Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jimmy Stewart in Paris

The studios seemingly didn't quite know what to do with James Stewart at the beginning of his career, so he got cast in a few odd roles. One of them is in the 1937 remake of Seventh Heaven, which is airing tomorrow morning at 7:15 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Stewart plays Chico, a man who works in the sewers of Paris in the early 19-teens. He's got dreams of rising up from the sewers and becoming a street cleaner, which eventually becomes the case. This brings him into contact with Diane (Simone Simon). She's a prostitute who is being pimped by her sister Nina (Gale Sondergaard), and she doesn't like it. So she runs off but gets pursued by the police. Chico saves her and takes her to his garret apartment on the seventh floor (hence the title), where the two live as though they were husband and wife.

However, if you watch the opening scene, you know that this "seventh heaven" isn't going to be heaven for long: when you see "Paris 1914", you know that there's a little event called World War I which isn't far behind. Sure enough it comes, and Chico gets drafted to serve in the army, while Diane becomes a nurse who tends to the injured soldiers who get brought back to Paris. The bond between Chico and Diane is unbreakable, however, as each believes the other comes to them, at least spiritually, every day at 11:00. And then one day, Diane fails to see Chico at the appointed hour.... The Germans have been using mustard gas, and everybody who served with Chico on the lines swears up and down to Diane that they saw him be killed in action. Diane, however, refuses to believe it, and knows that Chico is going to return to her someday.

Seventh Heaven is a remake of a silent movie, specifically one that won Janet Gaynor the Best Actress Oscar all the way back at the very first Academy Awards ceremony. Thanks to the relative lack of dialogue in silent movies, they had to be broader, which in the case of dramas means melodramatic. That sort of melodrama shouldn't be needed in a talking version of the story, but it's still there in this one. Still, James Stewart is quite good as always; he already had the same dark side that would really show up after World War II in films like Rope. That darkness shows up as cynicism. Simon is OK, although you have to wonder how comfortable she was as not only as a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but one for whom English was a second language. She's lovely to look at, but not quite up to Stewart's acting level. The rest of the supporting cast is adequate, and full of names that you've seen in the credits of dozens of other movies: John Qualen, Jean Hersholt, Sig Ruman, Gregory Ratoff, and a bunch of others.

This version of Seventh Heaven seems never to have been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch the Fox Movie Channel showings.

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