I think I must’ve first heard of this film way back in the day via Ivan Butler’s Silent Magic book, in which he compares it, not entirely favourably, to its contemporary Sunrise. It’s a logical point of comparison, as both films were made for Fox and had the same stars, and William Fox encouraged his other directors to look to Murnau’s film as an example of what they should be doing themselves. And Frank Borzage seems to have taken the advice to heart (he was shooting this while Murnau was making his film), and Ivan Butler at least seems to have found Borzage’s film wanting by comparison. In particular he complains of feeling a sense of emotional manipulation, and to be sure that’s something I don’t like myself… but I think Butler was being unnecessarily harsh here, at least I didn’t get that feeling nearly as much as he seems to have done. Borzage seems to attract critical blather like “romantic transcendentalism” and terms like that, I know cos the DVD booklets (I have the two BFI editions of his late silents and the early talkie Liliom) are full of that sort of stuff, and normally I find that sort of thing off-putting. But now, having seen this film, I understand why he draws that sort of guff; in this film Borzage presents the idea of love being so huge that it conquers space and time itself. The result is obviously total melodrama, but it takes on an almost epic character, and it’s sincere. Not only did Borzage ask us to believe in this story, he evidently believed in it himself, and in Farrell & Gaynor he had performers with the sort of joint chemistry required to put this sort of thing over. I never felt manipulated. And yes, you could argue that the ending in particular is overdone and the sentiment is too hard to swallow in a more cynical age, but when you see that ending in context, i.e. at the end of this film rather than excerpted in a documentary, it’s right, it’s the sort of happy ending you want by that point. Given my admittedly limited but not altogether happy experience with Borzage so far, I wound up liking this more than I expected.
7th Heaven (1927)