San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Director Frank Borzage; Oscar; Actress Janet Gaynor
Relationship expert Dr Joy Brown once said "Romance is the poison of the twentieth century." After watching Seventh Heaven in a crowded theater last night, all I have to say is "What a way to go!" Judging from the sobbing and applauding I heard last night at The Castro, evidently everyone else pretty much felt the same. Isn't it amazing that a love story created about eighty years ago can still profoundly move a modern audience? Why?
Because of great film making that like Chico and Diane's love transcends the physical plane and touches the soul.
Seventh Heaven tells the story of Diane who lives in the slums of Paris with her sister who physically abuses her. When Diane cannot bring herself to lie to their newly arrived Aunt and Uncle about how the two women supported themselves, they lose their chance to leave their dire lives. Diane's sister chases her into the street meaning to kill her. Chico, a young sewer worker intervenes to save her first from her sister, then from a police round up of street walkers. He is forced to take Diane home with him when the police inform him that they will investigate his hasty claim that Diane is his wife. Not surprisingly the two fall in love, to only be tragically parted by right when Chico proposes to her. Will they be parted forever? Watch the movie and find out for yourself.
What makes the film great is the change wrought in Diane by the redemptive power of love. It is romantic love but it is closely interlinked with the love of God. From the time the lovers meet to the end of the film their love is linked to God's love through dialog, visuals, and metaphors. Their love which is both physical and spiritual brings her grace. Diane grows not only to love Chico but herself. When Chico leaves her, after a self performed marriage rite using religious medals in place of rings, to go to war, her sister shows up. As she has before she starts to beat a seemingly helpless Diane. When she rips the necklace with the medallion from Diane's neck, Diane turns the tables and vanquishes her sister in a furious attack. Diane will no longer allow herself to be victimized. The applause from the audience was thunderous.
Janet Gaynor rightfully won the first Oscar for best actress for a combination of this film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Street Angel. Her performance as Diane is luminous. She engages our sympathy from the beginning. Every emotion from despair, love, hope, to fear she conveys with her face and eyes in a subtle but effecting manner. Charles Farrell plays Chico with the right amount of charm, fun and seriousness. Chico is brash and cocky but displays an amazing emotional depth when he falls in love with Diane. If he gives her self-confidence then she gives him vulnerability. Frank Borzage, the director, manages to make a lushly lyrical film that tells the emotional truth. He balances romanticism and realism in a way most directors would be incapable of doing.