Archive for November 23, 2008

Intertitle of the Week (+)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2008 by dcairns

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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!

I’ve Always Loved You(Tube)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2008 by dcairns

Part one of SEVENTH HEAVEN. The whole thing’s on YouTube.

Part one of A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Ditto.

Of course, watching movies on YouTube is a horrible way to experience “cinema”, far worse than watching them on your phone, even. But I guess if you live in an out-of-the-way place, have no limbs, and no money, but do have a broadband connection, it might be your only chance to see this stuff. And you should definitely see it.

Better if you just sample the films, get excited, and then track down decent copies though. Even films that haven’t been released on DVD are easy enough to find, usually. You just have to ask around.

Part one of LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? Don’t be put off by the odd title. This, the first film in Borzage’s German trilogy, uses pre-code license in an entirely non-salacious, mature fashion, and tells a moving story of survival and love, shot through with Borzage’s particular sense of spirituality.

THE SHINING HOUR, which I’m about to sit down and watch on DVD. Joan Crawford, who is so excellent in –

MANNEQUIN. If you were going to commit the blasphemy of watching an entire Borzage movie on YouTube, this one might be as good as any. It’s not as visually sumptious as SEVENTH HEAVEN or A FAREWELL TO ARMS (few things are) but it has a great story and characters and performances (especially performances) and manages to be so smart and sophisticated it almost feels pre-code.

“If it’s a man kid it’ll never grow up.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2008 by dcairns

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Jon Kricfalusi would love these off-model Mickey Mices.

MAN’S CASTLE is a neatly double-edged title, since Spencer Tracy, the titular male, starts the film as apparently self-confident and indomitable, the kind of guy who creates a feudal estate out of any surroundings, but by the end of the picture his insecurity and immaturity have been firmly established, and we imagine something maybe more like a sandcastle for him to play with…

Jo Swerling, author of several Frank Capra depression-era fantasias, penned this beautiful and strange Borzage masterwork. The similarities and differences are plain enough: like any piece of Capra-corn, this movie raises the spectre of the depression but sugar-coats it with hope. Unlike in Capra, though, the protagonists this time don’t end up materially better off. It’s a tale of survival and romance, rather than one of triumph over the odds in the capitalist game.

Spencer Tracy as Bill is wearing a tuxedo and  feeding popcorn to pigeons when he notices the beautiful Trina (Loretta Young, gorgeous) eyeing the bird-feed hungrily. He takes her for a meal, and then we discover that this fellow, who dresses like a debauched swell, hasn’t a cent to his name. The dinner jacket is part of his costume: the shirt front lights up as an ad for a store. We discover this as the pair escape the restaurant and walk to Bill’s digs, through back-projected streets populated by EERIE GIANTS.

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Arriving at another piece of studio artifice, the city’s New Deal shanty town, Spencer becomes swiftly nude and jumps in the river for a wash. Loretta follows, in a bit of pre-code spice. The pair presumably become lovers at this point. This is pretty surprising (they’ve just met) but in keeping with Borzage’s sexual sophistication. He’s a spiritual filmmaker, and his branch of spirituality is explicitly Christian, but he finds room for sexuality in his world-view. He’s like Prince, in that respect. There, I said it: Frank Borzage is like Prince. Only without the purple blouse.

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Even though this is the pre-code nudie bit, there isn’t a racy sense of Warner Bros smut: they look like souls drifting in space. A fat soul and a thin soul.

Spencer Tracy can be an issue: “It’s difficult for me to look at him,” says Fiona around this point, “because I find him physically repulsive. But he’s fascinating to watch.” It’s a good performance, with only occasional stomach-churning moments, but a GREAT role. Even Tracyphobes like ourselves are won over.

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Let’s face it, he’s not the most handsome man. He looks like a potato would look if God got drunk and tried to make a potato out of lard. He also looks like Stretch Armstrong. Stretch was a toy my best friend Craig had when we were little, and he was made of special rubber so he could stretch his arms and legs and torso like Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic or Mr. Fanplastic. Eventually he burst, emitting tetragenic latex sap, a noxious white fluid that stank the room out. I believe Spencer Tracy contains the same substance, slopping around inside him as he lopes through the city on his amazing stilts (he’s trying to compete with those eerie rear-projected giants).

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The theme of a hovel transfigured into a castle, or a heaven, by love, is a classic Borzagean concept, expressed fully in SEVENTH HEAVEN and reprised in a straight rip-off in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? Style is self-plagiarism, and Borzage sees no shame in repeating a successful trope. Bill and Trina set up in his shack, where a sliding hatch exposes him to the sky (“my hunk of blue”, he says, paraphrasing Wilde) whenever he needs a dose of freedom, but the sound of the freight trains constantly passing calls to him, and torments Trina . Initially afraid of everything, she flowers under his protection, and comes only to be anxious that he’ll leave her. Bill becomes MORE afraid, as he starts to sense how hard it’s going to be for him to get away. Trina’s pregnancy brings things to a head.

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I think I agree with Arhur, who calls this a truly great film. It takes a non-judgemental and intimate look at an unconventional relationship between two extraordinary people. Trina comes from nowhere — we don’t learn anything about her past. She’s just poor. Bill has obviously been around a bit, and may have a history with Flossie, the shantytown drunk. His way of showing affection to Trina is to insult and threaten her. This verges on the harsh, alright, but the way Loretta Young reacts shows that she fully understands that this is just his way of masking affection: it means “I love you.” There’s a risk that, accepting all this verbal abuse, Trina could seem like a doormat, but Loretta just GLOWS — she’s receiving compliments and expressions of love with every insult. It’s not masochism, it’s just an ability to read Bill’s true meaning. The only thing that upsets her is when he talks about leaving.

Bill starts off as an admirable, self-reliant larger-than-life character who teaches Trina to live. But like most larger-than-life characters, he’s soon found to have intolerable as well as admirable traits. He operates according to a personal code, and he broadcasts the fact loud and clear, but he doesn’t really live up to his own standards. He’s unfaithful to Trina (with Glenda Farrell, the Personality Kid, so we kind of understand) and when he learns she’s expecting, he throws himself into a scheme to steal the payroll from a toy factory — the plan being to give Trina the money so she’ll be OK when he runs off and leaves her. Of course, Bill becomes more interested in the toys. He’s a big kid.

Now that she’s pregnant, Trina comes into her own and emerges as the stronger, more mature character. Another beautiful and strange Borz ending — his characters don’t tend to get rich, they continue struggling, but the optimism comes through in Borzage’s core belief that love will make struggling worthwhile.

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