November 5, 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix. But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.
7th Heaven was the culmination of Borzage’s work in the silent cinema. With the full backing of Fox and production head Winfield Sheehan, Borzage constructs a cathedral to love atop a slum in Paris. Together with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, a run-down loft becomes a pulsing symbol of spiritual and physical yearning. It even changes shape along with the tenor of the characters’ emotions, a bright and shining religious expressionism. The film was based on the smash hit play by Austin Strong, which ran for three years on Broadway. It’s a love story between a street sweeper and an orphan girl during WWI, and how their love expands and contracts the universe around them. F.W. Murnau was filming Sunrise at the same time as Borzage was shooting 7th Heaven, and the similarities are evident, especially in the thrumming connection between people and the places they occupy. As George O’Brien’s touch seems to electrify Sunrise’s fair, so does Janet Gaynor’s romantic yearning transforms a clock into a vision of her beloved.
A coveted property, all the top stars auditioned, including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Joel McCrea and George O’Brien. Borzage, on a $35,000 per film contract with Fox, had enough clout to to keep Sheehan from casting his mistress Madge Bellamy – and instead he gave the orphan girl role of Diane to Janet Gaynor, who he had seen on the set of The Return of Peter Grimm (Sheehan encouraged Murnau to cast her in Sunrise as well). John Gilbert was slated to play the male lead, Chico, until he left Fox for MGM because of a salary dispute. So Borzage chose another relative unknown, Charles Farrell. The athletic and handsome actor was working as an extra before being plucked from obscurity. Borzage worked with an intense closeness to his actors. A contemporary report said that Borzage, “talked to Janet Gaynor about each scene until his mind and hers were in tune, then he told her to go on the set and think it. The physical reaction he left to her, and she was unconscious of it.” The performances he was after contained a heightened realism – a prickling sensitivity. He reportedly told Margaret Sullavan, one of his axiomatic muses, that, “I’ll direct you when you stop being natural, not before.” He was after the actors’ essence – their spirit. This is grandly realized in 7th Heaven, in which Farrell and Gaynor are vibrating in tune. Every minor act of their love becomes enhanced and studied. Kent Jones described this as “the collapse of time outside of the space created by love”.
Farrell is an unkempt innocent, bounding through the sewers and the streets without a care for the past. His face is completely open, his hair a wild shock that flows with the direction of the wind. Gaynor is an abused animal, awaiting the worst behind every corner she hides behind. One of the key gestures in the film is the look up. Farrell is introduced in the sewers looking up at the street cleaner through the grate of a manhole cover. It is an aspirational glance. Gaynor looks up to everyone around her, but it one of cowering docility. When he brings her up to his loft for the first time, Borzage films it in an uncut rising crane shot, visualizing their upward mobility. Once upstairs, everything slows to a crawl in the cocoon of their regard.
The wild despair that sluices through Farrel’s face after learning of his deployment expresses the fear of demolishing this cocoon. Farrell’s character is a vocal atheist, and Gaynor a quiet believer, but both pray during his stay in the Army. Not to any god, but to each other, each lover’s highest value. And in the final scene, when a sanctifying ray shines down on them both, it is an image beyond the reach of words.