Last up for the 1st Oscar for Best Picture is the film that garnered more nominations at the 1st ceremony than any other: Seventh Heaven, which ended up winning for its director, Frank Borzage, as well as actress Janet Gaynor, who also won that year for Sunrise and 1928’s Street Angel. To best describe my ending emotions about this one, here was my experience actually watching Seventh Heaven: I got through the first half, generally enjoying the setting of the film as well as how the plot was moving along… and then I paused it to eat some lunch. I got back, started it again, and for some magical, mystical reason, the film started to make all the wrong decisions when it came to developing its story further, throwing away everything good it had been doing up to then to instead pile on melodramatic story devices and dialogue. It was an almost disgusting amount of whiplash, and it was only Gaynor and Borzage’s direction that kept me going through the rest of the film.
Where Wings opted for the wow factor, and The Racket was more of a prenatal gangster picture, Seventh Heaven is all melodrama, and has Janet Gaynor and actor Charles Farrell falling in love despite several obstacles, chiefly a very abrupt obstacle thrust into the middle of the second act out of freaking nowhere. Farrell is Chico, a lowly sewer worker in Paris, who dreams of making a better life for himself as a street-washer (apparently the ladder of achievement and progress is not as elevated in Paris as it was in the States back then). Gaynor is Diane, who lives with her domineering and physically abusive sister. When Diane ends up ruining the sister’s chances at getting back in good with her family, she takes Diane out into the street and begins beating her, where she is saved by Farrell’s Chico, who gives her some food and, after feeling sorry for her, lies to the police and says she is his wife to avoid her being taken away. As this is a melodrama, you can see where this is going, and rest assured, obstacle after obstacle are thrown at the pair to challenge their fates of ending up together. The film starts out simple; following the street lives of its two main characters and how they meet, and developing the setting of the film rather nicely. I was really surprised, however, at how slow the plot seemed to develop; when I paused to eat lunch, after Chico had brought Diane to his home, I was actually surprised to find that the film at that point was already halfway over. It seemed the film was eschewing standard plot conventions in favor of laying on the romantic melodrama through its focus on the actions of the characters… Then, all of a sudden, a conscription notice was displayed on the screen, and Chico’s friend comes to tell him that the war has arrived and their regiment is to leave within the hour. Mind you, this is directly after Chico and Diane have agreed to marry each other; there isn’t even a break between segments, it’s the same exact scene that continues into this abrupt intrusion of the war angle of the story. From there, the film turned incredibly awkwardly into the most melodramatic scene in the entire picture, followed by a bunch of war scenes that felt wholly out-of-place with how the picture had been going up to then. I was left stymied at where and why the film had gone so wrong, and the film still continued, opting for the weirdest obstacles to throw into the mix and have the film call it plot development and conflict. Adding to that was the actual writing for some of the title cards, which could’ve been a tad less on-the-nose; there was one title card where a policeman enters the home of the main character, and a dialogue card pops up saying “I am a police detective–” and that’s all, and I had a chuckle at it despite myself.
I had so many problems with the plot of this one that I actually barely paid attention to the third act, instead spending the time avidly typing notes into my Notepad file that would end up becoming this review, having mostly checked out of the film after the unbelievably melodramatic middle scene where Chico and Diane agree to marry. The development of that scene, and really the whole second act, spelled out a good example of what I felt was 7th Heaven’s biggest problem. Where the development should’ve been about Farrell’s character growing accustomed to Gaynor’s presence and slowly but surely falling for her, the film instead opted to excise that notion and kept it to three scenes: one of him reminding Gaynor that after the police come to check on their story she needed to go, the following scene where he tells her after the police come she can stay as she ‘isn’t in the way’, and the scene after that, which has them awkwardly declaring their love and deciding to marry. Where’s the development of the relationship that was supposed to lead to these moments? Wherever it was, it was also the graveyard of the film’s sense of genuine, natural story development, with the war angle thrown against the wall of the film’s narrative so hard I might have actually physically flinched when I fully realized it had happened. I gotta give credit to Gaynor, for being such a darling, and Borzage, who despite the film’s poor decision making does do an admirable job setting the film’s mood and charisma, but other than that, wow did this one hit a straight fastball way into the left-field foul zone, and then proceeded to parade around the bases as if it had just hit a home run. To some, that ball did soar awfully high into the air, but for me, the film may as well have been holding the bat upside-down for all the good it did and how well it went about doing it.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10