The five films that Frank Borzage directed after 1925's Lazybones are either lost or otherwise unavailable, meaning that the modern viewer loses a bit of context for the jump from that film to 7th Heaven in 1927; and what a hell of a jump it was. Lazybones, which you may recall as the established director's first movie at William Fox's studio, was a perfectly solid and memorable character drama, where 7th Heaven, now that's the kind of movie that births a lifelong love affair with silent cinema. It may not be the formally innovative powerhouse that its close cousin was (guess which cousin I mean - you have about ten lines), but even if it's not a groundbreaking movie, I'd be extraordinarily hard-pressed to come up with any way in which it's not flawless.

But before that, a moment to praise the name and memory of William Fox. Nowadays we're used to producers standing behind artsy, commercially dubious projects in the hopes of securing an Oscar nomination, or some critics' awards, but all the way back in 1926, before there ever was an Oscar season, Fox decided that he wanted his studio to be the home for the finest cinema in the world. Which is why he looked to Europe and the man who in the mid-'20s probably counted as the single most innovative motion picture director alive: F.W. Murnau, the Expressionist genius from Weimar Germany whose works by that time included the game-changing horror picture Nosferatu, and the practically perfect character drama The Last Laugh. To entice Murnau over to the U.S., Fox offered an irresistible deal: take your time to finish up whatever projects you've got going, and when you arrive in Hollywood, do whatever you want to do on an American budget. So after completing Tartuffe and Sunrise, one of the cinema's greatest all-time masterpieces.

At the same exact time that Murnau was directing Sunrise on the Fox lot, Borzage was working on 7th Heaven, in one of the most concentrated zones of awesomeness ever created in Southern California. It is known that Fox encouraged his best and brightest, namely Borzage and John Ford, to look to the work of Murnau and his Expressionist colleagues while making their late-'20s films, and this fact, added to the films' proximity, not to mention presence of Janet Gaynor as the leading lady in both films, has given 7th Heaven a modern reputation as a kind of companion piece to Sunrise, which is neither fair nor accurate. The films aim to achieve different things; both achieve them. And though Fox could not possibly have meant for his films to be Oscarbait in the days before the Oscars, his ambition was rewarded in spades at the first Academy Awards: Sunrise became the recipient of the only award ever given for Best Unique and Artistic Production, 7th Heaven became one the first three Best Picture nominees while setting the first record for most nominations in a single night (five), and the two films propelled Janet Gaynor to Best Actress, along with a citation for a third film, Borzage's Street Angel from the following year. All that, and 7th Heaven was a decent-sized box office hit. Would that all such fearless artistic ambition had been thus rewarded!

7th Heaven is a story of Paris in the 1910s; like Lazybones, it is about a man of questionable worth who is transformed by the love of a good woman and the coming of World War I, although the similarities end there. To be honest, while I can recognise many debts both narrative and visual that 7th Heaven owes to other films, I have a hard time calling it especially similar to anything: its particularly assembly of many familiar and not-so-familiar notes is unique within my knowledge. Except for the plot, which is entirely derivative of countless melodramas: Chico (Charles Farrell) is a sewer worker whose greatest ambition is to rise (literally) to become a street cleaner; Diane (Gaynor) is a horribly impoverished young woman chased onto the streets by her vicious elder sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) after she refuses to lie about the sins they have committed in order to secure a place with their wealthy, morally strident relatives. In a moment of uncharacteristic pity, Chico offers to take Diane in for a little while, and as she settles into his garret on the top floor of a seven-story flat, the two naturally fall in love, believing that they've found a heaven on Earth. The outbreak of war interrupts their marriage plans, but as a sign of their love, the two pledge to pause at 11:00 AM every day to "speak" with each other.

The film's central metaphor is obvious, even without resorting to the title cards that spell it out: this is a story about reaching from the lowest levels that a human can reach (the sewer, or the gutter, where Diane is literally lying when Chico meets her) to the highest (the seventh-floor garrett, from which Diane and Chico watch the stars - and if you've noticed that relationship between their seventh-story heaven and the film's title, give yourself a cookie). In a nutshell, 7th Heaven is about mankind's desire to reach God, and there's more than a bit of Les misรฉrables in the inciting moment where the atheistic Chico is tasked by a gentle priest (Emile Chautard) to do good in the world; for even if Chico does not accept God (incidentally his "atheism" is more like a belief in a God who's too capricious and cruel to deserve worship), God accepts Chico. This is an elemental narrative, more familiar perhaps from literature than film, but even so its execution in 7th Heaven is as close to perfect as I have ever seen such a story done cinematically.

As Sunrise was being made literally just down the way, and as Gaynor was shuttling between the two sets, it's almost impossible to believe that Borzage didn't have any contact with Murnau's groundbreaking production; it is beyond doubt that he'd seen some of that director's German works. Clearly, there are some Murnauvian touches here and there, most noticeably in some bravura camera movements that could only have been inspired by the Expressionists (thrilling camera movements not being typical of any other national cinema by 1927, and Murnau being particularly noteworthy for his crazy-ambitious movements, such as the model photography in Faust). The two most well-known moments from 7th Heaven, in fact, both owe a clear debt to Murnau: first, a tracking shot backwards out of a building and down the street as Nana whips Diane to the ground; second, a stately crane shot upwards along the open side of a supremely well-crafted three-story model meant to look like the winding stairs of Chico's seven-story flat (the invisible editing used to complete this illusion is reminiscent, more than anything, of the great model work Orson Welles would use in Citizen Kane, fourteen years later). A film could do much worse than base an 82-year legacy on images like those.

It's also worth noting another point in comparison between 7th Heaven and Sunrise, though I'm not certain how much credit should be given in either case to the director: both films were showcases for Fox's brand new Movietone audio system, the sound-on-film meant to combat Warner's sound-on-disc Vitaphone system that would shortly take the world by storm when The Jazz Singer - released after either Fox picture - introduced synchronized dialogue. History has roundly validated Movietone, a far less cumbersome process than the soon-extinct Vitaphone, though 7th Heaven is unquestionably not so rich an experience as its stablemate, in terms of its audio. This might be partially explained by the fact that it was first released as a normal silent, and only four months later re-released as the first Movietone feature; Sunrise had its audio worked in "from the ground up", as it were, leading to much more compelling use of music and sound effects. 7th Heaven possesses a much thinner score, and far fewer effects; although to be fair, at its best moments (nearly all of them in the WWI sequences near the end), 7th Heaven certainly reaches the auditory heights of its more famous cousin.

Yet in the end, it's not these great technical achievements that stick in the mind; nor is it the massive, wonderfully detailed sets (with just a flavor of Expressionism). Though these elements are unquestionably part of what makes 7th Heaven transcend from great movie to one of the greatest movies, they're ultimately just the backdrop for the human drama of Diane and Chico, and their love's triumph. Two films into his long career, I'm prepared to start making generalisations about Borzage, at least compared to his Fox bretheren Murnau and Ford: those men have a much more precise command of the frame and the placement of figures within their setting, while Borzage seems almost deliberately less fussy about compositions, in order to focus more completely on the human drama of his films: in 7th Heaven as in Lazybones, actors' faces are the most important component of the film's visual language. These are not hard and fast divisions: Borzage uses striking compositions for their own sake throughout (the repeated shot looking down from the garret to the Parisian street below is an obvious example; it might be the most Expressionist image in the film), while Murnau and Ford both tell stories about people that boast a great depth of humanity. But I still feel comfortable praising Borzage above the others for the unrelenting human-scale of his dramas; he did not make his film any larger than the people within it, and once again the actors (including Gaynor in a yet more sensitive performance than she gave in Sunrise, which I'd have though impossible; she has a crying scene near the end that is one of the profoundest such scenes I've ever, ever witnessed) make good on the exceptional trust their director has given them. Simply put, 7th Heaven is as moving as any other silent film I have ever watched, and while its place in cinematic history may not be as secure as Sunrise's, lacking Murnau's revolutionary visual language, I have no problem stacking Borzage's film up to its better-known counterpart: though less overwhelming, it's every bit as emotionally powerful.