These notes on Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K restoration of 7th Heaven will screen on Saturday, October 27 at 7 p.m. as part of our "Silents Please!" series. The screening takes place in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The new restoration featuring the original Movietone score and sound effects will be introduced by Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
By Lillian Holman
When Hollywood transitioned to sound in the late 1920s, there was a sense of panic among theorists that the high artistic achievements of the medium so far would be lost. When you watch a film like 7th Heaven (1927) released the same year as The Jazz Singer (1927), it is much easier to understand what the theorists were so afraid of losing. Directed by Frank Borzage and starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the film epitomizes both silent Hollywood romance and silent Hollywood melodrama.
“Chico…Diane…Heaven.” The three words that replace “I love you” in the film’s script also represent Borzage’s holy trinity within the film. The theme of divinity permeates both the plot and the style as the central couple navigates being poor and in love in Paris. The style is one of the major take-aways from the film: everything glows, especially scenes like the angelic shot of Diane in her white dress in the window. By playing with lighting and including such halos, Borzage paints a convincingly appealing picture of Chico and Diane’s world, even as the dialogue deems it downtrodden. We believe it when Diane calls their 7th floor apartment “heaven” since it is lit as such.
The style also adds credence to Chico’s development throughout the film: even as he declares himself an atheist, God is seemingly looking out for him in the form of the filmmaker. By the time he converts, it feels obvious since we have seen a deity there the whole time in the narrative coincidences and the literal halos.
Chico and Diane are two characters made for each other, who help each other ascend both socially and physically. In Gaynor’s case, the ascent is physical: According to a most charming anecdote, Borzage first cast the two actors together because Gaynor was so tiny, and Farrell was so big. They fit together, yet the size comparison helps emphasize Gaynor’s vulnerability (see the shot where she is dwarfed by his pillows in bed) or accentuate his when he crouches to her level for an embrace. While there is plenty of drama in terms of Diane’s evil sister and Chico’s military service, the wonder of 7th Heaven takes place in these middle scenes, when we can just witness their love and Borzage’s faith in their goodness.
Watching as a modern audience, there are many preconceptions that must be left at the theater doors. More than anything else, the plot, especially the final third, is fairly ridiculous and more than a little implausible. Much like many melodramas, it is fraught with coincidence, and there is both a sense that the world is out to completely destroy our two protagonists’ happiness or to save them, depending on the moment. For example, there is nothing more inconvenient in silent cinema than the pesky call to war, especially at exactly the worst moment.
Meanwhile, while the central pairing is one of the iconic Hollywood duos, it is also a portrayal of a woman and a heterosexual romance that would be considered sexist and condescending today. For instance, it is always a little jarring to hear Farrell confidently declare to Gaynor, “Leave the big thinking to me!” But that being said, Gaynor’s ready agreement comes with a healthy dose of indulgence in his arrogance as well. Her charm is plenty enough to make up for her size and he is as emotionally dependent on her as she is physically dependent on him. Meanwhile, while he took her in, it was her perseverance that made her survive in the first place. In fact, Farrell and Gaynor's star power and Borzage’s deft hand behind the camera makes it so that, even with these small road bumps, it is still a magical journey to ascend the seven flights of stairs with the three of them.