Many years ago, I remember seeing “Seventh Heaven” on TV, a 1937 James Stewart movie about a sewer worker in Paris who helps out a down-on-her-luck French waif played by Simone Simon. I found the film quite watchable, especially because Stewart and Simon seem like such an odd pairing. Recently, I finally got around to seeing the classic and original silent 1927 version of “Seventh Heaven,” and found it to be one of the most brilliant and inspirational romantic movies I’ve ever seen. Frank Borzage directed the 1927 version, and it stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.
Farrell plays an arrogant sewer worker named Chico, who dreams of being a street washer. He possesses supreme faith in his abilities, but he doesn’t believe in God. He speaks of once laying down some French francs to light some candles at church, but nothing good became of it. Gaynor plays Diane, the abused sister of the violent Nana (Gladys Brockwell). Nana regularly whips Diane and drinks copious amounts of absinthe. A priest comes to Diane and Nana’s door and informs them that a rich uncle is willing to take them in and relieve their impoverished lives. But when Diane puts the rich uncle off, the vengeful Nana chases her down and attempts to strangle her. Chico arrives to save the day, and agrees to let Diane stay at his apartment.
Heaven refers to many things in this film, including religion, Chico’s apartment, the heights of romantic love and relief from hopelessness. The expressive faces of Gaynor and Farrell draws the audience into an intimate empathy for Diane and Chico. And when the movie suddenly thrusts itself into World War I — which separates Diane and Chico for a long stretch — the film manages to keep the focus on their relationship by using a clever but believable dramatic device.
Gaynor delivers a remarkable performance as Diane, who gradually loses her sense of hopelessness and gains significant moral strength as Chico goes off to war. The film tempers its unrelenting romanticism with a couple of funny vignettes involving supporting characters. In particular, Albert Gran plays a roly-poly taxi driver who provides a lot of comic bluster.
The beginning of the film shows title cards that point out the power of dreams, of rising from the sewer to the stars, and believing in the power of transformation. To achieve the these heights, one must climb the ladder of courage. The film then goes about proving this theme wonderfully.