7th Heaven (1927) and Seventh Heaven (1937)

The 1927 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.  In the slums of Paris—under a street known as The Hole in the Sock—”  This sequence of prepositional phrases breaks off here, and the movie proper begins.  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.  They agree that every day at eleven o’ clock, they will communicate with each other spiritually, saying, “Chico, Diane, Heaven.”  After he leaves, 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.  Presumably, we are supposed to regard this as being just as simplistic as Chico’s becoming an atheist when God didn’t deliver after he spent all that money on candles.  We are supposed to believe in God regardless of our fortunes, good or bad.

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.

In the 1937 remake, Seventh Heaven, things are really sweetened up.  First of all, the prologue of the original movie is replaced by this:  “On the lower left slope of Montmarte hill lies a sinister square called ‘The Sock.’  It’s wretched inhabitants, crowded like rats, live between Heaven and Hell, for their evil street is stopped suddenly by a church.”  And so, instead of saying that salvation depends on the courage the individual, the prologue in this remake lets us know that it depends on the church.

Chico is played by Jimmy Stewart.  It really is hard to take his atheism seriously.  Although Stewart came to play some edgy roles in the movies after World War II, at this stage of his career, he was still just an “Aw, shucks!” kind of guy.

Anyway, we are introduced to Chico’s co-worker (John Qualen), identified as “Sewer Rat” in this remake, as he takes refuge in the church when being pursued by the police for stealing a watch.  There was no such scene in the original.  Rather, in the original, we are introduced to Sewer Rat down in the sewer, looking up through the manhole so he can see up some woman’s dress.

The part about the rich uncle and aunt willing to take Nana (Gale Sondergaard) and Diane (Simone Simon) into their home, provided they have been good girls is eliminated in the remake.

As for Brissac, he is no longer a lecherous colonel, but rather a youthful sergeant.  While we suspect he is in in love with Diane, he is too much of a friend to think of taking advantage of her.

Finally, Diane is not in Brissac’s arms when Chico enters their apartment.  Rather, Diane enters the room and finds Chico alone.  They embrace.  Their faith in God is restored.

Somewhere in Time (1980)

In just about any time travel movie you have ever seen, science and technology are involved somehow.  Never mind exactly what that scientific explanation is for time travel or what the technological gadget is that makes it possible, because it’s all a bunch of hooey anyway.  We go along with it not because we believe for one second that such a thing is possible, but because we are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story.  So we know we are in for a different kind of time travel movie when the man that advises Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) about traveling through time is a philosophy professor.

According to the philosophy professor, if you want to go back in time, you have to think really hard about the period of time to which you wish to go, while making sure there is nothing in the room that will remind you of the present, such as a recently minted coin.  In particular, if Collier wants to go back to August, 1912, he must think August, 1912.  It reminded me of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man (1962) telling the students who just got their new musical instruments that they don’t need to learn how to read music or the technique of playing the instruments they now own.  They just need to “Think the Minuet.”

Collier wants to go back to 1912 because that is when a woman lived with whom he fell in love while looking at her picture.  Now, if you can’t find a woman to fall in love with in the time period in which you exist, you have problems that a time machine can’t solve.  But that aside, it all started when that woman, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), now very old, gave him a watch and said, “Come back to me,” and then walked away.  Why she didn’t stick around and tell him to read the professor’s book on time travel and to “think 1912,” we do not know.  And what is going on between them in general, we do not know.  Of course, there is some kind of meant-for-each-other destiny involved, maybe with a little reincarnation thrown in, but it’s hard to tell, because the movie never makes that clear.

I know what it is like to be in love, but if I managed to travel back in time just by thinking about it, I would not be able to contain myself.  I would have to sit in a chair and contemplate the implications of something I had heretofore thought impossible.  Love would just have to wait.  On the other hand, if I did catch up with the woman in question, I would have to blurt out, “I fell in love with your picture, so I came back from the future to be with you.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this penny.  Oops!”

Finally, because Collier fell asleep while he was thinking 1912, we are never sure whether he just dreamed it or not.  In fact, at the end of the movie, he seems to be in a catatonic trance.  So, maybe what we just watched was the hallucination of a loony.  In fact, that really is the only way to make any sense out of this movie.

Bird of Paradise (1932)

In the movie Bird of Paradise, a bunch of men on a yacht stop off at a Polynesian island, where Johnny (Joel McCrea) and Luana (Dolores del Rio) fall in love. The rest of the men leave, but Johnny stays behind. He absconds with Luana, and they find an island paradise to shack up on.

But she is destined to be a virgin sacrifice for the Volcano God, and when it starts to erupt, the natives find her and bring her back. Johnny tries to rescue her, but he ends up becoming part of the sacrifice. He tells Luana there is only one true God, to whom he says the Lord’s Prayer. The sailors return and rescue them, but Luana voluntarily stays to be fed to the volcano. So, the Christian God loses out to the Volcano God, who gets his sacrifice.

She is not a virgin anymore, but what the Volcano God doesn’t know won’t hurt him.