Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lying in the Gutter You Can See the Stars

Film: Seventh Heaven
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Despite the fact that I’ve watched a bunch of them, I still tend to find silent films difficult. Silent horror films are interesting and plenty of silent comedies are still funny. But silent dramas? They’re a whole different thing. There’s always a little part of me that dreads them a little when they show up. This might be only the second new-to-me silent drama I’ve seen this year. Seventh Heaven showed up from NetFlix only because I forgot to rearrange the queue when I sent the last film back, so I can’t admit that I was looking forward to it or actively chose it. But I’d have to watch it eventually, right?

Straight off, there are going to be issues here for me. One of our two main characters, Chico (Charles Farrell) admits early in the film that he is an atheist. That’s a huge red flag for me that we’re going to be mired at least some of the time in religious foofaraw. Not many atheists maintain that position in a Hollywood film, and that was far more true back in the day than it is now. So I can guess where Seventh Heaven is going to go eventually within the first couple of minutes.

Chico works in the sewer in Paris but feels that he’d be much better suited as a street cleaner since a remarkable fellow like himself deserves to be in the sun and around people. Around the same time, Diane (Janet Gaynor) finds herself abused once again by her sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell), who demands that Diane go out and get her some absinthe. While she is out, Nana is told that her aunt and uncle have returned from the tropics as wealthy people and want to take them back. However, since Diane is unable to tell them honestly that she and her sister have been “good” (read: they’ve been working as prostitutes), they are refused. Nana starts to beat Diane again and chases her into the street where she is rescued by Chico.

Shortly after this, the police walk by, having rounded up a bunch of petty criminals, including Nana. Nana demands that they take Diane as well, but Chico vouches for her, claiming that she is his wife. Knowing that the police will investigate, Diane comes to live with him in his top floor apartment (the seventh heaven of the title) until the police show up. They do, but at this point, Chico has more or less gotten used to Diane and invites her to stay.

Love slowly blooms between the two as their living arrangements become something more than just convenience. But we can’t just have them be happy. This is a silent romance/drama, so something has to come between our two lovers who finally admit their love to each other. That thing is World War I. Chico signs up right away to protect France and Diane. With Chico gone, Nana returns to torment Diane, and of course there’s always the danger of Chico, you know, being at the front and in the trenches in World War I.

This was the first on-screen pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, who would make something like a dozen movies together. Farrell is a pretty good leading man for the time—tall, good-looking, sturdy—but it’s Janet Gaynor who steals the film. This is entirely her film from the moment she first appears on screen until the last frame. It’s interesting to note that in those first Oscar years, people frequently got multiple nominations in the same category. There were five Best Actress nominations for the first Oscar ceremony and three of them belonged to Janet Gaynor.

Seventh Heaven is early filmmaking, of course, so there’s not a lot here that I haven’t seen multiple times. There is, however, a truly magnificent tracking shot that undoubtedly stretched the technology for the time to the limit. When Chico and Diane first walk up to Chico’s apartment, the camera follows them from the ground all the way to the top floor, with people in apartments along the way acting as if they actually live there. It’s a great shot to give a sense of the building and the place, and I’m certain that it’s one of the main reasons Frank Borzage earned a nomination for this film (and won for the first and only Oscar for Best Director of a Dramatic Picture).

And while the religious nonsense does show up eventually as I knew it would, I give the film credit for making Chico a genuinely nice guy despite what would have to be the common opinion of atheists at the time (and for many up until the present day).

I wouldn’t choose to watch Seventh Heaven again. It does get pretty drippy by the end, but definitely has some real merits.

Why to watch Seventh Heaven: More Oscar nominations than any other film at the first Oscars ceremony.
Why not to watch: Silent dramas and silent romances are almost always a tough watch.


  1. I caught this as a sort of duty watch while trying to see all the Best Actress winning performances and surely Janet Gaynor's work is the reason to seek this out, I think I preferred her performance in this to Sunrise even though that was a much better film. Farrell can't compete acting wise but talk about your movie star looks! After watching I felt similar to you, glad I saw it but I'll never look at it again.

    If you want a real challenge try watching the 30's remake of this with Simone Simon (who at least really is French) and Jimmy Stewart!!! as Chico. It was a test even for an ardent Stewart fan like me to make it to the end.

    I see your point about silent dramas, you can't just dive in willy-nilly. For me they fall into a couple of categories. The first: I have to really like the star, I've managed to get through all Garbo's films because she communicates so effortlessly and has a modern quality even without sound but I've given up on Valentino-he's attractive in his way but a hopeless actor. Even when I do like the performer though the film can be a struggle, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East come to mind although Lillian Gish is a mesmerizing presence.

    Then there are the ones I feel that are necessary to see and those are the ones that are often a real test of endurance, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Mr. Wu, though sometimes they come up a winner like The Last Command or The Wind.

    I'd still rather watch an adventure along the lines of The Thief of Bagdad or a Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaboration like The Unknown if I had a choice.

    1. Given my druthers, I'll pick a silent comedy over a silent anything else every single time. Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin are all still funny. So is Fatty Arbuckle if you can find any of his films. Second choice would be horror/thriller stuff, since a lot of that still has merit, too. I watched a couple of Lon Chaney films not too long ago and liked them both. The adventure stuff like Thief of Bagdad would probably come third, although I did really enjoy the hell out of that and Fairbanks.

      I didn't know there was a remake of this, but I can't imagine there would be much to it. It's an okay film, but this is not a case where sound is going to make this easier or better.

    2. There really isn't much to the remake. It's missing the lyricism and ethereal quality that Borzage was able to add to the original having a flat studio look. A very by the numbers affair.

      It might not be so bad if not for the sticks out like a sore thumb Jimmy Stewart. He's certainly not to blame since being a contract player, and new to films, he had no choice but to play the role. How the studio could have thought he'd be remotely believable as a Parisian, or possessed the dreamy quality necessary for the role, is beyond me. Of course at this point Metro hadn't figured out what to do with him yet sticking him in all sorts of, in retrospect, inappropriate parts but if anybody ever reeked of that All-American apple pie feeling it was the young James Stewart so this one seems the most outré. The film might have worked better with Charles Boyer in the part along with Simone Simon to at least give it a hint of authenticity but I don't think even that would have made it anything beyond the pedestrian flick that it is.

    3. Stewart does seem like a terrible choice for a French guy. It's a shame, too. I like Stewart and Simone Simon, but I can't see this working.

      A lot of the good does come from Borzage, who managed to find something here.

  2. I liked this one and I see from Letterboxd that you gave it the same rating I did. I agree Gaynor is the one who draws attention when on screen. Parts of this reminded me of silent comedy/drama The Big Parade (1925).

    1. I can see the connection to The Big Parade.

      Gaynor is the draw here. From the directorial point of view, that shot up the side of the building is pretty spectacular.