Archive for Frank Borzage

Secrets and Les

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by dcairns

SECRETS (1933), is Mary Pickford’s final film, and a remake by writer Frances Marion and director Frank Borzage of their 1924 drama of the same year, which I only realised after twenty minutes as I felt the deja vu lapping around my ankles.

Leslie Howard is male lead this time, replacing Eugene O’Brien, which helps Act 1 play as a romantic comedy (Norma Talmadge was the star of the original, which I caught in Bologna). Act 2 is a western, Act 3 is a kind of political/society drama, and then there’s a romantic comedy coda with the stars in old age make-up.

I don’t know what drove FB & FM to remake this film, since it never hung together the first time. With rapid course corrections as to tone and genre and location, and the characters aging from young (Pickford plays a teenager at forty-one without straining one’s credulity) to old (the make-up is kept shadowy but holds up well, as do the perfs), the only thing to stop this disintegrating into a bag of bits would be a thematic link, as suggested by the title. But the various story units don’t keep the idea of secrecy in play — it gets produced from nowhere right at the end to con us into thinking we’ve been watching something with connective tissue, cohesion, a reason to be one long film rather than three or four short ones.

That said, the chapters all have merit, and our protags make a sweet couple. Borzage ha become a lot more experimental since the early twenties, though he was always likely to reach for an unconventional touch from time to time, from the early days up until at least MOONRISE. Pickford talks well, and acquires, as Fiona observed, a bit of Howard’s technique — if it IS a technique — of stumbling over words and repeating them, adding naturalism to the theatrical situations. But her best moments are visual, and a tragic sequence where her baby is killed in the midst of a wild west gunfight leads to a masterclass in wordless performance, played out as bullets smash the window panes behind her, unnoticed by the grieving mother,

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Lamplight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2018 by dcairns

Incredibly beautiful.

I ought to be binge-watching Borzage for a project. Feels like I’m a bit behind. LUCKY STAR (1929) is one of the masterpieces Frank B. made at Fox as the silent era ended. Most famous is SEVENTH HEAVEN but STREET ANGEL and this one probably deserve to be right up there. Along with THE RIVER, which survives only as a fragment. The original titles of LUCKY STAR are lost also, so we have simple, tasteful reproductions which are probably a good deal less elaborate but at any rate don’t look jarringly anachronistic like all too many attempts to fake up authentic cards. And the film itself is in terrific shape. I’m just over half its age and I don’t look nearly so good.

Now check this out.

As Janet Gaynor hands over a lantern in this shot, you can see an electrical cable trailing from it (through the lower left window pane). But rather than get hyper-critical about the artifice (this whole film is studio artifice at its height), we should be impressed that they’ve figured out how to light a scene with a lantern, even a jerry-rigged electrical one. The great Nestor Almendros once pointed out that, for all the beauty of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) when a search party roves through the night carrying kerosene lamps, the lamps do nothing but glow faintly, far too weak to actually light the scene. Of course that film’s cinematographers, Rosher & Struss, could hardly have had a half-dozen power cables trailing from those prop lamps, since the search party are on boats. Even the lack Health & Safety culture of Hollywood’s Golden Age had to draw the line somewhere. But for LUCKY STAR, DoPs Chester M. Lyons (praised already here) and William Cooper Smith have worked out a way to have a convincing moving light source.

That lamp is obviously INCREDIBLY bright in order to light the interior: Gaynor has her eyes almost closed, trying not to be blinded, and she seems a little scared of this high voltage death-trap in her hand. Don’t blame her.

As you can probably tell, I’m not very far into this film yet, but I am impressed so far.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Girl with the Crepe-de-Chine Soul

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2018 by dcairns

Yes, that must be it.

Burrowing into Borzage for a forthcoming project. BACK PAY is a Fannie Hurst story adapted by the great Frances Marion, and it makes very conducive material for Borzage — there’s sentiment, romance, spirituality and americana. A girl from a mall town become a kept woman in the big city, but a visit home challenges her decadent new values. But redemption isn’t that quick, and WWI intrudes, as it will later in SEVENTH HEAVEN, with comparable results (Borzage never worried about repeating his most successful moments).

Only the title is terrible — it turns out to be a reference to the wages of sin, but it manages to sound a lot less exciting. Might as well call it TAX DEDUCTIBLE or MINIMUM WAGE or NAUGHT PER CENT INTEREST. Borzage titles tend to be either magnificent, like HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, or supremely unhelpful like BAD GIRL.

Fantastic cinematography from a Borzage favourite, Chester M. Lyons. And some fine examples of the Floating Head of Death trope.