There's something so incredibly pure about the romanticism of Frank Borzage that his films become, at least for me, impossible to resist. When you watch a movie like 7TH HEAVEN, you're watching a filmmaker in complete command of his craft. That he is making a romance about the transcendent power of love is, in some ways, of secondary concern for me. Perhaps another way of saying this is that while I don't believe in the transcendent power of love in the way that Borzage did, I do believe in Borzage.
7TH HEAVEN is based on a play by Austin Strong, and the screenplay and titles were written by Benjamin Glazer, H.H. Caldwell, Katherine Hilliker, and Bernard Vorhaus. It tells the story of an impoverished young prostitute named Diane (Janet Gaynor) who lives with her abusive sister in the slums of Paris. She is rescued from this plight by a sewer worker named Chico (Charles Farrell), who takes her to his bird's nest apartment high above the city. Soon they fall in love and are married, but Chico is drafted into service in the killing fields of WWI. Will he return to her? Can even death itself keep them apart?
A film like 7TH HEAVEN is at once wholly artificial and deeply real--which might be a good description of the Borzage aesthetic. It is artificial in the sense that it is every inch a silent film, a film of big broad gestures and big broad emotions in both the acting and directing. The set design and cinematography are impressionistic. Even by the standards of the silents, though, the film unfolds in a world of fantasy. Despite the backdrop of WWI, there is no hint of the literary modernism that came out of that war and informed much of the literature that dealt with it.
Yet the glory of Borzage's film is that it makes the unreal real, makes the plainly artificial deeply believable. It is a movie about dreamers who are desperate to escape the unbearable realities of poverty and war. The key to understanding it is to understand that their dreams, their romance, is more important to Borzage than those grim realities. Near the end, Chico is killed in the war. Yet he returns to her, born again in shafts of bright white light. It is pure fantasy, and I mean both the "pure" and the "fantasy." What is real here is the yearning, the desire to be free of the dirt and pain and sorrow.
Chico is a proud atheist, but he finds spiritual (and bodily) redemption in his love with Diane. I don't think Borzage is trying to make a theological statement here--there's no reason to think he actually believed that love could bring the dead back to life--but he is clearly making an artistic statement. He was the screen's great romantic. Modernism be damned.
The central performances of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell are glorious. They were the perfect screen couple of their day. She was tiny, pixish, and fragile--yet somehow indestructible as well. (The scene where she finally fights back against her abusive sister is surprising in the furor of its violence.) He was tall and handsome, masculine yet entirely vulnerable. (He breaks down crying from fear when he discovers he has to go to war, an unthinkable thing for a screen hero to do in our macho age.) They are such products of their era, not simply in their acting but in their bearing and being. He's more beautiful than she is, and she has a scrappiness that makes her a particularly earthy angel.
Of course, like all silent films, 7TH HEAVEN is not for everyone. It is so far removed from what we think of as a movie today, it's essentially a different art form. It's part fairy tale, part light show. It is beautiful, though. Beautiful, deep and true.