Sunday, September 26, 2010

"I'm not used to being's funny--it hurts!"

The first scene in the film gives a look into the lives of Chico (Charles Farrell) and Rat (George Stone), which finds the two men tending refuse floating downstream in a vaulted underground sewage system known as “The Hole in the Sock”. Here the production design by Harry Oliver may be appreciated along with Ernest Palmer’s cinematography, sublimely capturing the labyrinthine gauzy, high contrast imagery created with the contours of the perspective set’s cobblestone tunnels, steel-bar grates, flowing river of sewage, and the luminance of the manhole—ceiling as peephole to civilization.

This bygone era of filmmaking owes the advent of sound for its demise. But this 1927 film has left an indelible, high water mark in the Love Story genre which no modern motion picture has yet to achieve. Released the same year as The Jazz Singer, Underworld (Josef von Sternberg), Napoléon (Abel Gance), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), Sunrise (FW Murnau) and King of Kings (Cecil B DeMille), Borzage has distinguished his own personal masterpiece by finding themes which were universal for contemporary audiences still reeling from the devastation of WWI yet also timeless due to an effusive, expertly-crafted romanticism which should be the envy of any aspiring filmmaker.

As the opening scene proceeds, Rat, whom Chico loathes, gawks up the skirts of women who pass above the manhole cover under which the two work. Rat also appears to have been so named due to a crooked overbite and other rodent features (eating habits? scraggily whiskers?) So when Rat invites Chico to share a glimpse, Chico becomes outraged and it is this virtue which identifies his character. Perhaps stereotypical, this opening scene is of immense interest because it literally casts characters “from the sewer”.

And it is at this point what becomes clear about 7th Heaven, as hinted by the opening intertitle:

For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of Courage

What potency! Borzage’s mapping out of his themes, in this telegraphing fashion, proves his awareness of what emotional manipulation is going on from the outset. It is soon learned that the film’s central protagonist, Chico, has a singular motive, or external desire, or more commonly referred to as a “want” (vs a “need”): to make the career jump from sewer worker to street cleaner. Who else but the Coens1 have ever given a central protagonist such a dire existence?

It is Borzage’s nurturing of society’s dregs which is what gives his romanticism such uniqueness. But Borzage’s idiosyncratic charities extend into the realm of morality even further. He has not only gone to the sewers for his principal leads, he’s given them the only hope—courage—and simultaneously skewed his entire representation of Parisian society throughout the rest of the film to include nothing but impoverished stereotypes who are either “all good” or “all bad”; and the “bad” are identified so due to avarice, invariably.

Onscreen, the couple who finds romance is sewer worker, Chico, and Diane (Janet Gaynor), a prostitute. Diane may be Hollywood’s first hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. Again, to describe the power of the themes’ universality in 7th Heaven, it is the couple, Chico and Diane, whom the audience finds as the quintessential embodiment of maudlin heartbreak. Society has shit on Diane. Everyone thinks she’s worthless. Even after Diane cops absinthe for her alcoholic-whore sister, Nana, her earlier transgressions (honesty) result in Nana chasing Diane through the streets, lashing her with a bull whip! So, Diane the prostitute is literally on the brink of death once she’s introduced, and even though Chico saves her life, his first words after are “[her life] wasn’t worth saving, Papa Boul, [a] creature like that is better off dead.” This is about as manipulative a tearjerker as movies can get2.

It is the film’s archetypal protagonists, again, which are the emphasis of this article. So, Diane, it should be said, actually carries the drama and embodies the greater moral lesson: virtue alone will not provide a solution to a horrible, impoverished existence3. Diane is the one to pay attention to.

If one rides along with Diane for the ride, life is made to be comprehensible and there are lessons: do not abandon virtue for money; if you are good, SOMEONE will value you; as long as you have courage, you can make it. Chico, on the other hand, does not value Diane initially, or even Rat for that matter; Rat even saves Chico’s life, and doesn’t even get a thank you! Chico only wants Diane eventually when she proves her worth—that’s inexcusably selfish—and learns how much she can do for him.

After the dust settles, it becomes apparent that women are virtuous, beautiful, long-suffering creatures and men are bullheaded brutes who better appreciate what they’ve got before it’s gone. Ahhh, romance. Furthermore, the film’s message, if the viewer is attempting to read for one, is not only will courage take you from the sewer to the stars, but that there’s nothing in between. Most of the audience is meant to learn that they can climb up out of their own respective “sewers” and manage to win over life’s unfair limitations—but these limitations need to be identified, and it is here where monetary affluence unduly colors the possessor with a greedy spirit of avarice. Can rich people be virtuous? Yes, but in the discourse of 7th Heaven, as is the case in The Bible, it’s the age old “easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle…” logic which becomes priority. (Are Col Brissac and Nana anything more than evil? And aren’t they the only characters who seem to afford comfortable qualities of living?)

Indeed 7th Heaven’s success is as a Love Story. While Diane, the film’s heroine, carries the entire arc of the narrative, it is actress Janet Gaynor who transcends the average performance and establishes verisimilitude for viewers. Yes, she won the first Oscar for this role, but it is her reaction to hearing about the news from The Front near the end of the third act which proves Gaynor’s talent. Gaynor’s projection of raw emotion in two particular scenes after receiving devastating news about her husband’s fate on The Front is a feat to behold. Here also, it should be mentioned that the film dares to mount some very ambitious WWI battle scenes.

Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities as of the writing of this article to watch 7th Heaven on a big screen in a theatre. It is to our disadvantage, because one only has to imagine what the taxi scene would look like on the big screen to get a sense of how inferior TV viewings are equipped for appreciating a film like this. Also let it be argued here that usually the miniature sets look BETTER on the big screen. (Personally, I discovered this phenomenon only six days ago, watching Metropolis on a big screen and it seemed counter-intuitive.) Since the film depicts the end of WWI in Paris, the film features utterly magnificent large-scale unit photography of epic battles where all Parisians use their own automobiles to transport every available garrison to The Front. The endless ant-trails of model Ts choreographed on their way into battle are striking.

Ultimately the discovery of 7th Heaven reveals a tearjerker Love Story adorned with an ambitious, technically formidable command of epic battle sequences and perspective sets photographed with the same ambition as UFA. There is also an illustration of the overlying sewers-to-stars theme which is boldly expressed visually in the subtle affinity of Chico and Gobin going from hose washers to hosing napalm in WWI. Borzage makes the lowliest people believe they are destined to be heroes through his commitment to the entire craft of this film. Bums are born to be War Heroes. Prostitutes are the most delicate flowers, and should be loved.

Borzage’s visuals truly must be attributed to the symbiotic nature of what he is able to achieve with Palmer’s cinematography through Harry Oliver’s sets. This film is entirely set-piece driven. Compared to John Ford’s silents of the same era, also filmed at Fox Film Corpotation’s Edendale lot, Borzage’s superiority is revealed. Ford’s compositions are wooden and clumsy, his priority is dramatic realism, whereas Borzage’s priority is the set and he dramatizes within the space. Paying attention to 7th Heaven’s set pieces will prove this point. Oliver’s sets include: The Hole in the Sock sewer network, the titular seven-story high flight of stairs leading to Chico’s apartment overlooking the stars, and finally, The Front or “Maginot line” battle in the film’s third act.

Ernest Palmer’s tracking shots are similarly marvelous. Imagine an early twentieth century Paris in black and white with people walking down a cobblestone street, if they were filmed with a Steadicam the size of VW Bug, and you may begin to appreciate what the effect is like.

In closing, the film’s finale is always the most important aspect of a film, and here we have one of the greatest—Borzage really raised the bar. But, the characterization of WWI Parisians at the bottom of their luck who end up saving each other through romance is noticeably as, if not more important to this film’s power. And the way God is dealt with cynically is also important. God, or, as is more common the term used to denote a higher power in this film, Bon Dieu, is indicted and held responsible for the hardships of the couple from the beginning. Most often the characters are avowed atheists, and at the end no one thanks God. This is more realistic than a heavy handed Christian tendency to establish causality of fulfillment to God and God alone.

I guess in a sense I applaud Borzage’s Heaven, as opposed to the usual heaven associated with Christian dogma. And I admire his optimism and faith in individual worth. What these characters wanted was salvation, but what they learned they needed more was courage. Frank Borzage has caused me to learn what power the Love Story has, but more importantly who can have it. And Borzage isn’t a coward—while indicting God and society, he still gives his heroes the courage to make it. (And we all know “courage” is Borzagespeak for True Love.)

1On the commentary track for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, Coens) Billy Bob Thornton emotionlessly describes his character as “a barber considering going into the dry-cleaning business”.

2This plot is one of my favorites. For other instances of a brute having a loyal, waif, love interest who he abuses for the duration of the film, until it’s too late and she’s gone, upon which moment the schlub is devastated and broken internally, see Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) or Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown (1999, Woody Allen).

3Diane reminds me of Justine, the central protagonist in the novel I’ve called my #1 favorite my entire adult life—Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791 by Marquis de Sade)—which depicts a similar premise involving a virtuous sister and a sister who leads a life full of vice who are both left to fend for themselves after they lose their parents.


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