Frank Borzage’s most celebrated film (winner of three of the inagural Academ Awards, including best director and actress) envisions romantic love as the ultimate absolution for a sewer cleaner (Charles Farrell) and a prostitute (Janet Gaynor). Borzage was one of the pioneers of envisioning spirituality onscreen, not with winged cherubs or beams of light, but through a thoroughly cinematic mastery of time suspended: masterful long takes and leisurely cuts that allow the presence of the screen to saturate to the point that it pours from the frame. This is especially true with the famous interludes in Farrell’s top floor slum apartment with a window facing towards a cityscape that seems to be a projection of a poor man’s daydream, and where Farrell and Gaynor seem to spend an ecstatic eternity discovering each other. Gaynor’s raw, spontaneous expressiveness match perfectly with Borzage’s insistence on perpetual innocence prevailing through unspeakable loss. On paper this is an archetypal Hollywood romance, especially in its unabashed childlike sentimentality, but the uncompromising conviction of Borzage’s vision gives the film an integrity that can be emotionally devastating.
Want to go deeper? Excerpts from original contemporary reviews
compiled by Critical Flicker
Contemporary Reviews from Cinema Trade Magazine Kinematograph Weekly, 17/07/27″What a picture! It is one of the most beautiful things William Fox has ever done.” - New York Evening Graphic.
“7th Heaven is packed with beauty, romance and thrills.” - New York American
“THE SUPER OF ALL SUPER-FILMS.” - Weekly Dispatch.
“Poignant, romantic picture … Excellent direction, acting and photography … love scenes … are very tender and touching …” - New York Sun.
“A very remarkable picture indeed.” - New York Morning Telegraph.
“Grips your interest from the very beginning.” - New York Times.
“A triumph for every player in the cast, as well as for William Fox. Other great productions undoubtedly will be made, but few will present such a combination of story interest, acting value and production care.” - Moving Picture World.
“7th Heaven is a beautiful, poignant, stimulating piece of filmery … No one errs in this master of dramas. It is utterly delightful.” - New York Daily News.
In the William Fox screen version of Austin Strong’s play, “Seventh Heaven,” which was presented last night at the Sam H. Harris Theatre, you can once again meet those lovable characters – Chico, Diane, Papa Boule and Pere Chevillon in that little patch of Paris within sight of the Eiffel Tower. This picture grips your interest from the very beginning and even though the ending is melodramatic you are glad that the sympathetic but self-satisfied Chico is brought back to his heart-broken Diane.
This is an exceptionally well-acted place of work and Janet Gaynor’s performance as Diane is true and natural throughout. This young woman was discovered by Winfield R. Sheehan, general production manager for the Fox Film Corporation. Never once does she falter in her difficult task of reflecting the emotions of the character she portrays. There is no effort to make her unduly beautiful with a halo over her head. She is winsome from the moment one beholds her countenance. She can cry and smile simultaneously and she impresses one by her depiction of faith when every day at 11 o’clock she “meets” her Chico, who is in the trenches. Sometimes Miss Gaynor reminds one of Lillian Gish and in other moods she resembles Lois Moran. Yet in her acting there is nothing imitative, but always an earnest and successful effort to impersonate the French girl who is rescued from hardship and cruelty by that “very remarkable fellow,” Chico.
One of the joyous notes of this film, a masterly bit, is where Chico first takes Diane to his Seventh Heaven. You see them nearing the dingy-looking buildings and then they trudge upstairs. They pass the premier ètage, and the camera follows them as if you could see through the walls of the building. So, without a halt, there the two are perceived mounting the second flight of stairs, then they are beheld a little more tired on the third flight, and so on until Chico proudly throws open the door of his garret, outside of which are the stars. He who works in the sewer chose to dwell as near heaven as he could get!
It is obvious that this subject was admirably suited to the screen, but it should also be said that Frank Borsage [sic] in directing this production has given to it all that he could put through the medium of the camera… Mr. Borsage, who produced some passages of this production in the French capital, reveals no little imagination in his work and sometimes when it is least expected.
- Hall, Mordaunt. ‘The Screen – Seventh Heaven’, in The New York Times, May 26, 1927.
Out of earshot of the blowing of noses and the clearing of throats, but still remembering that extraordinary constriction about one’s own throat, the sensible course is to decide that this is a very curious film. For two hours or so one has been subjected to a quite murderous assault on the feelings – the sentiments, if you like; every conceivable trick has been used to bully the spectator into tears or, failing that, into occaisional snuffling. The fantastic thing is that the bullying works, is dreadfully effective, reduces one to a condition of maudlin sensibility. Sometimes, of course, it fails through sheer cunning, and one laughs derisively. But it is at best a hollow laugh; the simple fact about the film is that, incredibly sentimental as it is, it is often very moving. And so, coming out from the darkened theatre into the daylight, ashamed in greater or lesser degree of having been genuinely affected by such transparent artifice, the normally constituted person says, “What a curious film!”
- NEW GALLERY CINEMA – Seventh Heaven – A Fox Film Directed by Frank Borzage’ in The Times, Friday October 14, 1927, p.14, Issue. 44712, Col. D.
Based on a long-running stage success and wildly popular upon its first release, Seventh Heaven is probably Frank Borzage’s most famous film, the one where all his principles of mystical romance come together most distinctively. This exquisite tale of romance between street waif/prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor) and Montmartre sewage worker Chico (Charles Farrell) stresses the redemptive side of couplehood so persuasively that otherworldly connotations, like the strong ray of light that literally shines down on them after their various trials, seem only fair and natural. Borzage ennobles their poverty-stricken lives to such an extent that even the cruelties of war don’t stand a chance when they are working against it together. Borzage patiently catches the smallest details of love, most memorably in the scene where Diane, alone in their garret, picks up Chico’s coat and strokes it tenderly as if it were him. They have their rough moments: he doesn’t want to verbalize his feelings for her, and her passivity can turn aggressive. But Diane wears down Chico’s resistance, and when he finally says he loves her, the film threatens to explode with extreme yet rarified emotion. “I’m not used to being happy,” she says wonderingly. “It’s funny…it hurts.” When the six-foot-two-inch Farrell kisses Gaynor passionately and holds her tiny five-foot frame up in the air, they truly look like a couple blessed by a winged divinity, with the space around them seemingly vibrating with some kind of spiritual presence. Watching them together in the same shot is an uncanny experience, one not easy to explain (surely it has something to do with the gorgeous use of colored tints and the touching love theme on the soundtrack).
Chico is a professed atheist, but because he’s met Diane, he generously says that he’ll “give God one more chance.” In perhaps the film’s most moving shot, a close-up of Gaynor dissolves into a close shot of a ticking clock. Life moves on and vanquishes the most ardent lovers, but not Chico and Diane. Even WWI can’t break them; they feel each other’s bodies no matter how far apart they are, every day at 11 o’clock, the hour of their wedding. Some might call the ending corny, but it’s so sublimely believable that the only way I can describe it is by quoting one of the film’s most effusive series of title cards, which simply reads: “Chico—Diane—Heaven!”
- Dan Callahan, Slant
Seventh Heaven represents the most dramatic instance in Borzage’s work of the collapse of time outside of the space created by love. Within Chico’s apartment “near the stars,” time is elongated and becalmed, allowing for the smallest reverberation in Diane’s Heart to register as her joyful certainty and the space around her unite. Outside, the war and life in the factory are quickly summarized, perfunctory activities in broad, indifferent spaces (Seventh Heaven and A Farewell to Arms have got to be the craziest portraits of WWI ever put on the screen, logistically complex undertakings that are so folded up and telescoped that they could just as well be bicycle-powered operatic backdrops behind Charles Farrell and Gary Cooper). It’s interesting that the fact of the film’s source material being a play led Borzage, accidentally as it were, to the creation of an aesthetic practice as well as a moral choice of sorts. He had filmed the streets before, and perhaps decided that the only way to show supposedly real life was as an abstraction, the better to focus on the transcendent reality of love during each step of its unfolding.
- Kent Jones, Film Comment, September/October 1997
Absolutely lovely, although I found a general imbalance in the paths the girl and boy each took to transcendental “belief” of God thru mutual love. Although the girl melts into ecstasy midway through the movie, once the boy admits his fear and weakness and love for her it seems that this admission of his is only part of his path, and that his experience in war will somehow prove himself beyond his words. World War I is a place for him to use (rather than test or struggle to use) his new faith by crossing space metaphysically in the exquisite 11 o’clock exclamation, shared by the couple, one on the Front, one in Paris of “Chico…Diane…Heaven!”. The ending, where the boy who died is resurrected to stumble, blind, through the Armistice crowd, plunge up the seven flights of stairs, and embrace his mourning, disbelieving girl, is the height of Borzage’s depiction of transcendent romantic-humanist love and belief.
Gaynor and her films didn’t invent the Hooker with a Heart of Gold any more than they invented the dewy feminine close-up, but in both cases, the actress inhabits those conventions so expressively and with such a period-specific combination of mannerism and emotional directness that, for better or for worse, she feels more like an inventor than an inheritor of these hackneyed storytelling devices. Gaynor knows how to use a lot more than her face, though: watch those early, startling scenes where she gives a forced confession of her “crimes” to an appalled aunt and uncle and is promptly chased into the streets by the vicious Nana, who lashes her with a whip and tries to strangle her in the gutter. The tracking shot that carries the sisters through les rues is impressive enough, but so too are the incredible physical control and affective comportment of these two marvelous performers. It’s almost a shame from this point when Chico and his storyline have to intrude on such a bold, dangerous drama of sexual and familial torment…
The movie registers a heartfelt belief not just in love but in all kinds of social relationships. Before Chico’s departure for war, the camera dwells almost as poignantly on his last moments with his coworkers as on his last moments with Diane. The intertitles are full of characters saluting each other as “citizen” and “comrade.” 7th Heaven is not the right ticket to buy if you’re looking for a political film, but nor does it seem drained of all politics. In fact, one reason why its sentimental romance holds up so well may be because it epitomizes love not in the abstract but as the ultimate form of a basic human connection that is also manifested in other ways: between co-workers, soldiers, laborers in general, strangers on a sidewalk. Most of these connections are best forged in the city, and in that way, 7th Heaven feels subtly and surprisingly modern as well: Paris is not just a background to Diane and Chico’s romance but the very medium by which that love comes into being. And not because Paris appears here as a sentimentalist’s City of Light—in fact, the film opts for a rooftop-bohemian aesthetic of attic apartments and overhead shots, many of which I was astonished to recognize as direct sources for images in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
Love, labor, the city, and the cinema are metaphorically fused in this film as ways in which people come to know each other, to see each other. It’s too facile a thesis for sociologists, but it’s almost an ambitious one for an early talkie. So, if 7th Heaven has curio value now as a Janet Gaynor vehicle, it’s crucial to our appreciation of this touching urban fable that no individual actor or character takes full precedence over others in Borzage’s stirring, democratic vision… 7th Heaven isn’t quite as celestial as the title would have it, but it’s not far off: an entrancing fable from an era in cinema history that already felt a little out of time when it debuted. And though 7th Heaven is about more than nostalgia, it’s still a lovely era to revisit.
- Nick Davis, Nick’s Flick Picks
Background on the production
There is a great deal of background leading up to the shooting of 7th Heaven, the film to which Frank Borzage owes his worldwide reputation. It is based on a sentimental play by Robert Louis Stevenson’s great nephew, Austin Strong (1881-19520, whose literary activity today has been largely forgotten. Produced by John Golden, it opened in New York October 30, 1922, at the Booth Theater, with Helen Menken (Humphrey Bogart’s first wife) and George Gaul in the roles of Diane and Chico. This somewhat puerile drama, which combines a sentimental look at the sordid side of life with religiosity, was a phenomenal success on Broadway, running for three seasons, with 704 performances selling out! The powers that be in Hollywood were on the lookout and took great pains to get their hands on this choice piece, set in the sordid alleyways of Montmartre, near Sacré Coeur. In March 1924, William Fox offered $200,000 to buy the play, a small fortune that John Golden refused. However, the following year he finally accepted an attractive offer from Fox. “‘Seventh Heaven’ to be filmed!” the press heralded in September 1925, and from that point on, show business gossip collumnists were obsessed by the casting dilemmas. Borzage was not yet in the running: producer-director Emmett J. Flynn intended to keep the project for himself, and Frances marion developed a first script for him (December) [Further drafts were later done by Benjamin Glazer]. No word of the subsequent intrigues has been recorded, but Borzage’s involvement appears to have been quasi-accidental. 7th Heaven was the pet project of [Studio Head Winfield] Sheehan, a devout Catholic. Probably concerned about Flynn’s chronic alcoholism, he asked Borzage one day in late April of 1926 why he had never shown more interest in the project. “Because I understood it has been assigned to someone else” Borzage replied candidly. “But it isn’t,” exclaimed the head of the studio, “do you want it?” Borzage jumped at the chance.1
Mary Pickford, Bessie Love, Delores Costello, Blanche Sweet and Joan Crawford were tested for the coveted role of Diane; even Helen Menken, who created the role on stage, did a screen test (March 1926). The most likey candidate was Madge Bellamy, supported on high by William Fox and Sheehan (she was his mistress); while she was in France, publicity shots of the actress were taken on the battle fields of Château-Thierry and Belleau. But, as we have seen, the heroine of Lazybones was rejected by Borzage, remaining inflexible in spite of pressure put on him by management. The filmmaker’s mind was made up. Janet Gaynor, twenty, the delicious Cinderella of American film (Disney took her as the model for Snow White!) had begun with Fox in January, as a bit player. She was the prototype of the ingénue, a tender, touching combination of girl and woman. Borzage paid a surprise visit to the set of her fifth film, the supernatural melodrama The Return of Peter Grimm, directed by Victor Schertzinger. He sat quietly in a corner, then left an hour later without having said a word. The same day, he announced to Sheehan that Janet Gaynor would be Diane; calling her in for testing would be superfluous. As for the role of Chico, it had been reserved in 1924 for John Gilbert, before he got angry with Fox and went back to MGM. When Borzage took over, he first thought of Bernard Nedell, who had played the Paris sewer worker in Albany, New York, but the actor backed out, not wanting to work in Hollywood. Jeol McCrea was tested (nothing came of it), and George O’Brien was being seriously considered when Murnau chose him for Sunrise. Finally, Charles Farrell was selected. This handsome, 6’2″, twenty-one year old was good-natured and possessed an almost naive candor. Farrell had gone to Borzage to intercede on behalf of a collegue, his friend Richard Arlen. Borzage heard Farrell’s generous plea, placed him next to Gaynor, who only went up to his shoulder (she was 5′), and hired him on the spot. This is how one of filmdom’s most popular romantic couples came to be. Adulated by millions of fans, Janet Gaynor and Charles farrell would, over the course of several years, make a fortune for Fox (12 films together, from 1927 to 1934). For the moment, however, two unknowns had been cast in 7th Heaven.
- from Dumont, Hervé. Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Jefferson, North Carolina & London: McFarland, 2005, pp. 111-112.
Quotes posted on the They Shoot Pictures Borzage page:
“By the mid-1920s, Borzage was one of the most successful Hollywood directors – as witness the fact that he won the newly created Oscar for direction twice in its first five years – for Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. War, and the consequent taste for realism, destroyed the world he had created and after The Mortal Storm, only one other film – Moonrise – properly revealed his talent. As a result, he is now badly neglected.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist…Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real worlds of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Crucial to his films’ incandescent romanticism were his fluid use of the camera, floating through unoccupied spaces to suggest mysterious invisible forces existing beyond the material realm, and a focus on luminous faces; his attention to actresses, especially Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, made unusually palpable the strength of their undying love.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“Borzage’s top films are laden with romance and expressive camera work and lighting.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Love does not conquer all in the films of Frank Borzage, but it is the sole value capable of transcending the indignities of an ugly world. Amid the ravages and enforced separations of war and the hardships of poverty, Borzage’s lovers find safety and redemption in each other’s arms, a rapturous solace that even death can’t kill. Framed in loving close-ups, swathed by soft, flat lighting, they glow with a sensuous, mysterious purity that’s not quite of this earth. His melodramas posit love as a secular religion, and many of his films imply a spiritual continuity between this world and the next, allowing the dead to speak in voiceover (in the closing scene of The Mortal Storm, 1940) or appear in double exposure (in Three Comrades, 1938); Borzage’s universe also permits returns from the dead (7th Heaven, 1927), angelic visitations (Street Angel, 1928), and godlike transformations (Strange Cargo, 1940).
- Jessica Winter, The Village Voice
Frank Borzage was a poet who exalted the power of love over the power of the person. His finesse of observation and his psychological gifts are revealed in a body of work not merely brilliant, but imbued with a warmth, a humanity, that often carried his work over the line between delicacy and preciousness, between compassion and sentimentality, but which never failed to stir the passions of his audience. Borzage’s simplistic vision of love and life is especially evident in his characters, who are often cursed by an evil destiny — the consequence of living in an egotistical and brutal world — and who can fulfill themselves only at the cost of great suffering and sacrifice. His protagonists are suprisingly similar from film to film — from the poor couple of Seventh Heaven, to the impetuous and violently erotic couple of The River (1929), to the touching victims of the Depression in A Man’s Castle (1933). Borzage’s sweetness and delicacy should not be considered a weakness; and if the Borzage oeuvre seems to wallow in tenderness, it must be remembered that his delicacy possesses a vigor, and his lyricism a potential for action. Thus The Spanish Main (1945), a truculent pirate film, rich in color and overflowing with vitality; thus his greatest dramas – Little Man What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), The Shining Hour (1938) – and the delirious scenes of love in Desire (1936).The prodigality of Borzage, his excessiveness, is occasionally of such density that, despite his minor errors, his work presents itself as one of the most prodigious and original in the history of cinema.
- Druker, Donald. ‘Frank Borzage’, in Focus!, vol. 9, Spring-Summer 1973, p15.
While much of the writing on Frank Borzage will invariably argue that he is a neglected filmmaker, his cinema has not significantly lacked important critical commentary. (There is probably more major work on Borzage than there is on a comparable figure like King Vidor.)… And yet Borzage’s cinema does remain perpetually unfashionable. What is the problem? Commentators on Borzage have argued that the director’s sensibility is out of step with an emotionally distanced, post-modern culture, one more devoted to the supposed ironies of a Douglas Sirk or the wit and playfulness (amidst violence and melodrama) of an Alfred Hitchcock. By contrast Borzage seems old fashioned, devoted to pious and sentimental love stories…
The issues at stake in Borzage’s cinema, far from being old fashioned, could hardly be more urgent. In particular, they repeatedly address the implications of extreme sexual and romantic desires in relation to cultural or political environments that cannot fully account for these desires. In their fusion of the erotic and transcendent, and in their very instability, these desires repeatedly threaten to destabilize the social order. That Borzage’s films are also beautiful pieces of cinema, acts of seduction performed on the viewer, only intensifies the audacity of what Borzage has achieved. Borzage the Old-Fashioned Romantic? How about, for argument’s sake, Borzage the Romantic Modernist?
- Joe McElhaney, Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography
Frank Borzage’s best films create a world where romantic love transforms space into a private wonderland, a seemingly frail but indestructible, very feminine bulwark against the threat of organized male brutality, which runs from the difficulty of earning a living to battling the threat of fascism. His people are social outcasts who find a society of their own, couples and comrades who recognize and celebrate the personal idiosyncrasies that make them pariahs to the menacing crowd outside their windows. Borzage’s lovers are pure and innocent, with no cares about bourgeois morality. Before the Production Code set in, his sweethearts didn’t need pieces of paper from the city hall to keep them tied and true—they found all the sustenance they needed in each other’s eyes, in their hands on each other, in the anticipatory promise of their bodies pressed together. You feel that every time they make love is the first time, and the last…
The Borzage woman is an idealization of what he wanted his first wife to be. Rena let him down, so he made alternate Rena’s in Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, big-eyed waifs with limitless reserves of toughness. Borzage never got over the charge of this contrast, and he never got over Rena. He is as abstract a fantasist of romance as Jacques Demy, who he surpasses through the sheer duration of his obsession. Borzage knows some of the special agonies of love, but he doesn’t fully admit them, which makes him a lesser artist than, say, Max Ophuls or Von Sternberg. But if its full-out soft-focus erotic paradise you want, Borzage is your man. Go ahead, indulge.
Dan Callahan, from his introduction to the Slant Magazine special feature on Borzage
There was a lasting tenderness about Borzage’s treatment of a love story, and during the days of the Depression and the rise of Fascism, his pictures were ennobling melodramas about the power of love to create a heaven on earth. Penelope Gilliatt has remarked that Borzage “had a tenderness rare in melodrama and absolute pitch about period. He understood adversity.” Outside of Griffith, there has never been another director in the business who could so effectively triumph over sentimentality, using true sentiment with an honest touch.
—DeWitt Bodeen, Film Reference.com
From the “lyrical abstraction” (to borrow Gilles Deleuze’s precise description) of the lovers’ hideaways in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel to a city/country four-hander like The Shining Hour, from an intimist Depression romance like Man’s Castle to a faintly ponderous lesson in leather-bound devotion like Green Light (Borzage holds the dubious distinction of having adapted three Lloyd C. Douglas novels), Borzage’s eminently centrifugal films all feature domelike constructions: the lovers and believers occupy the enormous and exquisitely detailed center while everything around them is hazy and indistinct (war, the Depression, strikes, local color, parties, other people). The signature image for his entire cinema might be the mindbending tracking shot, in A Farewell to Arms (32), from the wounded Frederic’s (Gary Cooper’s) point of view as he’s laid out on a stretcher. The camera nestles almost erotically into the gracefully curving dome of the hospital ceiling before traveling into Frederic’s room, where the subjective POV is released only after Catherine (Helen Hayes) enters the frame and kisses Frederic, her face filling the screen in a glorious blur. One could also profitably compare Borzage’s work to a medieval or early Renaissance illumination, as Michael Henry did in a groundbreaking Positif article called “Le Fra Angelico du mélodrame.” But while illumination is certainly a worthy metaphor for Borzage’s overpowering belief in love, the architectural metaphor gets closer to the living, physical immediacy of his films and their creation of paradisaical environments. But on a purely visual level, Borzage’s work is a lush continuation of Renaissance painting…
In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage’s distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become “outmoded” and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art…
“I like to penetrate the Hearts and souls of my actors and let them live their characters,” Borzage once said. The director who once told a neurotic Margaret Sullavan — who would in many ways become the ultimate Borzage actress — “I’ll direct you when you stop being natural, not before,” would put his hands over his ears when watching his actors complete a take during the silent era, and turn his back on the scene so he could listen more carefully to their voices after the dawn of sound. The “most fleeting harmony of atmosphere” that Murnau sought via the movement of his camera through space Borzage sought through his actors. And it was in Seventh Heaven that this extreme sensitivity, which had formerly been an approach to drama, became a rousing, full-blown aesthetic of its own.
- Kent Jones, Film Comment, September/October 1997
About Janet Gaynor
In Movies in the Age of Innocence, Edward Wagenknecht writes, “It would be hard to say whether Janet Gaynor is better remembered for her silent or her sound films, but her spirit was that of the silent years, and nobody could possibly have ended them more pleasantly.” Gaynor did star for slightly longer in talkies than she did in silent features, but her characterizations were quite definitely formed during the earlier period; she was sweet and sentimental as only a silent ingenue could be, and was a perfect type for Depression-era audiences. She embodied cuteness, but it was never cloying or offensive. Perhaps appropriately, her last screen appearance (after many years of retirement) was in Bernardine, which starred the 1950s idea of cuteness in the form of Pat Boone.
Gaynor’s persona suggested the child-woman image which Mary Pickford had created, and, indeed, Janet Gaynor remade two of Pickford’s silent features as talkies: Daddy Long Legs and Tess of the Storm Country. Yet Gaynor’s characters were a little more sophisticated than Pickford’s, a little more worldly-wise. As the director Victor Schertzinger once commented, “She has the maturity of the ages, and yet is singularly youthful.”
In Seventh Heaven she reaches the height of happiness in the symbolic wedding sequence with Charles Farrell, and the peak of angry emotion as she takes a whip to Gladys Brockwell, running her out of the home she and Farrell have created for themselves. Both Seventh Heaven and Street Angel illustrate the range of Gaynor’s acting ability; in both she grows from a weak, frightened, disillusioned girl into a woman who knows love and experiences an inner strength.
—Anthony Slide, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg, Film Reference.com
Gaynor’s son, Robin Adrian, thanked the festival for inviting him. “As I’m sure you know,” he said, “I was not born until after the end of her silent movie career and really her talkie career so all I can say are a few words about what she was like as a mother and it’s kind of hard for me to believe that it’s been a hundred years since her birth.”She didn’t really consider herself a celebrity even though she and my father—the designer Adrian—were considered celebrities. Both of them were extremely down-to-earth people and, as an example, I didn’t even grow up in Beverly Hills. I grew up way out in the San Fernando Valley which is now all housing tracts. But at the time it was really the country. We had nothing north of us. It was all hills and three ranches went in about 1947 and we thought it was getting crowded. The town of Northridge, just as an example, was a block and a half long and all of its stores were on one side of the street. Certainly not a celebrity type of atmosphere.
“My mother finished her career when she married my father. She’d always been very hungry for knowledge and she felt like she had done her acting career, when it was over it was over and she went on to other things. My father being an artist, he exposed her to the art world. She got interested in painting, started that as a second career, and she said that one of her proudest moments was when she was featured in an article in American Artists magazine. She said at last she was considered a true artist, not a celebrity who painted, so she was very proud of that.
“When you see her in these movies you think of her as this poor little waif or this helpless little creature. She was not that way at all. She was actually quite a brave person. She and my father went to Africa in the late ’40s. She drank blood and cow’s milk with the Masai. They got out of there just before the Mau Mau uprisings where there were a lot of murders that took place. She had quite a few adventures. Then they moved down to Brazil in the middle-’50s, bought a coffee farm down there and the only way they could get there was either by flying in or by dirt road. So she certainly wasn’t a pampered creature.
“My father had a rather early and untimely death and she ended up a few years later marrying a Broadway producer, Paul Gregory. They had a fantastic life together. They lived in an old refurbished farm house out there in Palm Springs. They had a great life together.
“As many of you know she was involved in a horrendous car accident right here in San Francisco. She never really fully recovered from that but, I’ll tell you, she was a good sport and very upbeat until the end. The rest of it has to speak for itself. I can just tell you the Janet Gaynor who I knew as a mother and I was proud to have her as a mother.”
- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class