Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were one of the great romantic teams in movie history. Their first film together, Seventh Heaven, is the transcendent film romance of the silent era, and is also the first of three films starring Gaynor and Farrell directed by Frank Borzage. It established him as a director whose films focused on love as a spiritual force tested by hardship, and the transformative power of faith—what critic Andrew Sarris called “a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” Gaynor and Farrell made a dozen films together between 1927 and 1934, but none of them matched the emotional impact of Seventh Heaven.
In the mid-1920s, William Fox was trying to upgrade the artistic quality of his studio’s product, hiring, for example, German émigré director F.W. Murnau to make “prestige” films. Fox also bought the film rights to Seventh Heaven, a 1922 Broadway play by Austin Strong that ran for 704 performances, and assigned it to Borzage, who had started in films as an actor and began directing in 1915. Among the stars reportedly considered for the leading roles were John Gilbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Pickford, and Joan Crawford. Instead, Borzage and Fox production executive Winfield Sheehan choose two relative newcomers who were being groomed for stardom and had recently made impressions in important films.
Janet Gaynor (born Laura Gainer in 1906) had a peripatetic childhood that took her family to San Francisco in the early 1920s, where she graduated from Polytechnic High School and worked at the recently built Castro Theatre. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1924, and Laura worked as an extra and got small roles at various studios. She auditioned for the second lead in The Johnstown Flood (1926) and got the part. “Janet Gaynor, a newcomer and a corker, wins the lion’s share of everything,” raved Variety. Winfield Sheehan agreed, and signed Gaynor to a contract. After four films in quick succession, it was a measure of Sheehan’s faith in her that Gaynor was next cast as the wife in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), and while that film was still in production, as Diane in Seventh Heaven.
Gaynor’s costar, Charles Farrell, had recently had his breakthrough role as a young sailor in James Cruze’s seagoing epic, Old Ironsides (1926). A Massachusetts native, Farrell was born in 1900 to working-class parents who ran a lunch counter and a movie theater where he worked as a boy. After dropping out of Boston University, the tall, handsome, and athletic Farrell made his way to Hollywood, where he found work as an extra at Paramount. Before long, Farrell’s good looks got him noticed, and he was cast in a series of supporting roles at various studios, finally signing with Fox.
Like others at Fox, Borzage had observed Murnau directing Sunrise, and film scholars have noted that both Seventh Heaven and Borzage’s next film, Street Angel (1928) share a similar expressionist visual style with Murnau’s film. Borzage not only created a stylized visual environment for the lovers’ world, he also created a palpable emotional intimacy during filming. He murmured continuously to the actors while the cameras rolled. “I like to penetrate the hearts and souls of my actors and let them live their characters,” he said. Coworkers claimed that Borzage would weep while directing a sad scene, and, in a 1933 interview, he talked about directing the actors to draw the audience into their emotions: “Make the audience sentimental instead of the player. Make the audience act.”
Audiences did react to Seventh Heaven, and so did critics. The New York Herald Tribune praised Gaynor’s ability “to combine ingénue sweetness with a certain suggestion of wideawake vivacity; to mix facial lyricism with a credible trace of earthiness.” Mordaunt Hall wrote in the New York Times, “Frank Borsage [sic] has given to it all that he could put through the medium of the camera.” A few months later, Sunrise was released, earning Gaynor more accolades. Seventh Heaven was a huge hit, and Fox renegotiated Gaynor’s and Farrell’s contracts, quickly starring them in two more films, Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929), under Borzage’s direction. Seventh Heaven also garnered Oscars for its leading lady, director and for screenwriter Benjamin Glazer at the first-ever Academy Awards in 1929.
Gaynor and Farrell continued to make films together and apart, but, by the mid-1930s, the public was tiring of their sweet romances, and in 1934 they made their final film together, Change of Heart. Gaynor continued at Fox, but her popularity was waning. After a studio merger in 1936, Gaynor left Fox to freelance and was quickly signed by David O. Selznick for the lead in A Star Is Born (1937). The searing look at Hollywood put Gaynor back on top and earned her another Academy Award nomination. While making a film at MGM, she worked with the studio’s costume designer, Adrian, whom she married in 1939, abandoning her career to devote herself to her family. She made one more film, playing Pat Boone’s mother in Bernardine (1957), occasional television appearances, and starred in a stage musical adaptation of Harold and Maude (1980). In 1982, while in San Francisco to appear on the television program Over Easy, hosted by her friend Mary Martin, Gaynor was severely injured in a car accident. She never fully recovered and died in 1984.
Even before Farrell made his last film with Gaynor, his career was stalled and he left Fox to go freelance. But the move did nothing to resuscitate his career, which dwindled to B-pictures for Poverty Row studios. He made his final film in 1941, opting instead to run the Palm Springs Racquet Club, which he’d built with fellow actor Ralph Bellamy. Farrell served in the navy in World War II and became mayor of Palm Springs in 1948. In 1952, he made a comeback in a television series, My Little Margie, which ran for four seasons. He died in 1990.
Throughout the 1930s, Borzage was one of Hollywood’s busiest directors. He won a second Oscar for Bad Girl (1932), directed Mary Pickford’s final film, Secrets (1933), continuing to focus on romantic and spiritual themes in films such as A Farewell to Arms (1932), Man’s Castle (1933), and Green Light (1937). He also made a trio of poignant and memorable films about the rise of fascism in Europe, starring Margaret Sullavan: Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940). His output dwindled after World War II, when films abandoned romanticism for realism, and Borzage’s style was dismissed as old-fashioned. After his death in 1962, Borzage’s work was neglected for decades. But recent years have brought a renewed appreciation of his films.
Fox tried to recapture the magic of Seventh Heaven with a 1938 remake starring James Stewart and Simone Simon. Charles Farrell appeared in a 1939 stage version of the film, and there was also a 1950s Broadway musical. None were successful. In his 1959 book, Classics of the Silent Screen, Joe Franklin wrote, “the original Seventh Heaven is still the yardstick for all movie love stories.” Today, nearly 80 years after it was made, Seventh Heaven remains as luminous and powerful as ever.
Presented at SFSFF 2006 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer