Sunday, August 17, 2008

Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage) ***1/2

Frank Borzage

Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, David Butler, Albert Gran, Gladys Brockwell

Background: Not much information on the making of this film is available, but at the time Frank Borzage was a veteran director with 57 films to his credit, althought not many of them are available today. The film was adapted from a stage play written by Austin Strong.

Story: In pre-World War 1 Paris, Diane (Gaynor) is a poor young woman living with her sadistic sister (Brockwell). One day, while running from a particularly bad beating, she is rescued by a street cleaner named Chico (Farrell). The circumstances of his rescue mean she must pose as his wife for a period of time and they soon begin to fall in love, but their newfound love is interrupted by the start of World War 1.

Thoughts: This is a textbook example of how to properly make a romantic melodrama. Borzage isn't shy about playing up the seemingly sappy moments as much as possible. Because of this, we are completely drawn into the world he has created. For something that sounds like it could be a dry melodrama, he adds a surprising amount of creativity with the set design, particularly with Chico's 7th floor apartment (hence the title), complete with a bridge that connects him with his best friend across the street. He's aided by two romantic leads who are capable of expressing every overwrought emotion with total conviction. Gaynor and Farrell have so much natural chemistry that it's not surprising at all they would make 11 more films together. Brockwell also delivers a great performance, making the most of her brief scenes as the abusive sister. The ending is as ridiculous as it is romantic, just as it should be.

Postscript: Per Wikipedia, this was the 13th highest grossing silent film in history. It was nominated for 5 Oscars and won three - Best Actress (Gaynor), Best Director (Borzage), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Benjamin Glazer).

This film was a real launching pad for those involved. The same trio would successfully reunite the following year for Street Angel. Borzage would ocntinue directing through the 50s, including a 1932 version of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Gaynor and Farrell would appear in 12 films together. Gaynor would forever be remembered for her performance in FW Murnau's Sunrise, which was released later that year and is now on the AFI list of 100 Greatest American Movies. She would later get another Oscar nomination for the 1937 version of A Star is Born. Farrell would find popularity on the 1950's TV series "My Little Margie".

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