Last year when I was asked to do some interviews for a box set of the films made by directors Frank Borzage and F.W. Murnau for Fox Film in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927) wasn’t much more than a title to me. I knew of it, of course, since it’s one of the most famous silent movies, but it had never crossed my path. When it arrived—along with a group of other tantalizing titles—I wasted little time in rectifying that. It was a revelation plain and simple. Even though I was no stranger to Borzage’s work—mostly by way of his sound films—I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of cinematic fireworks or emotional resonance on display here. If it weren’t for the existence of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), I wouldn’t hesitate to call 7th Heaven the greatest of all silent films. But coming in second to Sunrise is nothing to be ashamed of.
Like Sunrise, 7th Heaven is a film that could only work as a silent (though both have synchronized music tracks). The human voice would be an intrusion that would immediately destroy the carefully crafted illusion of a separate world created by the film. More, it would make the romantic nature of the movie—and its attendant romanticizing of poverty—untenable. As a silent, the otherwise implausible romance between a prostitute (Janet Gaynor) and an irreligious, somewhat cynical, but good-hearted sewer worker (Charles Farrell) is a transcendent experience unlike any other. As filmmaking, it’s hard to fault—and even in this day and age, the moving shot (using an elevator) that follows the couple (thanks to a shaved set that allows us to see inside the building) up a full seven floors to their attic apartment (“I work in the sewer, but I live near the stars”) is still a jaw-dropping marvel. Movies don’t get much more remarkable than this.