I first saw “7th Heaven” when it was rereleased in the ‘70s. I loved director Frank Borzage’s passion and overly romanticized, rich visual style.
Adapted from a 1922 stage play, “7th Heaven” is the story of Chico, a sewer worker longing to be a street sweeper, during early twentieth century Paris. An avowed atheist he gives “Bon Dieu” one more chance after rescuing, then falling in love with, the beautiful, young, orphaned Diane who is being strangled to death by her addict sister. The two young women are most certainly prostitutes, but such things were not addressed during Hollywood’s first half century.
In 1927, the first year of the Academy Awards, “7th Heaven” was nominated for five, including Best Picture, and won three: Benjamin Glazer for screenplay, Janet Gaynor as Best Actress, and Frank Borzage’s direction. Borzage’s career crossed from the silent through the early sound era. His emotional, visually opulent movies were often about young lovers triumphing over adversity. In the late ‘30s his lovers overcame the rise of Nazism. In “7th Heaven,” World War I gets in the lovers’ way.
A 1927 New York Times film critic got it right when he wrote that ”7th Heaven,” while at times overly melodramatic “grips your interest from the beginning.” Over 90 years later “7th Heaven” remains gripping, but what was called melodramatic in 1927 can be over the top in 2018. Still, “7th Heaven” is highly regarded by critics and filmmakers today as one of the great films of the silent era.
Contemporary audiences may have difficulty with old movies, which move slower in plot and character development, camera movement, and editing than today’s movies. “7th Heaven’” is no exception and its moralistic religiosity, expressionistic overacting, and obvious theatrical sets are foreign to us. Additionally, being adapted from a play, there is, especially in the first act, too much “talking” with characters mouthing lines and intertitles explaining what they’re saying.
Putting the film in historical perspective, in 1927 movies were still in their infancy. D.W. Griffith’s epic “Birth of a Nation” established a cinematic visual language only 12 years earlier, and by 1927, the year of “The Jazz Singer,” the first sound film, the silent era was already at an end. “7th Heaven” was so successful when released as a silent in May that Fox rereleased it in September with a musical and sound effects soundtrack, which is the version we’ll show Tuesday.
“7th Heaven” has moments of raw emotion that cut across the decades. Visually it can astonish. Tracking shots through the studio-created streets of Paris, a two-and-half minute single shot from ground level to Chico’s seventh floor flat (he works in the sewers, but lives near the stars!), and high angle shots to the street below still manage to amaze. The World War I effects are powerful and the film’s theme song, “Diane,” lovely.
In the obvious painted Paris backdrops you can see the inspiration for Baz Luhrmna’s “Moulin Rouge.” Writer-director Damien Chazelle said that the ending of his Oscar winning hit, “La La Land” was inspired by the undeniably hokey, emotionally charged final act of “7th Heaven,” a movie that endures as a memorable, inspirational, and often stunning work of early cinematic art.