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