7th Heaven (1927)

Seventh_Heaven_19277th Heaven is one of those films that revels in classical storytelling where the drama is rich and deep; the score hits all the crescendos and fills them in with the sweetest of notes that are both beautiful and moving. The love scenes are rapturous in a way that makes us hold romance in a higher esteem than we did previously and the horrors of war abhorrently brutalize the world like never before. These are the kind of themes as old as storytelling itself.

Director Frank Borzage would play with these same themes time and time again. I say this with every film of his but it’s so inevitably true. There’s no denying it in any frame within his work. It’s just there and yet in Seventh Heaven, he delivers bar-none his greatest, most extraordinary outcome of his entire career, which must only be seen to be believed.

There has never been such an angelic, more serene and innocent face than Janet Gaynor’s or at least you’d be hard-pressed to find one. I became acquainted with her in F.W. Murnau’s masterful parable of love, Sunrise (1927), but here she is equally demure, reflecting all the many qualities of the most ingenuous of beings.

In this particular scenario, her life is horrible, lived out in utter poverty in France and what’s worse, she is abused and whipped by her tyrannical sister. For a silent film, it feels fairly graphic, and there’s little restraint in showing the sister’s uninhibited rage.

But Diane does find herself a savior or rather he finds her. His name is Chico a sewer worker who is promoted to being a street cleaner. Despite his lowly beginnings, his aspirations are high, constantly geared towards the stars, and he really is a strapping even remarkable fellow, if not simply for the fact that he believes in himself.

Though his most telling trait is his anger toward the Bon Dieu — The Good Lord — or in our common terms, God. As he sees it, he gave the Almighty a chance and look what it got him. Absolutely zilch. That’s why he’s an atheist. God owes him 10 francs.

However, in an individual moment of integrity, he speaks up on Diane’s behalf, taking some of her burden upon himself and claiming to be her husband. The act of charity is not lost on her. She’s grateful but now he’s in a bind. If the detectives call on him and find him unmarried, it’s the hoosegow for him. But being the generally sympathetic spirit that she is, Diane follows him back to his home and agrees to stand-in as his wife for a time. He, in turn, is grateful.

Soon he shares a little bit of his rooftop heaven with her along with some faux-marital bliss where they begin to truly enjoy each other’s company. In this mutually beneficial relationship, they find more than mere altruism. It’s in these interludes where true romance begins to bud between them.

It’s in this heaven above the chaos of the world where they begin to fall in love — it’s a reverie that picks them up and carries them away on clouds of peace, comfort, and contentment. Never before have we seen Diane so at ease and never before have we seen Chico so overjoyed.

But once more war tears apart the hearts of those in love. It’s most overtly reflected in the two scores that battle for supremacy. The passionate love theme playing over their embraces full of kisses and then the shrill call-to-arms playing down on the streets as men march off to battle. It’s the melodious juxtaposed with the harsh. That which is mellifluous clashing with these markers of chaos. Chico is finally called into battle but he is not going to leave his love without making a promise even if it’s in words alone.

Marriage once more is cast in this spiritual light ordained by God and some people would agree that it most certainly is but Borzage seems to take it nearly a step further in that it becomes its own religion — once more this rapturous experience to be undertaken as a form of worship. It’s accentuated by the fact that every day without fail at precisely 11 o’clock they both talk to each other, communing together, rather like a prayer, managing to keep them together wherever they might be from the trenches to the munition factory. Their universal union remains forever intact.

The war sequences are utter chaos for the sheer mass of humanity that is mobilized with dust whirling around, cars zooming down the road, and guns pointed in all directions. It’s a fairly impressive showing of cinematic tumult.

But the film’s ending is a sheer miracle of bright-eyed brilliance — a moment of resurrection that’s so powerful — only felt in a few other films so evocatively. Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) being one of the few examples that comes to mind although presently more titles elude me.

Seventh Heaven ends on yet another spiritual note much as it began. In these final moments, the epiphany is not only a miraculous apotheosis of sorts but the stirring realization that in this narrative the Bon Dieu was always working dynamically in Chico’s life — just not in the ways that he was expecting.

Every time he questioned God’s Will he was met with some sort of answer. One could bring into question if this is, in fact, a “Christian” film but it brings in a multitude of religious themes and readily positions itself as another impassioned depiction of love of the highest order as revealed by Frank Borzage.

4.5/5 Stars

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Directed by F.W. Murnau, this silent film follows the lives of a man and his wife. A woman from the city meets the man and suggests that he drown his wife and sell his farm so they can be together. Then, the man takes his innocent wife out on the lake with evil intentions. He is about to go through with it, but ultimately cannot. The wife flees and they take a trolley to the city. The man asks for her forgiveness, and they walk through the city finally reconciled.

Over the day they get their picture taken, go in a barber shop, and have fun at an amusement park. They travel back home by boat and then a massive storm hits. The man searches for his wife to no avail, and then he encounters the exuberant city woman. In his anger, he begins to choke her, but his wife is still alive! He rushes to her bedside and they kiss. This film is wonderfully complex and artistic for a film without any talking. Unlike Chaplin or Keaton this is a great dramatic silent film that does not utilize slapstick comedy, and yet it still finds ways to be funny.

I had forgotten just how funny this film is in parts, and it nicely complements the very memorable love story. Visually this film is extraordinary with its multitude of landscape and city scenes that often overlap and are superimposed on one another. In this aspect, it reminds me of the experimental visuals of Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.

However, this film is very atmospheric and more emotion-filled than the other film. Furthermore, despite the lack of real dialogue, it is almost a misnomer to call this movie “silent.” It most certainly features sound, which often dominates certain sequences and also adds a great deal of feeling to the romance and cityscape. Sometimes it is the chime of bells, the honking of horns, intense background music, or just lively street chatter.

Despite the general story of redemptive love that dominates Sunrise, there are also some charming asides during the visit to the city. Each and every stop has a surprise, whether it is a suitor in the barbershop, the couple posing for the camera, the slipping of a strap on a lady’s dress, or a drunken pig on the loose at the carnival. Ultimately, the film reverts back to this song of two humans, and the temptation of the city and that type of woman loses its luster in comparison to nature’s sunrise and the innocent wife. It is a wonderful allegory and Murnau skillfully develops the cinematic space in unconventional and interesting ways.

5/5 Stars