In Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, much like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise from the same year, and same production company, the mettle of duality and human romance is energized with cinematic luminescence, ultimately transforming togetherness into a prism for enlivening the world and lighting the way to an otherworld that, not heaven or hell, is more akin to the resplendence of worldly beauty itself. Producer William Fox was a sky-high romanticist with peaceful, radiant aspirations for humankind both exhibited within his films and enshrined in their making-of stories. Unlike many Hollywood producers quite this early on, he chose to jump the Hollywood ship of home-grown talent by acquiring some of the most rapturously received European auteurs for his productions with the quixotic belief that his production company’s cinema should be unrestrained and untrammeled on by national borders.
Intoxicating Murnau and Borzage, along with the all-American John Ford, to bedevil rather than simply tell with their films and ignite them into poems and waltzes rather than mere narratives, Fox’s arguably naïve vision of a spectral kind of cinema uninhibited by realism was both an evolution of German Expressionism and a stepping stone to French Impressionism. Even unmitigated by the weight of other film movements, though, 7th Heaven is an iridescent visual sermon on the need for companionship and the incompleteness of the singular, insular human being.
Cobblestones crackle with lost opportunity beneath your feet, trumpeting that the lower depths are foreclosed and that the only way to go is up to the heavens, themselves teased out in the bravura camera pan upwards the seven flights of stairs to Chico’s (Charles Farrell’s) apartment, a none too subtle evocation of starlight sky-high dreams and ascending upwards from the alley. But who needs subtly when you have majesty? The two most resplendent moments in the film, the aforementioned upward track (that must have erected a smile on Orson Welles’ face) and the whirlwind outward track from an apartment to the city streets as Diane’s (Janet Gaynor’s) sister beats her, neatly embody the duality of sacrosanct heaven and torrid hell, all the more so because they are nearly the only camera movements in the film with the vertiginous quality of Murnau’s more revelatory Sunrise.
Chico and Janet are slights in life, downtrodden souls unfussy about their ambitions to dream of a future life embodied in the magisterial, if not ostentatious, sets that girder this film’s vision of a French urban squalor that is more cheerily, mythically antiquated than a heavy-handed invasion of modernist efficiency. Although another opulent picture form the same year, Metropolis, encountered divinity with its even more breathtaking sets, the futurist industrialism of that style is no good for 7th Heaven.
Borzage, an antiquarian at heart (like Murnau), beguilingly injects modernist technique (camera movement, most of all) into what are in essence hoary old tall tales (much like Murnau, again, although Murnau has Borzage, and any director from that time period, soundly trounced on the stylistic invention front). The woodcut doors in the film, complete with peek-holes designed out of circling wood that can cover or open up empty spaces carved into the door, mimic Sunrise’s woodcut character names, themselves markers of the aged, classicist, essentially mythic and folkloric world from which they were hewn. Fittingly then, the city in 7th Heaven is expressionistic as a way of embodying the romanticism of the characters, rather than to flatten those characters with the Machiavellian malevolence of a modern world hellbent on destruction.
It’s no surprise then that 7th Heaven is an old soul, a campfire tale about two lost people who join hands in tempestuous romance and best their individually tenuous situations as lower-class, literally low-living people (Chico is a sewer worker with sparkles of street-cleaning in his eyes, literally a wish to move up from below-the-earth to the worldly level occupied by other people). The film is traditionalist more than conservative in the Big-C sense though, with the two lower-class types thoroughly respected, even romanticized, in a film that hasn’t the devil in its eyes to even rumour blame for Diane’s previous moral quandaries (she is thrown out by her sister only because she refuses to lie about the nefarious actions, more necessities of life than choices, she engages in prior to the film’s opening moments). If Chico technically saves Diane from suicide, then she rescues him from a liminal state between life and death than is much worse.
Borzage’s vision isn’t all love and kisses either, or at least, not all romantic love and kisses. Before the one-or-two character Enlightenment edict ruled with an iron first over the Old Hollywood style, many of these deceptively democratic early American films masked communal visions beneath an ostensible pas de deux. Although the love story is the catalyst, labor and war intermingle with love as Borzage slides in a haunting proto-bro image of friendship hanging by an existential thread when Chico is sent off to war and imbibes in one last palling around with his coworkers, sympathetic figures all.
This semi-decentralized trend, whereby an A-story was implicitly accentuated and undercut by multitudinous B-stories glimpsed in the periphery all about, informing us that the world exists outside of our ostensible heroes and that they aren’t so much special as circumstantial, would flower throughout the ‘30s in America within comedies like the positively divine It Happened One Night. When US cinema – perhaps threatened by the rise of the Russian machine and their communalistic cinema – went hyper-individualistic in the late ‘40s, it was left for the Italians to reentrench visions of gloriously tentative life glimpsed by a camera with no proposition of encapsulating the totality of all experience. Admittedly, Renoir had been keeping that dream alive during the ’40s as well, but his disciples would kindle it into a bonafide movement that in some ways Borzage’s films predate.
Stylistically, 7th Heaven is an oblong creature, a peace agreement between expressionist darkness and a more soft-hued realism, the cousin of expressionism more than the real McCoy in the flesh. The effect of this meeting of minds, rather than to drain the film or rupture it in search of a direction, is to meld flickers of otherworldly joie de vivre with low-flying reality. Now, the film is undeniably afflicted with a religious bent, the luminous shafts of light signaling upward movement in the world as an equivalent of heaven (Chico is an atheist, and his beliefs are tested by his new love). But the peculiar, combustible mixture of earthen beauty – love for fellow humankind and companionship – and the shimmering accents of another world reorients the God bent away from the desire to vanish from earthly life and toward a kind of effervescent purpose, bordering on spiritualism, located in the tangible world and within other people. God, or something like it, becomes human compassion and collectivism.
This tactility I take to be the dominant reason why Borzage, to his benefit and detriment, emphasizes his character’s bodies as the central dramatic principle of the film’s being rather than the otherworldly transcendence or gloom encircling the characters in the visuals. The transcendence of Sunrise is more gilded and, honestly, more enticingly unique and transformative as far as cinema is concerned, but the more hard-scrabble 7th Heaven, melodramatic rather than operatic, is only a touch less divine. Gaynor’s performance, while no alien beauty like Louise Brooks or achingly desecrated totem like Renee Jeane Falconetti, is sublimely moving throughout, both rough-and-tumble efficiency and romantic wistfulness discovered in her eyes and in her unhesitating bodily motion (Borzage is no mere chronicler of faces).
The central conceit – that the two lovers will stop every day at 11 to beckon to one another even though they are displaced by the machinations of mankind – can’t register as trifle or canard when Gaynor’s face is one-half of the duet. Glimpses of soldiers track along their bodies to discover new kinds of community throughout the film (especially wonderful when glimpsed by the camera of Ernest Palmer and Joseph A Valentine). But our understanding that love and togetherness are not simply demarcated by physical closeness rings true until the very end of the film.