The name of this blog is Shadowplay

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Frank Borzage: master of the shadows.

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This, the opening of MOONRISE, is what turned me on to F.B. The beauty and boldness of the visual storytelling, the combination of a powerful story idea (a boy is persecuted because his father was hanged — then he himself becomes a killer: all this in the first five minutes!) put over with flamboyant but never inappropriate use of film technique.

Also, in the above image, the little kid is meant to be crying, but he obviously isn’t. Some crying sounds have been dubbed on, while the youngster tries to make a “sad face”. I realised that Borzage was too nice to make a baby cry for his film, even though the lack of tears slightly mars the film. That puts him in a different ethical class from practically all his peers. Can we imagine William Wyler hesitating?

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I love that the entire set for this shot is the studio floor, doubling as an implausibly shiny playground. MOONRISE was shot on entirely in a tiny array of tightly packed sets in a single studio, with a very short schedule. Republic seem to have been experimenting with artistically ambitious films on low budgets in 1948: hence Welles’ MACBETH. Of course they were John Ford’s refuge where he could make less overtly commercial projects at lower cost.

The tree-shadow totally MAKES the shot, transforming it from an obvious interior to a poetic, unreal exterior. Shades of Sternberg, who was particularly fond of tree-shadows in the late ’20s and early ’30s. I want to throw in the word “autumnal”, so I’m going to.

Autumnal!

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I think this may have been the first ever Shadowplay banner, so I’m returning to it for Borzage Week as our anniversary approaches. It’s an amazingly striking image, and completely inexplicable if you haven’t seen the film. Looks like something that might come from VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. In context, it’s a horrific encapsulation of the brutality and EVIL of childhood.

Shadows of liquid fog swirl on the wall.

MOONRISE screens today on Film4 in the UK at 2.50 pm.

11 Responses to “The name of this blog is Shadowplay”

  1. Very Vampyr — with a touch of Val Lewton.

  2. It does touch on some of the feeling of Curse of the Cat People, perhaps. But it’s even stranger, or at least more stylised. Like Lewton, Borzage is certainly reacting creatively to a set of tight financial restraints. He’s also flexing his muscles after a period of less personal projects, I think.

    Frustratingly, Moonrise is followed by seven years of unemployment, which is still slightly mysterious — more on this shortly.

  3. Borzage suffered from depression I think. His first marriage ended and the rebound marriage after that also collapsed and to someone as sensitive as him that probably drained him emotionally, not to mention the money lost in the divorces. At least that’s what I heard. I felt very bad for Borzage that he never seemed to find the ideal of love that he yearns for in his films.

  4. I chanced upon a copy of Ginger Rogers’ autobiography last week, which contained passing mention of “Magnificent Doll.” (I haven’t seen that film.)She alludes to the director’s drinking problem.

    Rogers, herself, seems to’ve been a determined non-drinker. With that acknowledged, though, perhaps the alcohol was part of the non-employed situation?

  5. The fabulous Borzage book, which I’ve read bits of but don’t own because it costs ninety million pounds, doesn’t seem to shed much light on the question, except to deny rumours of ill health and drinking, I seem to recall. Wikipedia cites a drinking problem plaguing Borzage by the time of his 1940 divorce. But there’s also the blacklisting question, about which more later.

    Wikipedia says the first Mrs B enjoyed “discrete affairs with Lupe Vélez, Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford, and Hedy Lamarr.” So, not the ideal of love, no.

  6. Actually it was Mr. B. who had affairs with them. His wife however was bisexual and she had an abortion without his knowledge which certainly strained things(Borzage loved kids). Borzage loved her very much but she didn’t feel remotely the same for him although she liked him very much(they still had contact after their divorce).

    The common wisdom is the simplistic thing about Borzage trying to do in art what he never could get in his life. I don’t think that’s fair. Borzage’s couples are outsiders and the film always stops just after they have fallen in love. I haven’t seen one film of his with a married couple. Then in ”7th Heaven” the two of them don’t marry with a priest but under the stars or something vaguely pagan Catholic.

    In fact the one significant marriage in ”History is Made at Night” between Jean Arthur and her husband is disastrous. For Borzage falling in love is what matters and I don’t think Borzage would regret his marriage even if it ended badly. Leo McCarey who was influenced by Borzage made films about love in a long marriage – ”The Awful Truth” and ”Make Way for Tomorrow”. So what’s missing in Frank can be found with Leo.

  7. That’ll teach me to read more carefully.

    There’s a whole bunch of “pagan Catholic” marriages in Borzage: Man’s Castle, A Farewell to Arms, and I suspect others.

    The couple in Little Man, What Now? get married early on, don’t they? I can’t recall. Maybe not… I know they’re not wed at the start and she’s pregnant (no criticism is implied by the filmmakers). But the film is all about sustaining an existing relationship in trying circumstances, so it’s an exception to the tendency you cite. Man’s Castle gets the first meeting out of the way fairly soon and deals with a developing relationship which, by the end, looks like it’s going to last.

  8. I should have been clearer…obviously it doesn’t stop after they’ve fallen in love but the lovers have a shorter history between them. And in all cases, the relationships shown are unconventional and among the margins. ”7th Heaven” between an atheist streetcleaner and a believing ex-prostitute, ”Man’s Castle” is further. I think the couple in ”Man’s Castle” will last too but I don’t see it as a happily-ever-after. They ride in trains, they are poor and they have a child on their way. It’ll be a struggle and all they have is each other.

    Maybe Borzage is saying that love means more or can do more to people who have little. Borzage himself wasn’t poor when he made those films and his wife liked to be a society lady and buy stuff and the like.

    Borzage’s couples are all non-bourgeois or at the very least outside bourgeois norms.

  9. Yes, even in Living on Velvet, which deals with high-born blueblood types, he’s squandered all his money and she marries without her family’s approval so they’re kind of living on the margins of society, though they have a lovely house gifted to them. As you say, the marriages are all unconventional. In LOV they’re married in a huge church but with only one friend present: it’s as informal as the plot could allow.

  10. Grant Skene Says:

    Finally saw Borzage’s Moonrise courtesy of Criterion Channel. It disappears July 31, by the way. That first 5 minutes was amazing! Personally, I felt the film lost steam (or liquid fog) from there. I like Dane Clark as an actor, but he’s about 20 years too old for the part. The visuals throughout were stunning though.

    I also noticed the cinematographer was Psycho’s John L. Russell. When Dane Clark attacks Harry Morgan trying to retrieve his incriminating knife, an overhead light is struck, causing light and shadow to swing over Harry’s face. Very Mrs. Bates.

  11. Grant Skene Says:

    Here is a part of the scene in Moonrise that reminded me of Psycho:

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