Archive for The River

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.

Intertitle of the Week (+)

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


“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.


Bye, Frank!

A Wing and a Prayer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2008 by dcairns

His Ward is his Bond.

So, I watched Frank Borzage’s CHINA DOLL, which has a character played by Ward Bond with my name (Father Cairns), although I wasn’t actually aware of this until I checked the IMDb because nobody seemed able to pronounce the name. Most of the cast seemed to be using the Irish name “Kearns”, whereas from Victor Mature’s slobbery great mouth the name emerged as more like “Corns”.

You don’t get many Cairnses in the movies, so that was something. Curiously, I just came across a fictional Cairns in Christopher Fowler’s sixth Bryant and May mystery, The Victoria Vanishes. Since Fowler has been known to drop by here, I wondered if he drew the name from life. But since CHINA DOLL was made ten years before I was born, I can’t claim to have inspired that one.

The name Cairns, in religious circles, is mostly associated with a namesake of mine from the Church of Scotland, but Bond’s character is apparently Catholic (he has nuns in tow, one of whom plays Frankie and Johnny on sax for comic relief). Borzage himself was a member of some unusual Catholic branch of Masonry, or something odd like that.

The film, a WWII-set romance between airman Victor Mature (“a melting waxwork of Dean Martin” — B. Kite) and poor Chinese girl Li Hua Li (“introduced” to the West in this film, then back to making films in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the next twenty years, making her one of the more successful people to have been “introduced”). Blind drunk one night, misanthropic Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months, falls in love, and reconnects with humanity.

The script has nice lines: when Vic’s colonel (Denver Dukes of Hazzard Pyle) tells him that life on earth isn’t so bad, the boozy curmudgeon retorts, “Everybody leaves it sooner or later.” But Mature plays the character as too soft, so that his conversion lacks force. Shot in America with stock footage enhancement, the film is minus atmosphere and shadow. It’s a shame this weaker effort has surfaced on DVD when so little Borzage is available, although it finally looks like the emotionally exhausting masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN is being released, and another silent classic, THE RIVER, is out in its incomplete glory.

Borzage is going to be one of my very favourite filmmakers once I’ve seen enough of his work. MOONRISE is simply one of the greatest films I know, and STREET ANGEL and SEVENTH HEAVEN are terrific. Between the silent movies and the late blossoming of MOONRISE, Borzage seemed to get distracted with a lot of inappropriate and mediocre assignments from MGM, and CHINA DOLL is a production of John Wayne’s Batjac company, so it keeps veering between manly combat and Borzagian spirituality and sentiment.

Intercut baby playing with dog tags with Dad blasting Japs out of the sky. John Woo, take note.

While I normally agree with Chairman Mao somewhat on the subject of religion, I find Borzage’s take on it sufficiently idiosyncratic and personal to be engaging — STRANGE CARGO (1940) must be the weirdest tract ever filmed. In one scene, serial killer Paul Lukas, rejecting an offer of salvation, walks off into the jungle, then spots Borzage’s camera, which approaches him hopefully… “No!” snaps Lukas, and storms off, disappearing from the film unpunished, presumably to continue his murderous lifestyle. A simply wonderful, chilling, utterly peculiar moment.

Patrons: as interracial sex is taking place, the management present this shot of a wet window.

As director and co-producer, Borzage seems to have invested plenty of interest in CHINA DOLL (he was a flyer himself), as the religious and romantic aspects show. But it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The Production Code forbade Mature and Hua Li from kissing, which is disgraceful but doesn’t actually hurt the film — I don’t actually want to see the cute Chinese girl get enveloped in the skin-dripping face of Big Victor anyway, and her saluting him makes for a more novel and touching solution.