…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Tonight I completed the triad of films for which Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar handed out for her work in the year 1927-28. The third and final film is Seventh Heaven, a romantic silent weepie that, according to Wikipedia, became one of the highest grossing silents in history (#13). Not only did Janet Gaynor pick up her well-deserved Oscar for this film (and Sunrise and Street Angel), but director Frank Borzage became the first Best Director in Oscar history.
You may remember my blog about Gaynor’s performance in Street Angel not too long ago. Well, there are a few similarities between that film and this one – most notably, she is once again paired opposite her most popular and handsome leading man, Charles Farrell (I read somewhere that he and Gaynor actually received anniversary gifts at the studio from fans – they were never married or indeed, lovers in real life). This film is also set in Paris, and once again, Gaynor is cast as – and pulls off admirably – the role of a sweet, innocent, but poor and bedraggled waif who is saved from desperate circumstances by a sewer worker aspiring to be a street cleaner (Farrell). Gaynor plays a young woman named Diane, who is beaten daily by her absinthe-addicted older sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell). When she is chased out into the street by her whip-wielding sister after wealthier family members reject taking them in, Chico (Farrell) arises from the sewer to step in as Diane’s savior. Nana is arrested, and Chico lies to the cops that Diane is his wife. He takes Diane under his wing – somewhat reluctantly – and allows her to stay with him in his lodging, which is an apartment almost high up in the ‘heavens’ (undoubtedly a symbolic note, considering the title; one camera take actually shows Farrell and Gaynor ascending several spiral steps to finally reach his aerie abode).
Immediately, Diane takes a fancy to Chico, who is awarded by a local priest for saving Diane by being promoted to street cleaner. He is also given two religious medallions on two chains to keep, though Chico is rather pompous – constantly calling himself an atheist who has no need of God and a ‘remarkable man’ (a constant Chico tagline). Chico resists Diane’s very sweet and earnest attempts to make love to him, until finally one day he returns from work and gifts her with a frilly wedding dress. Overcome with emotion at seeing her in it, he finally confesses his love and they exchange the medallions in a faux wedding ceremony of their own. No sooner have they exchanged their vows, however, when the trumpet sounds and World War I has begun. Chico is called to enlist, but as he leaves Diane he swears to think of her every day at 11 o’clock in the morning… which, in fact, he does, on the war front. As can be surmised, war incidents occur which entail injuries, etc… Diane waits at home for her love… and on Armistice Day, she receives devastating news. Or is it? You’ll have to watch to find out. (I can’t give the entire plot away now, can I?)
Gaynor is, once again, perfect as Diane. She is tender, beguiling, and so vulnerable in the beginning of the film – but she captures Diane’s building of strength through her relationship with Chico so very well. Despite Chico’s initial indifference to her, she holds out faith at capturing his heart and attempts to be brave. I love one scene in particular where she finally gathers the courage to walk a narrow plank between her building and the neighbor’s building, high above the streets below. The glee captured on Gaynor’s face at accomplishing this feat is charming. Farrell, as always, is a great match for Gaynor, and together they are amazing storytellers through their acting. One truly has to appreciate all that went into the acting for films of the silent era. Because words were not heard, it is almost as if the actors had to compensate so much more through slightly exaggerated actions and facial expressions – which could lead to the danger of the actors almost overdoing it. But Farrell and Gaynor were naturals. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed watching the talented Janet Gaynor every moment she graces the screen in these, her well-deserved films which earned the title of our very first Best Actress. My favorite of the three? Sunrise.