Ahh, here it is, this is the Borzage I’ve been looking for. After seeing Lucky Star and The Mortal Storm, I knew Borzage was a great director, but I couldn’t say I had seen a film of his that I loved. Moonrise came close and Street Angel didn’t do much for me. But then, it happened. I caught up with the remaining Farrell Gaynor Borzage collaboration and it was heaven, 7th Heaven to be specific.
As always, Borzage finds a way to enter upon the scene in the bleakest of situations. We observe the life of a girl named Diane (Janet Gaynor) who is relegated to being little more than a slave to her cruel sister. But when life seems to have a way out, it’s quickly dashed and Diane’s sister begins flogging her in the streets until sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) comes to the rescue.
Chico is “a very remarkable fellow,” as he would say. He may be relegated to the lowest position in life, but he keeps his head high and holds on to the dream of working his way up to street cleaner. He’s a gung-ho, gruff and macho man, bold and assertive. And yet, there’s something more to the tough skinned male and when the police come to take away Diane, he claims she is his wife.
In order to save Chico from getting ousted by the police, Diane decides to stay with Chico until the police drop by for a visit. Here, Diane is forced far outside her comfort zone. Her timid and cautious nature makes living on the top floor of an apartment compress a bit precarious. Her servitude is not turned towards a more worthy subject and Chico soon finds the benefits of having a woman around the place.
It’s the way the two characters challenge each other, force them to grow as a couple which makes 7th Heaven more than just another romance. Both have their own personal flaws and strengths and the two must help reconcile those in order to grow as a couple. The two people who meet at the beginning of the film could never be in love, but through gradual change, love begins to blossom between the two.
This being a melodrama, the relationship struggles from a number of contentions, both from within and outside the couple. One of the core tensions is that Chico is an atheist which poses a problem when Diane wants to get married in a church. There’s also a brewing external conflict in the world around them that could bring their relationship to a swift and brutal end.
One of the most surprising elements of 7th Heaven is the fantastic dialogue. Yes, this is a silent film, but the intertitle cards are peppered with well written, memorable lines that are integral to the story. The lines also help build the personalities of the characters and express their growth as characters throughout the film.
In a lot of ways, 7th Heaven is not much different than any number of other romances from the era, but it’s the little things throughout the film that make it reach the pinnacle of the genre. The fantastic character development, the rich dialogue and the compelling conflicts make it an engrossing and powerful story. And let’s not forget the rich talent behind this film: Farrell—Gaynor—Borzage–Heaven.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing