May 6, 1927
Directed by Frank Borzage
Bob Smith, my first film history professor, told me that if you’ve never been in love, watch 7th Heaven, and you will know what it feels like.
I was seventeen and hadn’t been in love yet. It was a month before my best friend confessed her love for me, and three months before we started dating. Seventeen years later, we have now been married for twelve, and she remains the only woman I’ve loved.
The last three years have been the most difficult of our marriage. She graduated from college, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, tried several jobs but quit all of them in despair. Every job she takes makes her life so miserable that she would rather be dead than work. She is depressed and scared all the time, and our financial situation has deteriorated so that we are in six figures of debt and facing bankruptcy. If I only knew how to make enough money to take care of both of us, I would do it without question.
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.
There’s no need for a modernist or psychoanalytic critique of a movie like this, which is simply and profoundly a love story. Love is the ultimate feminine goal, and this is a feminine film. A movie about love made for women, or for men who wish to understand the feminine.
Every man has trouble with his chosen woman, but where most women are able reduce their man to a quivering mess with their anger, it’s my wife’s sadness that collapses me. But each time I am overpowered, I am again challenged to be a more courageous man. To have the courage to face the world, make money, take care of my family, and have an open heart.
I recognize that same sadness in Janet Gaynor’s face.
Gaynor, who had mostly appeared in extra roles before this, delivers an extraordinary natural performance as Diane. Her face reveals the heart of the feminine, in the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the fullness of love.
Chico saves Diane from her cruel older sister, but is unable to face her despair. As Chico rambles on about his dissatisfaction with life as a sewer rat, Diane lies in a heap of misery on the street. It is only when she attempts to kill herself with his knife that he sees her, grabs it from her, and tries to talk her out of being sad.
Yeah, that doesn’t work. But pity moves him to take her home to his seventh-floor apartment, complete with a huge window open to the Parisian night. Heaven.
Chico fearlessly crosses a plank stretched high above the streets to get some linens and a nightgown for Diane. Never look down. Always look up.
While he is out, we see Diane afraid once again, not of her sister or the police, but of the open bed she she sees in front of her. Hidden from the view of the window, Diane undresses in front of the camera, revealing her bare legs to the audience.
This is an obvious chance to talk about the male gaze – our budding starlet is undressing for the camera in a tight, furtive frame. But I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s an obvious truth that movies are made under the implicit assumption of a male viewer, a male audience, male characters, and that all representation of women is reduced to that of a passive object.
Her legs are lovely, but this movie was not made for male lust. Janet Gaynor is not a passive object that arrests the movement of the story. This is a movie about love and the feminine and Gaynor is the story. By contrast, the scenes with Chico and his male friends are always ridiculous, even those of the war.
The real narrative lies in the progression of close-ups of Gaynor, from despair to hope and now to a fear of being forced to give her body too soon to the first person she could trust. It’s this body she reveals to us, before hurrying into the bed and drawing the covers up to her chin.
When Chico returns, we watch him undress and Diane, from under her covers, watches along with us with fascination. Chico approaches the bed only to grab a pillow for himself and head into the other room. Diane (now clothed) sneaks over to see that he has made his own bed at a respectful distance, and she can barely contain her ebullience.
As the scene fades to black, we know their love is secure. In the second half of the movie, it only remains to face death, that all-consuming impersonal force that conspires to drive everyone apart. But Diane has already learned always to look up.
Things are darker than they’ve ever been, and I have no choice but to keep looking up. To find the courage not only to face the world in all its danger but to face the no less intimidating psyche of my woman, whose suffering I can only imagine, and make a place for us. A place that’s heaven.