7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)
A big part of appreciating this wondrous, heart-filling near-masterpiece is: drop your defenses. Just imagine for a quick second that you don’t automatically bristle at the idea of God, or of faith. Someone can hold your hand through this and remind you: this is only a movie, only a story, but you shouldn’t really need such babying. 7th Heaven will no more make you believe in God than Life of Pi will, and its didactic case for religious belief, articulate though it may be, won’t convince you if you’re not already there. What it will do is fill you up with a sense of what love is, what acceptance is, and how these can become so magic that it’s almost irresistibly tempting to believe in the “Bon Dieu.” Frank Borzage’s film can claim something more than mere romance; like his later Bad Girl, it celebrates the trivialities and day-to-day routine of a sincere, loving bond, and its careful cultivation of a sense of wonder at the miracle — yes, miracle — of it all is something that few narrative films have ever achieved so persuasively. It doesn’t mean to sell you anything, but it does anyway; I have not even a trace of a belief in a higher power but it moved me well beyond actual tears.
Onscreen, the narrative drifts through in highly linear fashion but still manages to conjure a dream state. An arrogant Parisian sewer worker named Chico (Charles Farrell) becomes a benefactor of sorts to a tragically stunted sex worker (Janet Gaynor, luminously sad) whose home life is a nightmare thanks to her sadistic older sister; he does this by maintaining a lie to cops and acquaintances alike that the two of them are married, though he seems to quickly regret the derailment to his modest freedom that this causes. But he also, in his tentatively affectionate way, comes to help Gaynor’s Diane discover a new lease on life — and somewhere between that godlike tracking shot up seven flights of stairs to his tiny apartment and her wrenching inability to walk out upon a ledge that sits outside his window and offers an incredible view of the city, the detail and despair in the two characters’ emotions is overwhelming. It had been a long time since a movie had throttled me with such hazy-eyed ease. And so, Borzage turns his camera back upon us and the characters’ cycles and narratives really turn out to be our own — our experience watching this film, and how its philosophies and familiarities drift us back into our daily lives.
So: escapism this is not — but immensely affecting it is, and already a great dichotomy that still exists in Hollywood is apparent. It’s a long way, I needn’t tell you, from Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks; it takes place very much in our world, and in a world populated by adults. As would remain his hallmark, Borzage is something of a romantic, but in the context of filmmaking what this really means is that he’s interested in people and has immense faith in them. 7th Heaven isn’t a terribly sentimental film, but it’s very heavy emotionally, and not for the superficial reasons dealing with faith in God’s all-encompassing greatness and forgiveness. The director’s gift is in crafting a detailed and specific story that establishes and sustains strong characters who are clearly decent but also complex and not always agreeable — Chico can be a thoroughly nasty bloke early on — thereby engineering a perfect balancing of elements that allows a singular, not at all generic plotline to touch on such universal emotions that it seems to be telling “our” story, not just its own. That it comes across as a distinctly American film despite its French setting, just as much as Grand Hotel and its flashy ilk, is only a signifier of this capability; it doesn’t matter that it’s from the ’20s either, its force and passion and crucial warmth still seem prescient and modern.
Like so many Fox productions of the late ’20s, 7th Heaven betrays the clear influence of F.W. Murnau; the film is somewhat akin to a religious Sunrise. Even if its visuals are more unassuming (though not by much; Borzage’s camera is excitably adventurous even if his compositions and tricks aren’t necessarily) and its story hinges too much on a God-is-everywhere message to hang together quite as successfully, it’s finally no less bold a film, and nearly everything else about it is extraordinary — from the humanistic realism of the two leads to the fact that the impressively natural dialogue in the titles is some of the best I can remember in a silent film. Everything rides on the performances, though, and they are the essence of the film.
Gaynor is beyond words, while Farrell’s embodiment of Chico is the final piece in a puzzle that allows several conflicting aspects of his character to coalesce into an identifiable whole: a man we come to know and care about, who sometimes impulsively steps out in front of his own misguided ways of expessing his affection, but maybe not often enough. The central relationship begins with a gross imblanace: the decent and long-suffering Diane is literally afraid for her life when Chico rescues her, and her gratitude is more than he can initially handle. Both are potential ciphers, the very remarkable fellow and the cast-off abuse victim alike, and they soon enough become full-bodied characters, their sheild of love protecting them seemingly from everything: the desperation of the first act, the whip-revenge scene later when the evil sister returns, and finally World War I in the frantic ending of the picture.
The expansive romance of the war scenes themselves is breathtaking; from far apart, Chico and Diane set a time at which they will pause and talk to one another. When the clock strikes, their hearts lock — they are empowered by one another’s sheer existence; cornball as that sounds, it’s felt and believable and a natural outgrowth of the central kindness of the entire film’s winding story. By the time this comes up, you’ll be used to tearing up and you might not even notice how restrained the performances remain even when throwing their arms around the Universal Power of Love.
Farrell’s reentrance at the finale, on the other hand, could challenge the most stoic filmgoer. Frankly, in story terms it nearly lost me; being an atheist, I couldn’t help feeling that the film this almost becomes in its final few minutes — when Chico seems to have been killed despite Diane’s prayers and she attacks the cynical priest who’s come to tell her, might have been an immensely powerful portrait of loss of faith. Within seconds, though, all is forgiven because the closing scene is so overpoweringly glorious. It’s an absurd, narratively inexcusable point for the story to take and it clearly does so simply to make good on its allegorical intentions and to keep the crowd from going into histrionic sobs at the fade, but it’s handled with such delicacy, passion, longing, that it’s a moment of absolutely aching pure cinema, and would alone justify this fine film’s existence. And if you’re a wreck at the end of all this, well, just wait until you see Bad Girl. I’ve only seen two of his pictures thus far, but I have a feeling Borzage is poised to become deeply important to me.