Frank Borzage won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Director in 1927 for 7TH HEAVEN and it’s not hard to see why. A full-blooded romantic melodrama, it gave the ripest of plum parts to Janet Gaynor (who also won the first Best Actress Oscar for her work in this and F. W. Murnau’s SUNRISE) as the waif-like Diane, who finds salvation from a life in the Parisian gutters with the ever-optimistic Chico (Charles Farrell). The 2019 Cambridge Film Festival screening was boosted immeasurably by a two-hour tour-de-force at the piano by Neil Brand, whose accompaniment didn’t miss a beat dramatically and emotionally.
While Diane suffers Cinderella-like at the hands of her drunken sadistic sister (‘Stop bleating and bring me some absinthe’), Chico is cleaning out the Paris sewers with his scrofulous companion Rat while dreaming of promotion, literally upwards to the position of street-cleaner. A self-professed ‘extraordinary fellow’, Chico rescues Diane from another sisterly beating and persuades her to stay in his garret ‘close to the stars’ – platonically but calling herself his wife to satisfy the authorities who patrol the street called ‘The Hole in the Sock’.
The relationship blossoms and is heading for marriage, Chico having overcome his cynical dismissal of the Church and all it stands for. But as if to confirm his atheism, the First World War breaks out and Chico is conscripted at the moment of his and Diane’s greatest happiness. With his fellow-street cleaner Gobin. Chico endures the hardships of warfare and the horror of the trenches (the spectacular battle scenes were reportedly shot by John Ford) after he and Diane promise that they will appear in each other’s thoughts every morning at eleven o’clock. One day, working in the munitions factory, Diane has a terrible premonition as she looks at the clock…
The accusation of silent-film hokum can be levelled against much of 7TH HEAVEN, but what saves it from overt sentimentality is the expertise of Borzage’s direction – at the age of 34 he was already the veteran of dozens of romances, Westerns and light comedies – and he allows Janet Gaynor full rein to give a touching and truthful and it must be said tear-jerking performance.