7th Heaven

7th Heaven

****1/2

Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

“For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of courage.”

This is how legendary Hollywood director Frank Borzage introduces his beautiful silent romantic drama, 7th Heaven, set in Paris on the eve of the First World War, and based on Austin Strong’s smash hit Broadway play of the same name.

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It tells the emotive and inspirational tale of an unlikely romance between two social outcasts – Chico (Charles Farrell), a lowly sewage worker whose greatest ambition in life is to be elevated to the level of street-washer, and Diane (Janet Gaynor), a poor street waif who is relentlessly bullied and beaten by her cruel sister, Nana (Gladys Brockwell) – and how their union enables them to climb this ladder of courage together, to reach beyond their humble origins.

As a modern audience let us be in no doubt from the outset that Borzage is unashamedly sentimental in his treatment of this subject matter, in a way which some viewers, raised in a post-modern society where the currencies of irony and sarcasm hold sway, may find hard to identify with. Thus it is that Chico and Diane are brought together by fate, a chance meeting which occurs when Diane is driven out of her apartment by her spiteful, malicious sister, who then chokes her, almost to the point of death, out in the street, right above Chico’s sewer. Unable to stand and watch this vicious beating, Chico rescues Diane from the clutches of her sister, but, almost afraid to acknowledge his own heroism, Chico initially pretends to be almost as callous towards Diane as her sister was sadistic.

Chico is indeed a man struggling against his own impulse to do good. The perfect example is the touching early scene in which Chico prevents Diane – wretched, helpless, desperate – from committing suicide, wrenching the knife from her, just at the moment she is about to plunge it into her heart. In spite of his heroic act, Chico refuses to play the hero, pretending that he only saved her because she had the audacity to try to kill herself with his knife! Nevertheless, he again comes to her rescue, pretending that she is his wife, and taking her into his own home, in order to prevent her being taken away by the police for vagrancy.

It is here, in the 7th floor apartment which Chico calls home (the 7th Heaven of the title), that the film’s central romance unfolds, as the two outcasts begin to fall in love, despite both initially being ignorant of their mutual affection. Their ‘first night’ together in the apartment is a beautifully observed, touching, and affecting sequence, innocent to the point of naivety, but nevertheless enough to bring a smile to the face of the even most hardened cynic. From this moment on, their mutual bond grows stronger by the day, in a beautiful portrait of blossoming romance, which is cruelly shattered by the outbreak of war. The final third of the film cuts between Chico’s experience on the front, and Diane’s life, working in a munitions factory back at home, emphasising the spiritual bond which remains between the lovers, even as they remain divided by the horrors of war.

To a modern audience some of the religious sentimentalism of the film may seem too overt, lacking in either subtlety or irony; but we should always be careful not to judge such things by the standards of our own era. In any case, for all its sentimentalism, the film does include one of my all time favourite lines on religion, spoken by Chico after he talks about his fruitless attempts to curry favour with the Almighty, by making donations at church: “That’s why I’m an atheist – God owes me ten dollars”. Amen to that.

There are also times when the silent film’s dialogue is truly terrible, but these remnants of a bygone era, much like the tendency towards excessively theatrical acting, although they may produce an unintended smile from a modern viewer, are also, undeniably, a part of the film’s charm and the innocence which gives the film its sincerity.

7th Heaven may lack some of the aesthetic and stylistic experimentalism of Borzage’s contemporary, F W Murnau – of Nosferatu fame (whose magnificent Sunrise was released in the same year as 7th Heaven) – but there is still some truly striking cinematography, not least the fabulous single take in which the camera - mounted on an elevator scaffold - follows Chico and Diane in their ascent towards Chico’s 7th floor apartment for the first time.

This is an elegant, inspiring piece of silent cinema, which is strongly recommended for any hopeless romantics out there, and for any fans of the silent era. After all, it won three academy awards at the inaugural Oscars ceremony, so they must have been doing something right.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2009
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A street-washer falls for a street waif.
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Director: Frank Borzage

Writer: Benjamin Glazer, based on the play by Austin Strong

Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Albert Gran, David Butler, Marie Mosquini, Gladys Brockwell, Emile Chautard, Ben Bard, George Stone

Year: 1927

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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