Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.
Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.
Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”
He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.
What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.
The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.
7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.