I think we could all agree on the fact that this is the film (out of the 3) most responsible for Janet Gaynor’s Oscar win. 7th Heaven had the popularity of the front-runner, it was a box-office hit and offered its leading actress most screentime to work with. Janet’s performance here is not far from the ones in Street Angel and Sunrise: a humble, honest wife or girlfriend confronted with injustice. In a way, that helps the triple nomination make more sense.
Janet is playing Diane, a young Paris girl living in poverty, abused by her violent drunken sister. When a cocky street cleaner saves her life, she’s taken under his wing and they start falling for eachother. Unfortunately, their happiness is disrupted by the start of World War I. The role sounds very meaty when presented, but truth is: the screenplay has too few to offer to its leading actress. Janet is well above the writing, but the limits are too unbreakable to give as a result a great performance.
I am even putting aside the ridiculous misogynistic tone of the film which drives me nuts (just like in Street Angel), but that’s not the screenplay’s biggest fault regarding Diane. The problem is the lack of complexity in the character and the rugged character arc with visible changes in the character that have no depth. When given this little, in a way I admit Janet does miracles.
Her power of expressing so much using a single look and those tearful eyes, all of this is quite impressing. She’s very delicate, so playing the shyness of the character is not the biggest challenge – and she does it with easiness, also winning some likeability. I felt sorry for Diane, but didn’t find myself attached to the character. Janet does her best to suggest a richness of emotions and feelings, but there’s only so much she can do.
Her best scenes are indeed the ones towards the ending. Her desperation feels very honest, and it shapes a performance that’s technically good, some might say flawless, but to me it lacks spark and versatility. She has no problem in playing a victim or natural innocence, she’s great in the tense moments of the film, but what more is there to it.
Janet is easily the best thing about 7th Heaven, but as in previous projects her storyline and character development on page never rise up to the occasion, to fully bring light on her great talent and give her the possibility to show real range. It’s a good performance, in my opinion tragically sabotaged by the screenplay’s lack of generosity towards its actors. A very strong from me, anyway. I’m sorry I can’t love it.
Final conclusions on the year will follow in a day or two.