7th Heaven
Reviewed in December 2003
Director: Frank Borzage. Cast: Charles Farrell, Janet Gaynor, David Butler, Albert Gran, Gladys Brockwell, Ben Bard, Marie Mosquini, Emile Chautard, Brandon Hurst, Jessie Haslett. Screenplay: Benjamin Glazer, with titles by H.H. Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker (based on the play by Austin Strong).

Photo © 1927 Fox Film Corporation
Janet Gaynor: now there’s a name you don’t hear very often anymore. She is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question: who preceded Judy Garland in the title role of the first film version of A Star Is Born? She is also the answer to another Trivial Pursuit question: who was the winner of the very first Academy Award as Best Actress, at the inaugural 1927-28 ceremony? If Oscar esoterica is your game, you may also know that Gaynor remains the youngest winner of the Best Actress prize (even younger than Gwyneth and Hilary in their hours of victory) and the only actress to win for a year’s body of work of three different movies (which was swiftly disallowed by Academy rules).

The most famous of Gaynor’s three vehicles from that year is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, the gorgeous, softly expressionist fable that was the first movie the legendary German director made after arriving in Hollywood in the late 1920s. Sunrise is one of those landmark films that still shows up on critics’ polls of the Top 10 films of all time. Poised on the very brink of cinema becoming a talking medium—The Jazz Singer debuted within the same twelve months—its tale of two rustics whose romantic connection is first threatened then exalted by a trip into the modern city plays, among other things, as a kind of allegory of cinema itself. Much about Sunrise, from the overt typing of the characters (the principals’ names are the Man, the Wife, and the Woman from the City) to the intertitles themselves, which are scripted to look like hewn woodcuts, self-consciously embody the antique soul of the movie, even as its lustrous camera work and imaginative montage make it indelibly modern, even 75 years later.

Gaynor, as the country mouse whose husband (George O’Brien) is wiled away by Margaret Livingston’s witchy urban temptress, is largely a reactive character. The various inscribed wonders of Sunrise, especially when O’Brien and Gaynor enjoy their own blissed-out sojourn in the city, are all mapped across the actress’ large, open, impossibly saucer-shaped face. In a way, this is yet another fashion in which Sunrise is prescient of cinema’s development: how many future actresses would be enlisted over the years to mirror and transmit the emotional and spectacular aspirations of their films? One could, if one wanted, draw a straight line from Janet Gaynor in Sunrise to Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, and even that would mean denying the beatific, plot-gratuitous female close-ups that had already filled the movies for many years before Gaynor’s ascendance. However, Gaynor’s particular countenance has such grand but delicate features—her eyes look like two planets within the broad moon of her face—that Murnau, one feels, would have been crazy to cut to anything else. It makes sense, watching her perform this part, that not only a movie but a whole medium would need to be created, and sustained just a little longer in silence, so as to take advantage of that exquisite visage.

Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, another jewel in Gaynor’s Oscar crown, makes the same case just as strongly. Shaped by a lovely aesthetic style that is still less totalized and imagistic than Murnau’s film, 7th Heaven is more of an actor-driven affair, or at least, its theatrical, melodramatic mode better invites the kind of full-bodied, full-framed performance that many people (read especially: Oscar voters) tend to imagine as an actor’s showcase. At the outset, Gaynor is once again the second lead to a handsome male star whose big dreams and passionate strivings dominate the story. In this case, though, the story does not rest on dichotomies of the urban and the bucolic, nor is his crucible a choice between a wife and a mistress. Rather, Chico, the lead character played by Charles Farrell, is a Parisian sanitation worker who dreams of graduating from sewer work to street-washing. His environment and mindset are urban from the outset, and the question is whether amorous attachments of any type are worth the possible risks to his precarious social and occupational status—a conflict which arises when Chico meets Diane (Gaynor), an orphaned waif who lives in a slum apartment with her gorgon of a sister, Nana (Gladys Brockwell). In France, of course, you have to earn a name like Nana, and 7th Heaven has to do some fancy footwork to cast both sisters in the maudlin, abject role of prostitution and yet protect Gaynor from an early-century audience’s moral opprobrium. Chico hasn’t known Diane a full day before he is stuck swearing to her virtue before inquisitive gendarmes; if they find out he’s lying, he and she are both ruined.

Gaynor and her films didn’t invent the Hooker with a Heart of Gold any more than they invented the dewy feminine close-up, but in both cases, the actress inhabits those conventions so expressively and with such a period-specific combination of mannerism and emotional directness that, for better or for worse, she feels more like an inventor than an inheritor of these hackneyed storytelling devices. Gaynor knows how to use a lot more than her face, though: watch those early, startling scenes where she gives a forced confession of her “crimes” to an appalled aunt and uncle and is promptly chased into the streets by the vicious Nana, who lashes her with a whip and tries to strangle her in the gutter. The tracking shot that carries the sisters through les rues is impressive enough, but so too are the incredible physical control and affective comportment of these two marvelous performers. It’s almost a shame from this point when Chico and his storyline have to intrude on such a bold, dangerous drama of sexual and familial torment. But Farrell soon demonstrates his own distinctive warmth and bearing, and Gaynor communicates desperation, paralysis, convalescence, and romantic awakening as aptly as she does the shame and frenzy of the opening sequences.

Even as the screenplay affords Chico pride of place, our eyes keep drifting to Gaynor and to the gallery of supporting characters who occupy the second tier of the story (including David Butler and Albert Gran as Chico’s coworkers and confidants and Brockwell in some brief, needle-sharp reappearances as Nana). As the film continues, it follows the same trajectory—not by abandoning Chico, exactly, but by directing our focus to his bonds with other characters, romantic with Diane, friendly and comradely with the others. The First World War, too, intrudes predictably onto the storyline, marking and remaking the characters’ relations in its own powerful ways.

This, perhaps, is why 7th Heaven, even as its last act dips rather precipitously into mawkish, well-covered melodrama (hooligan suitors, weepy deaths, magic surprises), feels like more than a tin-type romance. The movie registers a heartfelt belief not just in love but in all kinds of social relationships. Before Chico’s departure for war, the camera dwells almost as poignantly on his last moments with his coworkers as on his last moments with Diane. The intertitles are full of characters saluting each other as “citizen” and “comrade.” 7th Heaven is not the right ticket to buy if you’re looking for a political film, but nor does it seem drained of all politics. In fact, one reason why its sentimental romance holds up so well may be because it epitomizes love not in the abstract but as the ultimate form of a basic human connection that is also manifested in other ways: between co-workers, soldiers, laborers in general, strangers on a sidewalk. Most of these connections are best forged in the city, and in that way, 7th Heaven feels subtly and surprisingly modern as well: Paris is not just a background to Diane and Chico’s romance but the very medium by which that love comes into being. And not because Paris appears here as a sentimentalist’s City of Light—in fact, the film opts for a rooftop-bohemian aesthetic of attic apartments and overhead shots, many of which I was astonished to recognize as direct sources for images in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Love, labor, the city, and the cinema are metaphorically fused in this film as ways in which people come to know each other, to see each other. It’s too facile a thesis for sociologists, but it’s almost an ambitious one for an early talkie. So, if 7th Heaven has curio value now as a Janet Gaynor vehicle, it’s crucial to our appreciation of this touching urban fable that no individual actor or character takes full precedence over others in Borzage’s stirring, democratic vision. The third movie, by the way, for which Gaynor won her Oscar that year was Street Angel, reuniting Gaynor with Farrell once more, again under Borzage’s direction and Fox’s producing auspices, this time relocated to Italy; again, Fox had another hit. Movie producers had already learned to copy successful recipes, and clearly, someone sensed that the magic of 7th Heaven lay in the teamwork, not just in Gaynor’s pretty face. 7th Heaven isn’t quite as celestial as the title would have it, but it’s not far off: an entrancing fable from an era in cinema history that already felt a little out of time when it debuted. And though 7th Heaven is about more than nostalgia, it’s still a lovely era to revisit. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Frank Borzage
Best Actress: Janet Gaynor (also cited for Street Angel and Sunrise)
Best Writing (Adaptation): Benjamin Glazer
Best Art Direction: Harry Oliver

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