The movie 7th Heaven begins with a prologue: “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of courage.” Presumably, this was intended to be inspirational, but there is a hint of blaming the victim in that message. In other words, if someone is in the depths, the sewer, as it were, then it’s because he is a coward. Nor is this cowardice on his part something he cannot help, but rather, he could choose to be brave and rise to the heights, if he wanted to.
Anyway, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewer in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. He aspires to rise, literally and figuratively, to the position of street cleaner, but with seemingly little hope of doing so.
Diane (Janet Gaynor) is mistreated by her older sister Nana. Well, I suppose “mistreated” is a bit of an understatement. When we first see them together, Nana is lashing Diane with a bullwhip, apparently because Diane is not happy about the way they steal stuff to support themselves. That is what you might call melodramatic. Then Nana sends Diane out to fence the watch they just stole and then to get some absinthe.
While Diane is gone, a priest shows up at their apartment. Nana tells him she is not interested in hearing him spout religion, but he has a different mission. It seems that Nana and Diane have an uncle and aunt who have returned from the South Seas. They are rich and they want to take their two nieces into their home. The next day the aunt and uncle show up with a Colonel Brissac. The aunt takes Diane in her arms, but the stern uncle first wants to know if they have been good girls. Diane admits they have not been good girls. Well, that’s too bad. Now the uncle wants nothing to do with them. Did I mention that this movie was melodramatic?
After the uncle, aunt, and Colonel Brissac leave, Nana becomes furious with Diane. I must admit, she does have point. I mean, it was one thing if Diane felt bad about stealing. But when all she had to do was tell a little lie, saying that she and Nana had been good girls, and they then would have escaped the squalid conditions in which they lived, I had to wonder if maybe Diane didn’t deserve a whipping.
Apparently, Nana certainly thought so, because the next thing you know, she is chasing Diane through the street, whipping her. When Diane falls down, Nana starts choking her. She is saved by Chico, who threatens to kill Nana, if ever she whips Diane again. Nana leaves. Chico walks away from Diane, who is still lying in the gutter. A friend of Chico’s praises him for saving her life, but he says that a creature like that would be better off dead. Harsh, but if Diane were to have to live that way for the rest of her life, she would be better off dead.
However, he starts to feel sorry for her. He picks her up and brings her over to where his companions are. Then he offers to share some of the bread they have, but she shakes her head no. He tells her that her problem is that she is afraid to fight, which recalls the message of the prologue. He, on the other hand, says he is not afraid of anything, regarding himself as a remarkable fellow. He then turns to one of his friends, asking him if he believes in “Bon Dieu” (the good God). When his friend indicates he does, Chico asks if this Bon Dieu made the woman he just saved, born to be beaten and strangled in the gutter.
He is, of course, advancing the argument from evil: If there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is the world full of so much evil, so much sin and suffering? But just as we are thinking that his atheism has some depth to it, he reveals a rather naive attitude on the subject. He tells his friend that he gave God a chance twice. First, he went to the finest church in Paris, paid five francs for candles, and then prayed to be taken out of the sewer and made a street cleaner. But God didn’t do it. Second, he spent another five francs, asking God for a good wife with yellow hair, “The only thing Bon Dieu threw my way,” he says, “is that!” indicating Diane (who is a brunette). “That’s why I’m an atheist,” he says. “God owes me ten francs.” In this way, the movie is saying that the objections that atheists have about religion are childish.
The priest that brought the supposedly good news to Nana about a rich uncle and aunt overhears Chico’s lament. It just so happens, the priest tells Chico, that he has been made a street cleaner. So, it looks as though God paid off on the first deal.
Meanwhile, Diane finds the knife Chico was using to cut bread and tries to use it to kill herself. Chico stops her and asks why she tried to do that. She gives an answer similar to the remark he made earlier, that her life is not worth living. But now he talks her out of it. In other words, his tough talk is just talk.
Then it turns out that Nana has been arrested. Out of spite, she points the finger at Diane, saying her sister is no better than she is. The policeman starts to arrest her. But Chico stops him, saying she is his wife. The policeman says he will let her go, but he takes down Chico’s address so that a detective can check on him later to see if they really are married.
At this point, we figure that stealing must not be all that Nana was doing. Presumably, the policeman caught Nana engaged in prostitution, for the only reason Diane’s being married would stop the policeman from arresting her would be if he suspected her of the same thing.
In any event, Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him until the police are satisfied. Of course, he is a perfect gentleman and sleeps on the floor, letting Diane sleep alone in his bed unmolested. Eventually, the two fall in love and decide to marry. She says there must be a God, because he brought Chico to her. He tells her not to worry her pretty little head about that. He will be the one who has all the big thoughts. Later, however, he says he will give God another chance, depending on whether their marriage remains true.
But then war breaks out, and Chico is compelled to enlist. Nana shows up and starts trying to whip Diane again, but now Diane has the courage to fight, thanks to Chico’s encouragement, and she gets the bullwhip and starts going after Nana, who runs away for good.
After several years, Diane gets word that Chico is dead. Colonel Brissac, who has been trying to get Diane to have sex with him, says he will take care of her. The priest tells her she must not question the will of God, but she does question it. Essentially, faith in God in this movie correlates with one’s fortunes: when good things happen, there must be a God; when bad things happen, there is no God.
Brissac takes her in his arms to comfort her. Suddenly, Chico shows up. He is not dead. At first, we fear that he will be angry seeing Diane in Brissac’s arms, but it turns out he is blind. Diane goes to him. He says that all the big thoughts he had were really the Bon Dieu, saying, “He was within me. Now that I am blind, I see that.” Well, I’m not blind, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand that at all. Anyway, she says she will be his eyes. But Chico says he believes his blindness is only temporary, because he is a remarkable fellow. Inasmuch as a heavenly beam of light then shines upon them, we can suppose that Chico is right.
The overall thrust of this movie is that we should have faith in God, because things will all work out in the end. It is an optimistic theology, to say the least.