come to rescue the girls provided they have not dishonored themselves in some unsavory way. In a pivotal moment, Diane cannot betray her honest nature and she confesses to having prostituted herself. A golden opportunity lost, Nana gives Gaynor’s waif her most vicious whipping yet on the street and if not for the gallant Chico’s intervention, probably Diane’s last. Farrell’s good samaritan takes the young woman back to his attic apartment. This is one of the film’s best shots as the two are shown ascending seven flights of stairs from a sideways perspective. As Chico is fond of saying, “I may work in the sewer but I live among the stars!” Borzage does a beautiful job of slowly showing this man and woman fall in love. Diane eventually breaks through the gruff exterior of her savior and he proposes marriage. I’m a big fan of facial close-ups, especially on females. There are several moments during Seventh Heaven where Gaynor’s expression had my waterworks flowing: the first time Chico says he loves her, the look of unfettered bliss during the marriage ceremony, and the scene when the woman’s husband returns from battle are all priceless.
Borzage does two things to really show how the couple’s sum is greater than its parts. Subtle lighting and skillful musical timing project the idea that Chico and Diane’s union is a metaphysical one. A relationship that can transcend any economic hardship, war, or physical malady. Married at exactly 11:00am, they make a pact to always think of the other when a clock strikes that hour. Even apart the two can feel their spouse’s presence at that time of the morning. A recurring title card througout the picture reads: “Chico—Diane—Heaven!” I can’t improve upon that. I saw Vidor’s The Crowd — often said to be the second best silent behind Murnau’s Sunrise — not two weeks later and wasn’t nearly as impressed as I was by Borzage’s simple Parisian tale of romance. Seeing Seventh Heaven at The Stanford was not only one of my favorite film going experiences ever but nights out in general.