Sometimes sweet romantic remake...but far too silly. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Seventh Heaven, the 1937 romance starring Simone Simon, James Stewart, Jean Hersholt, Gregory Ratoff, Gale Sondergaard, J. Edward Bromberg, John Qualen, Victor Kilian, Thomas Beck, Sig Rumann, and Mady Christians. A critically and financially unsuccessful remake of the wildly successful 1927 Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell silent original, this version of Austin Strong's play is compromised by a miscast Stewart, an under-directed Simon, and the simultaneously too-specific and completely unnecessary context of the Paris slums before WWI. Still...Stewart and Simon are attractive together. No extras for this not bad-looking fullscreen black and white transfer.
"The Sock," the infamous, sinister Paris square "between Heaven and Hell," on the lower left slope of Montmartre Hill, 1914. Underground sewer cleaner Chico (James Stewart) is a cheerful atheist who knows his place in society. He doesn't begrudge the fact that his neighbor Gobin (Victor Kilian), a street cleaner, looks down on a lowly "sewer rat" like himself--that's the order of things. And Chico isn't going to hold his breath that "God" will deliver him from his station in life; Chico prayed for a hose so he could become a street cleaner. He didn't get it...nor did he get the "fine, brave, beautiful" wife he feels he deserves, being as "special" a man as he is. So when Chico, quite on the spur of the moment, stops bar owner/madam Nana (Gale Sondergaard) from beating her sister, Diane (Simone Simon), for not, um...entertaining a disgusting old perv (Sig Rumann, who else?), Chico has no idea what events he has set into motion. First, Padre Chevillon (Jean Hersholt) rewards this atheist with a note that gets him entre for a street cleaning job. Just like that. Then, when he saves beautiful, sad Diane from first killing herself and then from arrest by claiming she's his wife, he finds he has a new roommate (because the flic said he was going to drop by his apartment to check Chico's story). Chico isn't interested in romance, but Diane is transformed by Chico's kindness and loft apartment, and before you know it...they're in love. However, a little something called The First World War interrupts their own special heaven: will the power of love keep them together, even in the face of death?
The only time I saw director Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven was way, way back during my "film school" days (cripes) in my Silent Film class (great class, unimaginative prof...), so my memories of it are necessarily dim, and certainly not strong enough to compare to my viewing of this remake. The original's name frequently pops up in Janet Gaynor's bios, being one of a trio of movies she made in 1927 and 1928 that earned her the first Best Actress Oscar (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Street Angel being the other two). 1937's Seventh Heaven remake, however, was a blank to me before it showed up in my disc pile. Unlike Gaynor, there were no awards forthcoming for top-billed Simone Simon after the remake premiered, nor is it a title that's presumably sought out today by James Stewart fans, since it comes from that pre A-list stardom stage of his career, populated by lesser titles like The Last Gangster and Navy Blue and Gold, before he broke through the following year with 1938's The Shopworn Angel and You Can't Take It With You (he wasn't first choice for Seventh Heaven, anyway--Ty Power was originally slated for it). And while the original 7th Heaven is cited in several lists of all-time biggest grossing silent movies, Seventh Heaven didn't chart anywhere near the top--or even the middle--of 1937's big grossers.
Scripted by Melville Baker (The Last Days of Pompeii, Joe and Ethel Turp Call on the President), Seventh Heaven is a rather hollow exercise in its first and final acts, with a thoroughly familiar but still passably satisfying romantic interlude at its center. There's no two ways around it: stalwart Fox studio director Henry King (The Song of Bernadette and Twelve O'Clock High, among so many other notable commercial successes) simply cannot get past Seventh Heaven's goofy set-up--a grand, noble, atheist sewer rat bringing emotional redemption to a would-be whore...who then turns around and offers him spiritual redemption--made all the more ludicrous by the downright silly casting of James Stewart. Amid the sorta fun, twisted and tortured German Expressionistic set of "the Sock" street, all claustrophobic and outrageously fake, Jimmy Stewart keeps popping up out of manhole covers like a gangly "Whack-a-Mole," spouting howlers like, "You must always look up!" to his new-found project, Simon (perhaps not the best advice for someone who gets sh*t shoveled on him daily). And that's as deep as it gets in Seventh Heaven. We never understand, exactly, the perspective of his "social order" beef (the script is busy with minor events that exist without any appreciable context), while Jimmy calling friends "comrades" seems to smack, maybe, of Red Commie talk (or then again, maybe it doesn't...), of which the script never ever explains, either. Nobody makes a goddamn bit of sense in Seventh Heaven (I defy anyone to tell me--just from the information in the movie--who or what the hell creepy, clinging Jean Hersholt is supposed to be here). Even worse, we simply can't buy shy, polite, unassuming, dyed-in-the-DNA Midwestern American James Stewart as a proud, boastful, vain, atheistic Parisian sewer worker (hee hee!!). When he spouts declarations like, "I'm a very special man! " and "I have risen!", we cringe at Stewart's own obvious embarrassment. And since the movie's time and place are so central to the plot (an opening title card, nailing the story and time frame to a very specific, notorious section of Paris in 1914, leaves no room for "universality" when the movie is perversely so "of" its Parisian setting...and yet so vague about its details), we can't just dismiss Stewart's attempts at Gaelic bravado and existential struggle as miscalculated, and move on to enjoy his thoroughly American interpretation. Either he embodies Chico, or he doesn't (equally ill-suited Black Irish Ty Power might have at least skated by with handsome male braggadocio).
As for Simon, she succeeds here simply because absolutely nothing in terms of real acting, is asked of her: she need only be beautiful and sweet and one-dimensionally sad and alluring to bring off her cardboard character. There are one or two moments where her suddenly effervescent personality breaks through (when Simon is speaking to the wounded soldier, you can't take your eyes off her) Mostly, however, director King has Simon either react, very simply and meekly and uninterestingly, to Stewart's various shouts and imprecations, or he orders up some breathtaking but humorously outdated glamour shots of her that look like outtakes not from a Garbo silent, but from a George Hurrell still session (by this point, Simon was already on the outs with Fox and Darryl Zanuck, with a rep in Hollywood for being "difficult" on set...maybe King just left well enough--and her--alone). Stewart and Simon do have undeniable chemistry together (they're both so likeable, how could they not?), but it's a thin mortar for the routine "getting to know each other" romance section that centers Seventh Heaven. And once the sappy WWI final act clumsily lurches into place, the movie goes disastrously wrong again, with the two charismatic actors separated not by the trenches but their own sentimental twaddle. Now, I've never had a problem with "sentimental twaddle," if it's sincerely executed. However, Seventh Heaven's increasingly clumsy bathos is impossible to take, to the point where we're flat-out giggling at the fade-out, when a SPOILER ALERT! blind Stewart stumbles and gropes for Simon, reassuring her that his crippling mustard gas affliction has ironically made this one-time atheistic sinner see the light--"The idea inside me was God! I'll never die!" (imagine how holy he would have been getting blown sky high). It's a puerile "big reach" wrap-up to a sweet little romance that certainly didn't need or benefit from one.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.