Frank Borzage was kind of a show off.
But then, to win the Academy Award for Best Direction, you have to be kind of a show off. And Borzage didn’t win just any Directing Oscar, either, but the very first one for a dramatic film.
(To clarify: There were two Directing awards handed out at the inaugural 1929 Academy Awards Ceremony, when Borzage won. One was for Best Comedy and the other for Best Drama.)
7th Heaven (1927) was the seventh film Borzage directed for studio boss William Fox, and it made a star out of actress Janet Gaynor. It also helped make Fox Films the most prestigious game in town… until the 1929 stock market crash.
7th Heaven doesn’t look like much on paper: In a Parisian slum, a beaten and homeless woman (Gaynor) is given shelter by a labourer (Charles Farrell), a sewer worker with aspirations to be a street-washer. At first, their living arrangement is Strictly Business, but they soon fall in love and are rapturously happy until Farrell decides to join WWI.
See? It’s a premise that’s been done a zillion times.
Except this time it feels fresh. This is where Bozage’s directing turns the ordinary into enchantment.
Borzage was born in Salt Lake City in 1892, and became a Hollywood actor in 1912. He directed his first film in 1915, and was hired by Fox Films in 1925, around the time Fox hired renowned German director F.W. Murnau. All Fox directors were instructed study Murnau’s style; John Ford, for example, was among those influenced by Murnau.
Even though Borzage was influenced by Murnau, the talent was his own. From the first frames of 7th Heaven, you know you’re in for a treat. (Twenty minutes in, we were wondering where this film had been our whole life!)
7th Heaven is based on the 1922 play Seventh Heaven by playwright Austin Strong, who saw several screen adaptations of his plays during the silent era. It is a surprisingly philosophical film that asks Big Questions about God and human suffering.
Of course, there’s a Great Romance in this story. (Borzage has a habit of packaging romance as a devotional experience.) This ecclesiastical tendency is paired with his clever use of the camera, which makes us forget we’re watching these events on a two-dimensional screen.
Charles Farrell wishes for an elevator. Image: Deeper into Movies
To us, 7th Heaven seems so vivid because Borage knows the way you tell a story has to be as good as, if not better than, the story itself.
For example, when Farrell’s character first offers to shelter Gaynor in his apartment, he is adamant this is a temporary arrangement. No Funny Stuff, he tells her; she’s not to Take Advantage of his generosity. She is so grateful she kisses his hand; he absently wipes his hand on his pant leg.
In another scene, Farrell pushes his way through a crowded street, desperate to get to his apartment. He’s racing against the camera as it marches briskly through the street, and it makes us feel like we’re watching a sporting event.
That’s not the only time Borzage’s camera forces the actors to Keep Up. The following clip is from the beginning of the film, where Farrell takes Gaynor to his apartment for the first time. We, like she, are surprised to discover there are Too. Many. Stairs.
Notice the camera never stops, never adjusts its speed. It forces the actors to keep pace – especially poor Gaynor, who has us wondering if she’ll live through this grinding experience.
As one of the first Oscar-winning directors, Borzage created a lofty standard for directors in all the years since. If you have the chance to see 7th Heaven, we hope you’ll agree.
7th Heaven: starring Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard. Directed by Frank Borzage. Scenario by Benjamin Glazer. Fox Film Corp., 1927, B&W, 110 mins.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon: The Directors hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Click HERE to see this week’s fab entries.