Intertitle of the Week (+)

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“Strong words from a strange man,” as The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman would say. SEVENTH HEAVEN, Borzage’s best-known work from the silent era. Apart from a few very early westerns, this film, STREET ANGEL and the surviving fragment of THE RIVER are the only silent Borzage I’ve seen. A few equally fragmentary thoughts:

Borzage’s silent oeuvre, even on the basis of these few films, looks like a very significant body of work, as major as any American filmmaker’s in this era. The forthcoming Fox box set should shine a light on this neglected area. Following it up with some more of Borzage’s talkies would be a nice idea too. But we should be grateful for what we’re getting: it’s so unusual for an underrated talent like Borz to get this kind of tribute.

THE RIVER is an intensely sexy experience. Unusually, the vamp (Mary Duncan, the uber-vamp in SUNRISE) who seduces a youth is here a sympathetic character, assisting his passage to manhood. (The movie has a broadly allegorical sweep, with the titular waterway representing life.) Farrell’s swim is one erotic moment (how rare to see a naked man and a clothed woman!), but our favourite was the scene where Duncan suddenly gets very interested in comparing her height to Farrell’s, standing close beside him, her bottom touching his pelvis — no wait, let’s try it this way round…

F.B. is also a brilliant example of a filmmaker making the leap to talkies — speech adds a further layer of sophistication to his already delicate and nuanced approach. And since he always favoured subtlety and understatement in performance, and had a fantastic sensitivity to human emotion, he seems to have had little difficulty adapting to the different performance style of talking cinema. All the more impressive since Borzage does not appear to have had much, if any, stage experience (but arguably stage directors coming to the new talking pictures tended towards a more rhetorical style of playing perhaps less effective than the informality of those directors who had come from silent cinema).

Oops! Here’s a clip from LILIOM Borzage’s remake of Lang (!) — I’m absolutely ulcerating to see this film. It does reveal a good bit of that dreamlike clunk, crackle and pause of early sound cinema. Everybody seems to take a long time to respond to everyone else, giving the warm sussuration of audio hiss plenty of silence to fill. And dig those crazy sets! Boy!

(Maybe don’t watch the whole bit if you’re afraid of “spoilers”. But if you’ve seen the Lang, you’re safe.)

Here’s another example of a Borzage chime, where a moment in one movie recalls one in a previous:

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Ascending to SEVENTH HEAVEN, Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, followed by Borzage’s camera crane.

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Ascending through the circles of hell, on Hester Street, Joan Crawford in MANNEQUIN.

Both shots are elegant upward cranes, with a side-to-side shimmy following the spiralling of the stairs, though MANNEQUIN doesn’t rate quite as excessive a stylistic flourish as its predecessor. But instead we get a powerful sound mix of barking dogs, crying babies, elevated trains and other oppressive proletarian din — this is a place from which a person with feelings must escape.

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We were so impressed by this film, which despite being from MGM (the Vatican of poshlust), had a genuine Warner Bros grit. Despite the title, Joan C is a fashion model for about five minutes, long enough to cram a parade of “gowns by Adrian” into the proceedings, but mostly she’s struggling to escape the slums, vividly embodied by her family and her no-goodnik boyfriend. I liked Leo Gorcey’s casting here as the kid brother: the unacceptable face of poverty, he’s possibly the vilest character in any Borzage film, although the boyfriend is only superficially better (I also liked that the bf manages a fighter called Swing Magoo).

Best of all, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy are just amazing here, empathic and charming and sincere in ways we tend not to find them. Two actors we often don’t admire, giving wholly admirable performances: proof of Borzage’s superior talent, as far as we’re concerned. The fact that Borzage was apparently screwing Crawford maybe helped, I don’t know. Maybe Tracy is mirroring Borzage’s own feelings. At any rate, Tracy’s adoration of his co-star is palpable.

In 1933, Borzage had the honour of making Mary Pickford’s last film, SECRETS. He also had the honour of making Mary Pickford. I was fascinated to note that this movie begins with a similar conjunction of the “real” and the utterly artificial as F.B.’s FAREWELL TO ARMS. We pan across a miniature countryside, rendered in detail so tiny that the roving lens can’t get everything in focus. The foreground fence is a soft blur, the tiny matchstick church in the background is mostly sharp, and the mountain range in the far distance is another gauzy smear. Then the view disappears behind some dark foreground shape, and when we emerge from the other side, we’re in a life-sized location. A life-sized horse stares straight at us.

THE DAY I MET CARUSO is a “charming” television film made for Screen Director’s Playhouse, whose charm is mainly delivered by Borzage’s appearance right at the start. The little girl in it is lovely, and there’s plenty of authentic Caruso on the soundtrack. There’s discussion of religion, as a little Mormon meets a big Catholic, and the Mormon faith’s dislike of luxury is found to be without real merit. not a major work by any means, but like CHINA DOLL, it’s recognisably a work of it’s maker. I liked the line “There was a terrible thing called war, and a wonderful thing called opera,” in the VO, and Caruso’s dialogue: “Enough about war, let’s talk about me,” and “When I sing, my shirt, she becomes attached to my skin.” Not something he should really be sharing with a little girl, but oddness is always part of The Borzage Effect.

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Bye, Frank!

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21 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week (+)”

  1. Liliom was been completely subsumed by Rogers and Hammerstein. Carousel is their greatest score and brings out the story’s acute melancholy in the extreme way that only musicals can do.

    I was just thinking about it because in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Cate Blanchett’s character appears in the original Broadway production and dances to “If I Loved You” in a key scene. It’s the team’s most perfec song.

  2. How is ”Benjamin Button”?

    By the way, Borzage’s ”Liliom” is not a remake of Lang’s. It was made a good few years before Lang’s French-language film. So Lang was remaking Borzage. Borzage’s Liliom was his last film with Charles Farrell. Farrell stars opposite…Rose Hobart.

  3. Ah, Rose. No other actress has been charged with such… external significance.

    You’re quite right, I should have realised Lang’s film is mid-30s. The Lang film is superb, so I’m very curious about the Borz. Emeric Pressburger was clearly familiar with at least one version (or the source play).

    Very curious about Button, which is presumably at least technically impressive.

  4. And unwitting as well. Perhaps the single greatest act of unconditional love in film history.

    ”Liliom” is one of ten Borzages out on DVD as part of the much awaited Murnau/Borzage at Fox boxset. The others include the Janet Gaynor trilogy, all that’s left of ”The River”, ”Bad Girl”(which I wanted to see for a while) and a few others. It also includes his first sound film which stars the great Will Rogers in a role.

  5. Benjamin Button is wirht seeing, but don’t expect much more than an infinitely more inellectual Forrest Gump. The production deign and cinematography are staggering, and Brad is actually quite teriffic in it. (As with Keanu his beauty blinds one to his talent.) But in the last analysis it’s a trick film, rather than a film per se

  6. Well, “infinitely more intellectual” has to be good. Although Russ Meyer’s Supervixen is also infinitely more intellectual than Forrest Gump.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll get some joy out of the recreation of olde America.

    Pitt does seem to be getting better and better. I didn’t bother with the new Coens film but if I had it would’ve been for him.

    I can download that Will Rogers film, and will probably do so… that box set looks stunning. Somebody buy it for me!

  7. My toenails are infinitely more intellectual than ”Forrest Gump”, a film adaptation of the hideous Don McLean ballad ”American Pie”.

  8. I’m OK with American Pie (the song). I am not OK with Forrest Gump.

  9. It’s about the single worst film ever made about the 60s. It’s really a TV film, it’s made for people who watch only TV. Robin Wright Penn and Gary Sinise made it somewhat watchable in parts.

  10. Maybe you’ll enjoy Liliom more than I did. For me, it suffers a bit from early-talkie-dialogue syndrome, as does Song o’ My Heart that same year.

  11. Well, sometimes I like early-talkie-dialogue syndrome. Sometimes it seems like a new KIND of talking picture is being created. Sternberg’s Thunderbolt is as creaky as they come, but bizarre and brilliant. Liliom certainly looks pretty strange.

    Yeah, the two films one can bank of students disliking are Titanic and Forrest Gump. Of course, students won’t admit to liking sentimental stuff. Nevertheless, I think those two movies are nightmares from which the public has awakened.

  12. Been eyeballing Lang’s Liliom for a while. I’ve read that there have been two copies of this film commercially available, the Kino DVD and the Carousel box set, Lang’s Liliom is an added feature of the set. Between the two I’ve read the one included in the set is the better in terms of quality, sound and image, but of course the Kino’s the more affordable. Someone wrote that Boyer was quite a revelation in this film, compared him to a young Brando.

  13. An amendment to my previous comment: not only is Lang’s Liliom an added feature of the Fiftieth Anniversary edition of Carousel, and damn pretty (according to the reviewer of DVD Talk), but Amazon has it for $15.00 or less. Which may make it cheaper than Kino’s.

  14. The quality of the Kino is certainly a bit rough, so a better version sounds welcome. Boyer’s sensational in it — but he’s a seriously underrated actor.

  15. From Paul Mavis, DVD Talk, re. Carousel’s Fiftieth Anniversary release:

    “On disc two, there’s a real treat for even film fans who dislike musicals: a marvelously clear, almost scratch-free transfer of the original Fritz Lang-directed Liliom… Boyer is quite simply amazing as Liliom; he’s so much more active, more alive than the many times I’ve seen him glide silkily through various movie set corridors… It’s an incredible addition to this disc, which offers the Rodgers and Hammerstein fan a delicious look into the slightly more twisted world of Fritz Lang.”

    And if the transfer looks anything like the three frames that accompany this review, then it’s definitely worth acquiring.

  16. Thunderbolt is definitely bizarre — featuring a “Death Row” unlike any seen in the movies before or since.

    The message of Forrest Gump is that if you portested the Vietnam war you’ll get AIDS.

    Titanic I quite like. Of course it’s slosh, but the recreation of the ship and the spectacle of its sinking is surprisingly involving. And of course it has the trump card of Gloria Stuart.

  17. I just wrote a piece on Thunderbolt, it’ll go up this week.

    I could never figire out how Robin Wright gets AIDS but her kid doesn’t, even though he’s conceived some time after her sex and drugs days. Didn’t seem to make sense. But then, nothing in that film does, it’s just the usual jumble of liberal and far-right ideas Hollywood likes to purvey when “tackling” politics.

    It’s true, Titanic has its virtues. Nothing can excuse the dialogue or the first 90 minutes of tedium, but it’s exciting and emotional. It does have that appalling song though, and it’s phony at heart.

    Just watched Gloria S in James Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror. She’s not in it much, but hers’ is the best bit.

  18. Well she has to get AIDS because it’s what the plot says. That in the 80s people who were 60s radicals, now waitresses contracted AIDS. I can for the life of me never understand what the film is trying to say. That for an idiot(er…mentally challenged), the second half of 20th Century America went by in a blur…do we need a movie to tell us this? Do we even need to be told this? And even then Forrest never seemed convincingly mentally challenged. His stream-of-consciousness is too lucid. Maybe someone should have read the first section of Faulkner’s ”Sound and the Fury” on the set.

    To me ”Titanic” is a kind of big cinematic spectacle that was fairly routine in the old days but seems exceptional in the 90s. Nice that the most successful box-office film was one with a strong woman in the role and is a period drama about class struggle aboard a luxury ship rather than something about Elves or stars. Still it can’t compare with ”History is Made at Night” or even the film which directly inspired it, the Jean Negulesco-Charles Brackett ”Titanic” with Barbara Stanwyck.

    Gloria Stuart was excellent in the early 30s. James Whale described her journey through ”The Old Dark House” as being like a white flame. She’s also good in ”Airmail” and ”The Prisoner of Shark Island”, two films she made with Ford.

  19. Well, as Forrest says in the (considerably more abrasive) book, there are all kinds of idiots. So the lucidity is fine, I can believe that. He can’t be TOO brain-damaged as he’s accepted into the army (resists the urge to be satiric, everyone). But his “handicap” is clearly a filmic device rather than a medical condition.

    I think it’s impossible to be dumb and also wholly good. Saints tend to be clever people (villains too). But Forrest never makes a MORAL mistake. Dumbness is akin to virtue in this film’s schema. It should have ended with him being elected.

    I like Negulesco’s Titanic because it starts with the iceberg. As Graham Linehan points out here – http://bp0.blogger.com/_tdHEb3gxUr8/Rz-5NTtiNhI/AAAAAAAAAsg/eNw8mkgqFXI/s1600-h/linehan%20titantic%5B1%5D.jpg – no one ever talks about the poor people on the iceberg.

  20. Well considering what happened in the 2000 elections, Forrest did in fact get elected, in real life. The recent elections appeared to correct that. Whatever you say about Obama, he’s no fool.

    Scorsese’s ”The King of Comedy” really subverted and then trampled the supposed virtue of idiocy. Rupert Pupkin in that film is an idiot figure and the film paints him initially as an underdog but the entire film exposes his obsessions as that of a clearly deranged and ruthless person.

  21. GWB is either proof of how hard it is to be stupid and virtuous when surrounded by cunning and evil people, or proof that appearing stupid is a good disguise if you’re truly evil and seek high office. Is he a well-meaning idiot whose concept of “good” coincides neatly with the actuality of evil, or is he just bad, and not quite as dumb as he appears? In some ways, Bush made looking and sounding stupid into an advantage. His opponents were powerless because they couldn’t understand how this could be so, how the people might LIKE the idea of a dumb ruler.

    Pupkin is quite a sinister figure. When it comes down to it, the TV people have been quite considerate to him, and they just advise him to get better so they can use his talent. At present he’s no good. But rather than hone his skills, he wants to be on TV RIGHT AWAY. He’s been raised on the American dream of instant success and sees no reason why he shouldn’t have it. He’s a prototype for the Big Brother generation who just want to be famous, for no reason.

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