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Year: 1927

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.


Year: 1926

Director: Frank Tuttle

Cast: Louise Brooks, Evelyn Brent, Lawrence Gray, Arthur Donaldson

Movies like Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em would be lost forever in the bin of forgotten films if not for memorable performances like Louise Brooks’ Janie Walsh. This role can almost be thought of the American version of Lulu. Janie is a 1920s flapper, free-loving and completely narcissistic. On the other end of the spectrum is her older sister Mame — played by Evelyn Brent. The elder Walsh is shy, conservative, and responsible. The girls are orphans and on their mother’s deathbed, Mame promised to always look after her sibling no matter what. That oath is what triggers most of the plot.

The Walsh sisters work in a department store in downtown New York City. Mame helps her boyfriend Bill (Lawrence Gray) with dressing the display windows. We don’t much care for Bill from the start as he’s fond of taking credit for all of Mame’s great ideas when they’re acknowledged by management. The department store is sponsoring a Charleston dance on Saturday night and Janie is charged w/ collecting dues. Miss Walsh never met a dance party she didn’t like but trustworthy with finances she’s not. Before long she is using the funds to gamble on the ponies via a neighbor named Lem (Osgood Perkins aka Anthony’s pop).

Mame’s relationship with Bill has escalated to the point where he is proposing marriage. She has earned a week of vacation and wants to get away to ponder the prospect of matrimony. Knowing no shame, while sis is out of town Janie brazenly seduces Bill. The best sequence in the picture has Brooks’ looking more beautiful than ever. Sporting a stunningly tight black satin gown, Janie’s allure is impossible for men to ignore and Gray’s character is no exception. When Miss Walsh adjusts herself between two pillows on the couch, the come hither call is unmistakable. There’s a great gag when Bill initially rejects her and turns away. Janie splashes water from a nearby fishbowl on her eyes to simulate crying over the snub and he becomes powerless to resist.

When Mame comes home early and all excited to tell Gray’s character that she accepts, she finds out that her good-for-nothing little sister has been knocking boots with Bill in her absence. The only thing keeping Mame from throwing Janie out is her promise. But their relationship has been put in deep freeze mode. As if to see how much more she is capable of screwing up, Janie puts the remainder of the membership dues on another horse. Amazingly, the nag wins and she confronts Lem about the $100 win. He gives her back the $20 she wagered and apologizes for not getting the bet down in time. Yeah right. When Saturday rolls around and she’s left with empty pockets, our protagonist turns to that last beacon of hope: Mame. Unbelievably, Janie’s wiles still work on her sister and when Mame hears what that cheat of a neighbor has done, she sets out for his apartment to settle all accounts. This could get ugly.

The part of Mame must have been one of the most thankless roles Brent ever played. Who on earth wants to be a female co-star next to the iconic Brooks in a movie that serves as a showcase for her great beauty? Frank Tuttle was a great admirer of his leading lady. He never told his star that her part was supposed to be comedic, so she played it straight. The director got exactly what he was after. To say the camera is infatuated with Brooks during Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em is to understate the case. Both the aforementioned dress and the getup she takes to her dance (white top hat, short black skirt, stockings, and high heels) are the highlights of the picture. I am dumbstruck by Brooks’ critics who claim that “she doesn’t do anything.” The fabulous actress had one of the most expressive grills ever and in that space from the top of her head to the nape of her neck lies one of the most effective instruments in cinema history.

By James White