Our own age usually prefers its film romances to play out between people who are rich, or at least comfortably well off. Silent film, on the other hand, loved its poor people; and the ethereal, peerlessly romantic Seventh Heaven is the ultimate tale of how even the most bedraggled and downtrodden can find enduring love.
The film is based on a 1922 play by the now-forgotten Austin Strong that ran for 704 performances on Broadway. The stage version is a well-constructed melodrama that offers the vicarious thrill of a sordid milieu—the attics and pavements of a Paris slum—and the emotional satisfaction of an all-consuming love affair between two bits of human flotsam, sewer worker Chico and an abused streetwalker named Diane. All this comes before a dilly of a third-act complication in the shape of World War I. These were the bones of a good movie for many competent directors, but the assignment landed with Frank Borzage in a stroke of luck—or fate, we should say, since fate shapes everything in Borzage World. The director originally chosen for the movie, Emmett J. Flynn (A Fool There Was), was proving unreliable because of his drinking and Borzage was there at the right time, according to his biographer Hervé Dumont. He took the play, shaped it to his own spiritual and romantic ideals, and gave Seventh Heaven an otherworldly dimension that made it soar.
It’s a delicate premise that works by virtue of Borzage’s poetic visuals and the sincerity of his approach. Bluff, handsome Chico toils beneath the streets, kept company by his friends the Rat (George E. Stone, at the start of a career playing street thugs, often lovable) and broken-down cabdriver Boul (Albert Gran). His modest ambition in life is to rise from the sewers to become a street cleaner, like Gobin (David Butler). Diane (Janet Gaynor) lives in a garret with her abusive, absinthe-addicted sister Nana (a superbly vicious Gladys Brockwell). One day Chico rescues Diane from the fury of Nana, and after lying to the authorities that Diane is his wife, he takes her to his home at the top of a rundown building—the seventh heaven of the title. Soon they fall in all-consuming and make plans to marry, but war breaks out and Chico is drafted. The lovers pledge that their spirits will visit one another every morning at eleven o’clock, no matter what the war may bring …
Once the job was his, Borzage immediately set about making the film his own. First came casting. In early 1926, Seventh Heaven’s Diane was the most coveted female role in Hollywood. The actress who played her onstage, Helen Menken, did a screen test. Fox considered Bessie Love, Dolores Costello, Blanche Sweet, the wildly unsuitable Joan Crawford, and the mega-star Mary Pickford for the role. Fox studio head William Fox and production executive Winfield Sheehan were keen to cast Madge Bellamy, who just happened to be having an affair with Sheehan.
Serenely ignoring the pressure from above, Borzage paid a visit to the set of The Return of Peter Grimm, filming on the lot with the twenty-year-old Janet Gaynor as one of the leads. Silently he watched the proceedings for about an hour. Then he left and told Sheehan that Gaynor was Diane, and that was that. John Gilbert was originally meant for Chico, until after a dispute with Fox management he left in a huff for MGM. Joel McCrea was briefly considered, and that’s certainly an intriguing what-if. But Borzage made the final decision when altruistic Charles Farrell went to see the director in order to suggest his friend, Richard Arlen. Entranced by how the twenty-one-year-old’s six-foot-two frame would contrast with Gaynor’s sprite-like five feet (a difference emphasized throughout Seventh Heaven), Borzage cast him as Chico, initiating the Gaynor-Farrell screen team that lasted for twelve films.
The studio deemed the original play such a sure thing that William Fox was willing to let Borzage shoot on location, but after a trip to Paris to absorb the ambience, the director chose to create his own Paris on the lot. Working with him was art director and Storybook Style architect Harry Oliver, who had been building film sets in a wild and dreamlike way for years, even before the influence of German Expressionism hit Hollywood. Chico’s apartment has the uneven walls and surfaces that were Oliver’s hallmark, and the Parisian streets where the characters labor, drink, and fight look more medieval than most of Paris had for decades.
Oliver’s supreme achievement was the design of the film’s most beautiful scene, nearly two minutes of Chico and Diane ascending, flight by flight, to the flat that he brags is “near the stars.” It’s sometimes claimed that the set was eight stories tall, but Dumont points out that the studio stages couldn’t accommodate anything that high. Scholar Janet Bergstrom, in the book that accompanies the home-video set Murnau, Borzage and Fox, says that Oliver “built a three-floor elevator scaffold, made to appear to be seven continuous flights of stairs, using ropes and pulleys, so that [cinematographer] Ernest Palmer’s camera could follow them in one shot.” Dumont describes the method differently, saying Oliver built two stairwells, one with three landings and the other with four, and that Palmer used a lighting effect (visible as a darkening of the lamps) to match them up. However it was done, Oliver and Palmer enabled Borzage to achieve his vision: Chico and Diane climbing slowly through the shabby apartment building, barely noticing any neighbors or open doors, one continuous ascent until they reach Chico’s “heaven.” Chico’s attic and the nearby rooftops were built at the top of one of the stairwells, which Gaynor said made scenes showing Diane’s fear at the height of the drop somewhat realistic.
While Borzage was still preparing Seventh Heaven, F.W. Murnau had arrived at Fox in 1926 to much fanfare and was filming his masterpiece, Sunrise, a production that continued even after Borzage’s film began shooting. (In an incredible feat of endurance, for a short period of time in January 1927, Janet Gaynor was shooting Sunrise exteriors for Murnau by day and returned to the Fox studio at night for Seventh Heaven.) The German master’s presence exerted an influence on nearly everyone in the studio. Many critics have noted that certain 7th Heaven camera movements, such as the shot that follows Nana pursuing Diane into the street (achieved, Palmer recalled, by having eight men carry an eight-by-eight platform on which the cameraman rode with his tripod), bear Murnau’s influence.
But Borzage’s emotional effects were entirely his own. Gaynor recalled years later that while she admired Murnau, with Borzage, “you responded more with your heart.” He talked to Gaynor during scenes, encouraging her to keep on with certain moments or emotions: “Instead of finishing, he’d say, ‘And?’—and so you’d keep it going.” The sets, Gaynor said, were “more like home than home” for both her and Farrell. Certainly Farrell, a charismatic presence but not as great a talent as Gaynor, was never more natural than when he worked for Borzage. And Gaynor’s depth of characterization, achieved under Borzage’s sympathetic guidance, glows in scenes like the one (blatantly borrowed in 2011’s The Artist) where Diane drapes Chico’s jacket over a chair and then pulls the sleeves around her as though she can feel his arms in them. The spirituality of the movie, religious and yet transcending dogma with the power of love, is pure Borzage. “Chico — Diane — heaven!” is the lovers’ refrain, even as they are separated by war.
Released in May 1927, the movie was a sensation, far outstripping Sunrise at the box office; only that year’s Jazz Singer sold more tickets. In September, Fox released a version with a Movietone score and Ernö Rapée’s love theme, “Diane,” became a standard. Borzage won the first Academy Award for Best Director while screenwriter Benjamin Glazer won for Best Adaptation. The film was nominated for the short-lived category of Outstanding Picture and was one of three performances for which Janet Gaynor won Best Actress (the others being Sunrise and Borzage’s Street Angel, a rapid follow-up to Seventh Heaven that closely followed its characters and general plot).
Its esteem spread far beyond the American market. Dumont notes the film’s popularity in Asia, with remakes filmed in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Yasujiro Ozu’s 1929 film Days of Youth includes students studying beneath a poster of Seventh Heaven; “I am a very remarkable fellow,” says one of them, echoing a line that Chico utters many times. More recently, director Damien Chazelle cited Seventh Heaven’s ending—a triumph of romance over physical probability—as an influence on the dreamlike finale of his own La La Land.
But Borzage’s films were vividly original in their own time and will probably always be regarded as such. He “was so tuned into the nuances between people that he was able to catch emotions that you just don’t see in anyone else’s movies,” writes Martin Scorsese. Seventh Heaven remains the fullest expression of Borzage’s sensibility.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2018 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra