Friday, June 5, 2009

Target #272: Seventh Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)

TSPDT placing: #913
Directed by: Frank Borzage
Written by: Austin Strong, Benjamin Glazer (screenplay), H.H. Caldwell (titles), Katherine Hilliker (titles), Bernard Vorhaus
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, Albert Gran, David Butler, Marie Mosquini, George E. Stone

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Seventh Heaven (1927) is usually compared to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and not without reason. Director Frank Borzage has a keen sense for lighting and shot composition, perhaps not as effortlessly graceful as that of Murnau, but the film superbly explores three-dimensional space, most memorably in a vertical long take that follows the characters up seven floors of staircases, and a backwards tracking shot through the crowded trenches of a battlefield. Janet Gaynor, who also starred in Sunrise, is once again a perfect picture of fragility and helplessness, a persona at which she was bettered only by Lillian Gish. More interesting, however, is that Gaynor's character undergoes a startling character arc, developing from a weak, embattled victim – a trampled flower – to a decisive and assertive woman, a member of the workforce, and an independent but devoted wife. Her husband, played by Charles Farrell, likewise undergoes a transformation, of the spiritual kind. Together, they share a love so definitive that the formula has since become familiar, but Borzage keeps it fresh.
Perhaps the greatest miracle about Seventh Heaven is that the romance works at all. Farrell's Chico is a haughty, athletic sewer worker, so determined of his own worth that he bores his grotesque colleagues with anecdotes of his future greatness. Gaynor's Diane, a small creature routinely lashed by her sleazy sister, is at first an object of derision for Chico, who uses her mere existence to affirm his atheism. Indeed, so aloof is his attitude towards her that I could scarcely believe that the pair were to fall in love, but the transition is carried out gradually and convincingly. As in most great romances, the two star-crossed lovers are swiftly separated by the onset of war. Here, once again, Borzage's keen eye for visual storytelling results in some wonderful sequences of conflict, with his portrayal of the battlefield perhaps serving as inspiration for Lewis Milestone's war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Only with the occasional moments of misplaced comedy – the ritualistic bowing of the street-sweepers, for example – does the director fumble with the film's mood.
This reviewer being an atheist, films dealing with a central religious theme face an uphill battle. Chico opens the film not unlike myself, as an obstinate atheist who curses God for failing to answer his prayers. Christianity intercedes through a kind-hearted priest, who offers Chico his dream-job as a street-sweeper, as well as two religious necklaces. Predictably, our hero is converted by the film's end, and, indeed, stages a resurrection that borders on Biblical. This "miraculous" ending could easily have had me rolling my eyes, but – somehow, and against all odds – it didn't. Borzage doesn't play Chico's survival as a startling revelation, and nor does it feel tacked-on, as does the fate of Murnau's hotel doorman in The Last Laugh (1924). Alongside Diane's stubborn insistence that her husband is still alive, to actually see him pushing through the crowds seemed like the most natural thing in the world. And even if Chico is dead, then his wife is already there in Heaven, on the seventh floor, waiting to greet him.

Currently my #4 film of 1927:
1) Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
2) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
3) The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton)
4) 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage)
5) College (James W. Horne, Buster Keaton)
6) The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

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