#506) 7th Heaven (1927)
OR “The One Without Jessica Biel”
Directed by Frank Borzage
Written by Benjamin Glazer and Katherine Hilliker & H.H. Caldwell. Based on the play by Austin Strong.
Class of 1995
The Plot: In the streets of Paris 1914, down on his luck sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) has a chance meeting with Diane (Janet Gaynor), a prostitute running from her abusive sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell). When the police try to arrest Diane, Chico intervenes, claiming she is his wife. To keep up the facade, Diane moves into Chico’s apartment, a seventh story loft closer to the stars than the streets (we almost have a title!). What starts as a temporary arrangement becomes more permanent when Chico and Diane begin to fall for each other. But with the outbreak of the Great War, their newfound love is put to the test.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up offers no superlatives, but does give a rundown of the film’s historical significance. An essay by Fox expert Aubrey Solomon is much more supportive of the film’s artistic triumphs.
But Does It Really?: This is another “minor classic” for the NFR: “7th Heaven” isn’t the most iconic silent film (it’s not even Janet Gaynor’s best known film from that year), but it holds up well, and gets enough mention among film buffs to get eventual NFR recognition. No argument here for the inclusion of “7th Heaven”, but I’m not singing its praises either.
Seriously, Oscars?: “7th Heaven” was released in 1927, therefore making it eleigible for the very first Academy Awards. When the nominations were announced, “7th Heaven” received a record-breaking five nominations, and went on to win three: Director, Screenplay, and Actress for Janet Gaynor (along with her performance in “Street Angel” and “Sunrise”). Recalling the event years later, Gaynor admitted that while she was thrilled to receive the first Best Actress prize, the Oscars didn’t have the pedigree it does now, and she was more excited to meet Academy president Douglas Fairbanks than to win the award.
- There’s a bit of confusion with the exact spelling of the title. The original 1922 play spells out “Seventh Heaven”, but the film uses the number “7th Heaven”. Various write-ups over the years use either spelling interchangeably.
- “7th Heaven” was initially released in May 1927 as a silent film, but when synchronized sound started to become popular, Fox re-released the film in September with a new score and sound effects. This version hit theaters in September 1927, one month before “The Jazz Singer”.
- The new soundtrack includes the song “Diane”, written Erno Rapee and Lew Pollack, which becomes a leitmotif throughout the movie. The song is performed by opera singer Zari Elmassian, making her quite possibly the first woman to be heard in a sound picture.
- “7th Heaven” was a gamble for Fox Films. In addition to being an expensive film based on a highly-sought after stage property (Mary Pickford attempted to by the rights as well), both of the leads were virtual unknowns. Charles Farrell only had a few credits in small parts prior to being cast as Chico, and while Janet Gaynor had already filmed “Sunrise”, it hadn’t been released yet, so Fox was banking on her untested box office appeal.
- I feel like we lost some artistry when silent pictures started talking. With the silent films I’ve covered on this list, the ones made at the end of the era take the most artistic leaps, resulting in them being more visually appealing and therefore more likely to age well. Once synchronized sound arrived, movies focused on dialogue and music (naturally), and the camera became static. There’s always a few exceptions, but I feel like movies spent most of the ’30s being products, with the artistry taking a backseat.
- The meet-cute of Chico and Diane is important, but is also very reliant on intertitles to preserve much of the play’s dialogue. It’s hard to monologue in a silent film. Also: Chico must have read my notes on repeating your catchphrase throughout your movie, because he keeps referring to himself as “a very remarkable fellow”. Not exactly “Do you feel lucky, punk?“
- Wow, Chico is all over the place. First he has the impulsive idea to pass off Diane as his wife, then makes her feel bad for his decision, then Diane has the idea of staying at his place, and Chico worries that she’ll “take advantage” of him. Pick a lane, Chico!
- Shoutout to cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Joseph A. Valentine (as well as Art Director Harry Oliver) for the impressive shot of the camera following Chico and Diane up the seven flights of stairs to get to his apartment. In a movie that retains too much dialogue, this shot is a visually stunning change of pace.
- I love that the only French any of these Parisians seem to know is “Bon Dieu”.
- Much like Borzage’s previous film “Humoresque“, “7th Heaven” is an unapologetic melodrama that takes a second act turn and becomes a war movie. The man had a niche.
- Keep in mind that “7th Heaven” was released only nine years after the end of World War I, so it was still very fresh in people’s minds. It was definitely on Hollywood’s mind; we get this movie the same year as “Wings“, and we’re only a few years away from “All Quiet on the Western Front“. The Great War may have been the first surefire Oscar trope.
- Diane and Chico communicate to each other via film dissolves every day at 11am. It looks like Darth Vader trying to contact Luke at the end of “Empire Strikes Back“.
- [Spoilers] Chico died as he lived: spouting his stupid catchphrase.
- [Actual Spoiler] Turns out this movie has a death fake-out worthy of J.J. Abrams. Chico doesn’t die, but returns home blinded from the war. Ironically, it’s only after the blinding that the self-professed atheist sees the light.
- “7th Heaven” was a huge success, and helped put Fox Film on the map. Shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, the studio received new management, and shortly thereafter merged with Twentieth-Century Pictures to become…a future Disney property.
- Fox continued to pair Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell together in 11 more movies over the next seven years, including a remake of Mary Pickford’s “Tess of the Storm Country”.
- The song “Diane” became a standard that has been covered many times over the years.
- “7th Heaven” received a sound remake in 1937 starring Simone Simon and James Stewart. But if you want to talk about remakes, look no further than this 1951 episode of Lux Radio Theatre that reunites Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell!