Frank’s Wild Years

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THE PILGRIM is one of Frank Borzage’s early westerns, in which he stars as well as directing. Produced by “Mustang Features” and released by Mutual, it shares not just its umbrella company with Chaplin: the whole film can be see as a serious western version of Chaplin’s THE TRAMP (although that was released by Essanay, before Chaplin’s Mutual deal).

The film, which has been beautifully scored by Günter A. Buchwald in a sleepy, melancholic fashion, shows off Borzage’s amazingly restrained performance, which serves as a model for all the countless low-key, understated performances in his later films. Only moderately handsome, short-limbed and slightly pasty, Borzage nevertheless radiates a soulful quality which makes him appealing. Riding into town on a donkey, like Clint Eastwood or Jesus, taciturn and unshaven, like Clint Eastwood, Borzage’s pilgrim engages in the briefest of intertitles with the local rancher.

“Pilgrim?”

“Yep.”

“Cowman?”

“Yep.”

“Work?”

“Yep.”

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The plot, what little there is of it, consists of our itinerant misanthrope (he sleeps with his donkey) knifing a (rather sterotyped) ethnic bad guy, Joe Mex, when Mex tries to stab him in the back, then falling in love with the rancher’s daughter as the two of them nurse the miscreant back to health. I can think of few westerns where a good bit of the plot is devoted to healing a bad guy, who then departs the story without being bad again. Gee, maybe people can change.

That saloon fight is nicely arranged. Joe grabs Borzage and prepares to take a swing at him — one of those long, wind-up John Wayne punches — so pilgrim Frank lays him out with a quick smackeroo before he’s finished his prep. Walking away, Frank thinks it’s over, but Mex pulls a knife and pounces him from behind. Quickly the barflies have clustered round, occluding our view. They part, as Frank calmly walks away, flinging Mex’s confiscated knife into his table, draining his glass, and tossing it aside. The crowd gathers round the fallen assailant. Beautifully orchestrated in a simple longshot.

And then there’s just a simple love story, in which the outsider reconnects to humanity (he even shaves), then the revelation that the girl is promised to another man, and Frank hits the dusty trail.

Simple. Perfect.

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9 Responses to “Frank’s Wild Years”

  1. Is that donkey in that still a real one. It has this warm contented grin that looks too anthropomorphic.

  2. Just wondering to myself if there are any other films out there that show the cowboy using the donkey’s neck for a pillow, is that even plausible? I’ll have to try it some time, see if I can pull it off. Love the exchange, with the three “Yep”s. The very soul of brevity.

  3. Alas Sarah Palin has completely put me off “yep.”

  4. David E., I understand perfectly. Hadn’t thought of that ’til you mentioned it.

  5. It’s a shame, such a useful word.

    I think most equines sleep standing up, given the choice, so I don’t know if sleeping with your steed in this way is really practical? Unless you’re Harpo.

    As for the smile, there are a number of mammals that always look happy depending on the angle: dolphins, donkeys, even cats.

  6. Somehow the donkey here reminds me of the talking camel in “Road To Morocco.” All it needs to do is roll its eyes in bliss.

  7. He’s a happy donkey! He likes Frank.

  8. There’s a beautiful moment in The Pilgrim where the girl is briefly awakened by Borzage (the actor) as he’s picking her up to let her sleep on a sofa. Borzage (the director) cuts to a big closeup of the tucked-in, astonished girl as she takes in the scene (not just the Western drama of violence that she’d wanted to see, but also the mysterious man she’s suddenly attracted to) and then slowly closes her eyes and drifts back to sleep. A contemplative, reflexive moment like this would be striking at any time in cinema history.

  9. Absolutely. My viewing of A Farewell to Arms is reminding me yet again just how brilliant Borzage is at evoking desire, in a downright mystical way.

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