Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: 7th Heaven (1927)
  • Standing: Best Picture Nominee for 1927/28 season (lost to Wings)
  • Type: Silent, Drama, Romance
  • Other AA Wins: Best Actress (Janet Gaynor),Best Director (Frank Borzage), Best Writing for Adapted Screenplay (Benjamin Glazer)
  • Director: Frank Borzage
  • Studio/Producer: Fox Film Corporation
  • Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Gladys Brockwell, Ben Bard
  • Production Notes: Adapted for the screen by Benjamin Glazer from the popular 1922 play by Austin Strong, Cinematography by Ernest Palmer and Joseph A. Valentine, Film Editing by Barney Wolf.
  • Viewing Order: 2/270

 

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Summary & Viewing Experience:

Chico (Charles Farrell) is a hunky Atheist, working in the sewers of Paris (slinging mattresses around? I’m not quite sure what his actual job is), where he dreams of a job above ground as a street washer. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s quite literally an upward career move for him.

Meanwhile, Diane (Janet Gaynor) is a sweet looking waif who lives in barely furnished slum housing with her wild eyed, physically abusive sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) who has sticky fingers and an absinthe habit. When their rich relations come to visit, they are shocked by the sisters’ living conditions. Diane hopes to go with them and be saved from her lifestyle, but their uncle won’t allow “unclean” girls in his home. It’s implied throughout that the sisters are making their living through theft and prostitution, though this is clearly not the life the honest and despondent Diane wants, while it doesn’t seem to bother the hardened Nana. After they are rejected by their ritzy relatives, Nana chases Diane into the street and beats her mercilessly until Chico intervenes. He takes pity on the fragile Diane and when the police come to round her up with her sister (for implied prostitution), Chico intervenes again, claiming that Diane is his wife. The cop calls his bluff and tells them that if he comes back to visit and they are not living at the same address together, he’ll throw the book at them.

The two are forced to make a home together and, quell surprise, gradually fall in love. Leave it to World War I to put a damper on things…

The film makes you feel as if you were watching La Boheme acted out on a stage dressed and ready for a film noir, yet the subject matter lifts more than it drags down. This is a story of love that transcends poverty, fear, war, and tragedy. It’s Mimi if she didn’t have TB.

Gaynor’s Diane starts out emotionally run over, hopeless, ready for death. Love breathes life into her. A few brief moments of unnatural histrionics aside, Gaynor did a fantastic job portraying Diane’s many thoughts and emotions. The film didn’t rely heavily on title cards so the actors had to do much of the heavy lifting by way of facial expression and actions to get the story across. As for Farrell’s Chico, what a doll! I’m terrified of heights and he could still probably coax me on to the rooftop to see some stars. Gladys Brockwell was genuinely chilling as Nana. Her mere presence in a scene made my body tense up.

Farrell and Gaynor’s careers had paralleled up until this point. Both had largely been in uncredited extra roles before 7th Heaven. This was not only the film that launched both of their careers, it was the first of the 12 films they would star in together, making them one of the big onscreen It couples of the time. Their chemistry also translated off screen and the two dated for a couple years before splitting up and marrying other people. 7th Heaven did one better for Gaynor, winning her the first Best Actress Oscar ever awarded.

Unlike the dynamic and journalistic style of cinematography Wings dipped into, especially in the flying sequences, the scenes in 7th Heaven are staged like a play with the sets to match. The war scenes in this were brief, with much of the focus on the emotional toll of war rather than the physical. Nothing about this could be called wartime propaganda; it came across as decidedly anti-war. Less proud marching, more tearful goodbyes. It wasn’t what I expected from a war film made at this time.

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Diane winning Chico over with a haircut

 

Why was it nominated?

7th Heaven was based on the incredibly popular 1922 play of the same name by Austin Strong. The bones were already good, it only had upwards to go and it went straight up, all the way to Heaven. Critics overwhelmingly loved this film, calling it a masterpiece and one of the finest films yet made.

In the newspapers, the two leads were praised for their acting, especially Gaynor, who was hailed in the same breath as both a brand new discovery and one of the most brilliant actresses of the time.

Borzage’s use of light and shade is perfection and gives the film an early noir feel.

If my own heart is to be trusted, I assume 7th Heaven hit viewers in a place that lives deep within us where hope is never truly lost and love conquers all.

How does it hold up today?

Very well. It’s a beautiful example of how excellent silent films could be and were in their heyday.

  • IMDb rating= 7.7 out of 10
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating = 100% out of 100% fresh by critics and 85% by viewers.

Would this be my pick for 1927/28’s Best Picture?

I’m very torn. I watched this and Wings at the same time and both blew me away. It’s instantly understandable to me why each were nominated. Aside from (and even in) the shared themes of love and World War I, they are so very different in style and method, that I find them hard to compare. Plus, I haven’t seen The Racket yet…

I will say it’s undeniably a front runner.

UPDATED: Click for a full summary of my 1927/28 ranking