Above and Beyond: 7th Heaven (1927)

7th-Heaven

 

In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix.  But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.

3453655877_7bb5555377

7th Heaven was the culmination of Borzage’s work in the silent cinema. With the full backing of Fox and production head Winfield Sheehan, Borzage constructs a cathedral to love atop a slum in Paris. Together with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, a run-down loft becomes a pulsing symbol of spiritual and physical yearning. It even changes shape along with the tenor of the characters’ emotions, a bright and shining religious expressionism. The film was based on the smash hit play by Austin Strong, which ran for three years on Broadway. It’s a love story between a street sweeper and an orphan girl during WWI, and how their love expands and contracts the universe around them. F.W. Murnau was filming Sunrise at the same time as Borzage was shooting 7th Heaven, and the similarities are evident, especially in the thrumming connection between people and the places they occupy. As George O’Brien’s touch seems to electrify Sunrise’s fair, so does Janet Gaynor’s romantic yearning transforms a clock into a vision of her beloved.

gaynor-borzage-farrell-award

A coveted property, all the top stars auditioned, including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Joel McCrea and George O’Brien. Borzage, on a $35,000 per film contract with Fox, had enough clout to to keep Sheehan from casting his mistress Madge Bellamy – and instead he gave the orphan girl role of Diane to Janet Gaynor, who he had seen on the set of The Return of Peter Grimm (Sheehan encouraged Murnau to cast her in Sunrise as well). John Gilbert was slated to play the male lead, Chico, until he left Fox for MGM because of a salary dispute. So Borzage chose another relative unknown, Charles Farrell. The athletic and handsome actor was working as an extra before being plucked from obscurity. Borzage worked with an intense closeness to his actors. A contemporary report said that Borzage, “talked to Janet Gaynor about each scene until his mind and hers were in tune, then he told her to go on the set and think it. The physical reaction he left to her, and she was unconscious of it.” The performances he was after contained a heightened realism – a prickling sensitivity.  He reportedly told Margaret Sullavan, one of his axiomatic muses, that, “I’ll direct you when you stop being natural, not before.” He was after the actors’ essence – their spirit.  This is grandly realized in 7th Heaven, in which Farrell and Gaynor are vibrating in tune. Every minor act of their love becomes enhanced and studied. Kent Jones described this as “the collapse of time outside of the space created by love”.

seventhheaven6

Farrell is an unkempt innocent, bounding through the sewers and the streets without a care for the past. His face is completely open, his hair a wild shock that flows with the direction of the wind. Gaynor is an abused animal, awaiting the worst behind every corner she hides behind. One of the key gestures in the film is the look up. Farrell is introduced in the sewers looking up at the street cleaner through the grate of a manhole cover. It is an aspirational glance. Gaynor looks up to everyone around her, but it one of cowering docility. When he brings her up to his loft for the first time, Borzage films it in an uncut rising crane shot, visualizing their upward mobility. Once upstairs, everything slows to a crawl in the cocoon of their regard.

The wild despair that sluices through Farrel’s face after learning of his deployment expresses the fear of demolishing this cocoon. Farrell’s character is a vocal atheist, and Gaynor a quiet believer, but both pray during his stay in the Army. Not to any god, but to each other, each lover’s highest value.  And in the final scene, when a sanctifying ray shines down on them both, it is an image beyond the reach of words.

seventhheaven2

9 Responses Above and Beyond: 7th Heaven (1927)
Posted By Susan Doll : November 6, 2013 1:56 am

Experience has taught me not to trust what Netflix says regarding their customers, but this is troubling news about their single-minded efforts to kill off “choice” for movie lovers. Sigh!

Posted By gregferrara : November 6, 2013 1:05 pm

I was talking to my wife about the DVD/Streaming problem just last week. So many of the movies I’d love to sit down and watch on a moment’s notice, by pulling it up on streaming, aren’t there. Classic Hollywood and world cinema is frighteningly under represented on streaming services. Even on Amazon, where I’m happy to pay for a streaming rental of something not available on Netflix, much less is available once you get before 1960. Hoping this changes but not holding my breath.

Posted By michaelgsmith : November 6, 2013 2:03 pm

Great review of Borzage’s masterpiece. I have a problem with a couple of sentences in your opening paragraph though:

“With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history.”

This implies that the films available to stream on Netflix are the ones featuring HD transfers of the best source material. A lot of the titles streaming on Netflix are actually standard-def transfers that look like garbage. Conversely, there DO exist great HD transfers of three of Frank Borzage’s best silent films: Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star have all been released in gorgeous Blu-ray editions from the French label Carlotta Films (though anyone living in the U.S. needs a multi-region Blu-ray player to watch them).

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 5:42 pm

Thankfully, I shelled out for the massive Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set, which includes the three titles Michael lists above (DVD only). I’ve also seen Seventh Heaven in a collector’s 16mm print, which was quite a lovely experience. I think it had a Movietone soundtrack from its original release, but don’t quote me on that.

And from the same period, Murnau’s Sunrise has just been announced for blu-ray release in North America on Jan. 14 (it and City Girl have been out in the UK via Eureka’s Masters of Cinema blu-ray series for ages now, discs which I believe are all-region).

Posted By michaelgsmith : November 7, 2013 6:06 pm

swac44, where did you see the news about the North American Blu-ray release of Sunrise? I can’t find any info on that. I can confirm the Masters of Cinema editions of Sunrise and City Girl are both region-free. Those are two of my favorite discs of all time.

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 6:13 pm

I just got an email from Fox about the Jan. 14 Sunrise release, it’ll be a BD/DVD combo package. Here’s the info:

Sunrise
F.W. Murnau’s story of betrayal and redemption earned Oscars® at the first Academy Awards® ceremony in 1929 for the most “Unique and Artistic Picture,” Best Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Best Cinematography. The love and loyalty of a farmer and his wife are put to the ultimate test in this classic silent film. Sunrise used the groundbreaking Fox Movietone sound system, making it one of the first studio films with a true soundtrack, featuring music and sound effects.

The 20th Century Fox Studio Classics collection features Academy Award-winning and nominated films from the golden age of cinema. The studio is committed to the restoration of these classics, releasing multiple titles on Blu-ray each year. For more information visit http://www.facebook.com/FoxStudioClassics.

Special Features
● Original Fox Movietone Version and European Silent Version
● Commentary by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey
● Outtakes with Commentary by John Bailey
● Original Theatrical Trailer
● Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnau
● Original Sunrise Screenplay
● Restoration Notes

Sunrise Blu-ray
Street Date: January 14, 2014
Prebook Date: December 18, 2013
Screen Format: Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio: Original Fox Movietone Score DTS-HD Master
Audio 1.0, Olympia Chamber Orchestra Score
Composed and Conducted by Timothy Brock
Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Total Run Time: 94 Minutes
Closed Captioned: Yes

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 6:16 pm

As for the Eureka discs of the Murnau silents, I was only half-right. Amazon.com has their Sunrise down as an “all regions” release (for both BD and DVD, presumably) while City Girl is confined to Region 2 for DVD and Region B for blu-ray.

Posted By michaelgsmith : November 7, 2013 6:18 pm

Thanks for the info regarding Sunrise. I can confirm that the City Girl Blu-ray is DEFINITELY region-free, however, regardless of what Amazon says. I’m a teacher and I’ve screened it several times in classes on a “Region A” Blu-ray player in Chicago.

Posted By swac44 : November 7, 2013 6:27 pm

Funny, on the Amazon.com page, it has City Girl as a region-locked (2/B) title under “Product Details” (as does its listing on Amazon.co.uk), but right below it there’s a note that calls it an all-region pressing. Weird. I guess you got lucky with that one! I have a couple of players where I can change the region, so I can play pretty much everything, I don’t usually pay much attention to which a given disc belongs to.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.