Based on a long-running stage success and wildly popular upon its first release, Seventh Heaven is probably Frank Borzage’s most famous film, the one where all his principles of mystical romance come together most distinctively. This exquisite tale of romance between street waif/prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor) and Montmartre sewage worker Chico (Charles Farrell) stresses the redemptive side of couplehood so persuasively that otherworldly connotations, like the strong ray of light that literally shines down on them after their various trials, seem only fair and natural. Borzage ennobles their poverty-stricken lives to such an extent that even the cruelties of war don’t stand a chance when they are working against it together.
Gaynor’s Diane might have walked the streets, but she cannot tell a lie. When her rich Uncle comes to rescue her and her beastly sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) and asks if they’ve been “good girls,” Diane tells all. She then endures a savage (and quite upsetting) beating from her sibling, who likes to drink absinthe, and is rescued by Farrell’s strutting Chico. This self-described “remarkable fellow” saves Diane from suicide and brings her to live with him in his top-floor dwelling: “I work in the sewer, but I live near the stars!” he cries. Chico is a braggart, like Spencer Tracy in Man’s Castle, but softer. He’s obviously vulnerable underneath his machismo, so that Diane can both take confidence from his outward demeanor and lovingly allay his insecurities with maternal ministrations. It’s the perfect exchange, lovers drawing strength from one another and ascending onto a different, metaphysical plane—you feel they could fly off the rooftops if they wanted to.
Borzage patiently catches the smallest details of love, most memorably in the scene where Diane, alone in their garret, picks up Chico’s coat and strokes it tenderly as if it were him. They have their rough moments: he doesn’t want to verbalize his feelings for her, and her passivity can turn aggressive. But Diane wears down Chico’s resistance, and when he finally says he loves her, the film threatens to explode with extreme yet rarified emotion. “I’m not used to being happy,” she says wonderingly. “It’s funny…it hurts.” When the six-foot-two-inch Farrell kisses Gaynor passionately and holds her tiny five-foot frame up in the air, they truly look like a couple blessed by a winged divinity, with the space around them seemingly vibrating with some kind of spiritual presence. Watching them together in the same shot is an uncanny experience, one not easy to explain (surely it has something to do with the gorgeous use of colored tints and the touching love theme on the soundtrack).
Chico is a professed atheist, but because he’s met Diane, he generously says that he’ll “give God one more chance.” In perhaps the film’s most moving shot, a close-up of Gaynor dissolves into a close shot of a ticking clock. Life moves on and vanquishes the most ardent lovers, but not Chico and Diane. Even WWI can’t break them; they feel each other’s bodies no matter how far apart they are, every day at 11 o’clock, the hour of their wedding. Some might call the ending corny, but it’s so sublimely believable that the only way I can describe it is by quoting one of the film’s most effusive series of title cards, which simply reads: “Chico—Diane—Heaven!”