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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #7: 7th Heaven, 1927

 "Chico.....Diane.... HEAVEN!" 

7th Heaven, 1927

Director: Frank Borzage
Writers: Based on a play by Austin Strong, and adapted by Benjamin Glazer.
Cinematographers: Ernest Palmer, Joseph Valentine
Producer: William Fox and Sol M. Wurtzel for the Fox Film Corporation.
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Albert Gran

Why I chose it
I had read a bit about the film years ago, and so I was already inclined toward it even before I realized it would be my second film in a row with 'heaven' in the title! I was also curious to see more of Frank Borzage's work, having loved Moonrise on first viewing a few weeks ago.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Chico is a sewer-worker in pre-WWI Paris, and Diane is a young woman forced into prostitution by her older, abusive, sister Nana. During a particularly abusive episode, Diane is knocked out on the street and nearby Chico defends her to keep her out of jail when the police, having arrested her sister on prostitution charges, come around looking for Diane. He offers to put Diane up in his 7th floor flat until police detectives are convinced that she is his 'wife.' This ruse works, but the two eventually fall in love, having grown accustomed to their new life of fighting poverty together. The couple trade their wedding vows right before Chico is called off to fight in the Great War.

Production Background and 1927 in Film History
In the prolific film year of 1927, 7th Heaven is perhaps best known today for its strong showing at the very first Oscars. The Motion Picture Academy had just formed that year, and in 1929 inaugurated the annual awards ceremony we celebrate today. In that first ceremony, films from both 1927 and 1928 were honored, and 7th Heaven took away three: Best Director for Frank Borzage, Best Actress for Janet Gaynor (the award also recognized her work in Sunrise and Street Angel), and best adapted screenplay for Benjamin Glazer. The film was also one of three nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to Wings. The third one nominated was The Racket

Some other notable film-related events in 1927*:

  • Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer to great acclaim, and the success of the film effectively sounded the death knell of the silent era.
  • But the silent era was still reaching new heights as an art form, with films like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, Abel Gance's Napoleon, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis now considered among the best films, silent or otherwise, ever made.
  • The Hays Office released the first version of The Motion Picture Production Code, which dictated what could and could not be shown in a film. 
*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Director Borzage was known as a master of romanticism, and I can see why. He makes us feel pity for his downtrodden protagonists, but also joy at how they bring 'heaven' to each other's lives. It's tremendously sentimental, but the opposite of maudlin. He also effectively uses humor to add dimensionality to these characters...for example, the scene in which Diane is trying to cut Chico's hair.
  • The version of the film I watched incorporated a musical score by pianist/composer Keith Taylor. I detected variations of several tunes from Puccini's beloved opera La Boheme, including "Che Gelida Manina" and "Quando me'n vo" -- completely apt, considering its story of poor lovers living in a Parisian garret apartment. Interestingly, the film was one of the first to be released with a recorded musical soundtrack.
  • Charles Farrell was one handsome dude, little-remembered today, despite a long career in the entertainment business. This film was the first to pair him with Janet Gaynor, and the two were such a compelling couple, that they were cast opposite one another several more times. Apparently the two had a relationship off-screen as well, but Farrell was too much of a party-animal for Gaynor (!).
  • While the title '7th Heaven' may primarily invoke the 7th floor apartment of the lovers where their own personal 'heaven' is revealed, and the ecstacy of their own first love, to me, the opening of Chico's heart to God or at least the power of the supernatural, is evoked here as well. At the outset of the film he complains that God has never answered his prayers but later he uses religious medals to symbolize his union to Diane. The touching of those medals open up a supernatural wavelength such that the lovers could "communicate" when separated during the war.

Diane in fear of her abusive sister.

Happy-go-lucky Chico contemplates a future above the sewers
while Diane lies near the gutter behind him.

Diane and Chico rise a series of staircases on the 
way to their 'seventh floor heaven.'

Chico is unsure of what Diane is doing to his hair.

On the front, Chico takes time out to 'visit'
with Diane at their 11:00 AM meeting time.

Comic relief comes from a taxi driver (Albert Gran)
 and his ill-fated car 'Eloise'.

Diane and Chico negotiating the terms of 
their relationship.

Where to Watch
Once again, YouTube comes through. The print is not particularly good, and I hope to get the DVD someday. 

Further Reading
A bit more production background on the film and its stars can be found in this essay for the National Film Preservation Board.
For a detailed exploration of Borzage as a person, and director, go here


  1. I'm about to post a piece on Charlie Farrell and his legendary Palm Springs Racquet Club on my own blog and was very curious to read your take on 7th Heaven. I haven't seen the entire film but will now thanks to your review.

    Apparently Charlie proposed to Janet Gaynor many times but she refused because of their difference in "temperament" - which you allude to. It seems they remained lifelong friends, though. The pair made 11 more films after 7th Heaven and, according a biography of both of them that's out there, they were by far the most popular movie couple of the time. The author is probably right when she writes that not even most classic movie buffs aren't aware of that these days.

    One last nugget. A reporter dropped in unannounced on Charlie at home in 1987. His wife had passed away years earlier and he was living pretty much to himself with the help of a housekeeper. The reporter noticed when they sat down to talk that there was a framed photo of Charlie and Janet Gaynor on top of the television.

    1. Patty, I really appreciate you stopping by and filling in some of these details, especially about Gaynor and Farrell being the most popular movie couple. (And I wonder if the next couple in line for that honor would have been William Powell and Myrna Loy??) You point out what is so rewarding about being a classic movie enthusiast: an unending supply of nuggets to uncover!