Archive for Street Angel

The Sunday Intertitle: A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 7, 2010 by dcairns

Those aren’t quite the words — culled from Borzage’s sublime STREET ANGEL —  used by our producer when Fiona and I submitted the latest draft of our feature script — which we are contractually forbidden from discussing — but I think he was pleased. Somehow I got through the experience without becoming exhausted, but then I got hit with twenty-something essays to mark and simultaneously received a gigantic list of movies from a part interested in doing swapsies. So I spent about 12 hours at the computer reading 25,000 movie titles. Now everything hurts! I am an idiot!

Still, maybe a hot bath will make things better, but consider this a warning that there may be light blogging ahead (I know, you’re heartbroken) as I finish my marking and teach every day this week (oh, the horrors of near-full-time employment! How do the workers cope?). Fortunately I’ve got this week’s Forgotten more or less done, so that feels like a keystone of the Shadowplay week in place. And it won’t exactly be back-breaking (although it may feel like it) to post the odd little thing. So the site should continue to grow, just slowly.

Off to see Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND today, so maybe you’ll be reading about that soon. Well, you will — the damn thing is inescapable. But if I have any irresistible responses you’ll find them here. Meanwhile, here’s a book I’m enjoying greatly –

The End of Mr. Y

Nothing — or maybe everything — to do with films: think BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, only with a far wider universe of possibilities.

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!

Match shots

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 19, 2008 by dcairns

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Janet Gaynor for sale in STREET ANGEL (1928).

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Li Hua Li for sale in CHINA DOLL (1958).

Borzage was not above copying himself. Now, STREET ANGEL is a great film, and CHINA DOLL just barely a good one, although this juxtaposition makes me like it more. It plays out kind of dull when you first see it, but there’s a certain resonance that maybe is just Borzage trading off past glories, but nonetheless does something. I’m going to write more about Borzage’s influences, including his influence on himself, shortly.

It occurs to me I ought to link to any previous Borzage posts I can think of, so here. More MOONRISE.

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