Frank Borzage’s credo at its most splendiferous, "human souls made great by love and adversity" plus the keenest technique this side of Murnau. The gorgeous artifice of the Fox sets is readily put to use, the preamble surveys a Neapolitan courtyard in a 360° pan (with continuous dollying and craning) before dissolving to Janet Gaynor crouched in a brief Gallait shot. Her half-hearted conversion into streetwalker, complete with frayed shawl and slanted hat, literally runs into a wall, her escape from the workhouse and refuge with a traveling circus troupe leave her with no taste for romance. "Lovers make me sick!" The vagabond painter (Charles Farrell), however, compares passion to a glorious malady and quickly finds a reluctant model for his church fresco. Italianate pantomime and Germanic chiaroscuro for the 7th Heaven couple, a tale of sunlight and mist and countless ascending and descending stairways. Bliss is within reach for the characters, but shadows are never far off: On stilts for a big-top number, Gaynor luxuriates in her suitor’s adoration until a pair of police officers suddenly intrudes upon the idyllic composition. (Later on, a bittersweet meal is savored while outside their window a sympathetic but implacable figure of Fate impatiently taps his wristwatch.) A damsel "with the face of an angel and soul black as hell" is the abandoned artist’s ideal, a single match flare amid thick fog reintroduces his estranged beloved under a bitter light. Separation, devastation, exaltation. Floating through is the heroine’s painted portrait, a spiritual barometer sold for peanuts, passed off as an Old Master’s lost canvas, and finally put on an altar as the beacon of illumination it is. "Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole, n’aria serena doppo na tempesta!" The strangled muse is something left to Renoir and Lang, despair in Borzage’s view is warded off by art and the recognition that the Madonna and Mary Magdalene are equal halves of the same shimmering woman. Cinematography by Ernest Palmer. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce