screened August 3 2008 on .avi
Frank Borzage’s greatest films celebrate and investigate the miracle of romantic love; but perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was in generating a film of darkly stunning compassion upon one of the most wretched characters conceived in cinema. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, in a proto-Method performance of inspired contempt for everything around him) is tortured throughout his young life by his father’s legacy of murder, which he fully inherits within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting off a downward spiral of guilt, rage and violent self-destruction. (The blueprints to Raging Bull are all over this film; a couple of shots seem practically plagiarized).
Borzage’s men have typically been roughewn jars of clay shaped and refined by feminine light, but Danny Hawkins is a festering pool of mud oozing from the film’s swampy environs. He’s saved by Borzage’s ultimate faith in redemptive grace, embodied by the fiancee of the man Danny kills, who unfathomably falls in love with Danny despite nearly being killed by him in a stunning car accident. Her unlikely attraction to him is made credible through our own, an empathy accomplished through Borzage’s ability to plant the viewer squarely in the passionate, angst-ridden hell of Danny’s worldview.
Starting with a wildly expressive flashback opening on through a series of terrifying crisis moments shot and cut with dizzying intensity (a swamp killing; a rainstorm car crash; a bedroom strangulation; a suicidal leap from a ferris wheel), it’s a world cloaked in perpetual night, virile in its violence, seductive in its shadows. The civic-minded sobriety of the daylight scenes, where everyone from the local sheriff to a self-exiled, swamp-dwelling Negro (a powerfully melancholy Rex Ingram) espouse liberal compassion for poor Danny, can’t compete with the allure of destructive darkness that pervades this film. Even the sentimental strings in the soundtrack, employed heavily during interludes of romantic redemption, stir reserves of disconsolate ache. If the redemptive, sober climax that resolves the narrative feels less than fully earned, it’s because Borzage has perhaps succeeded too well at mining the bottomless chasm of a man’s affliction. But such a degree of achievement in suffering wrought into art embodies its own salvation.
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Frank Borzage’s last masterpiece (1948) and one of his best-known films, although in many ways it’s atypical of his work. Made on a middling budget for Republic Pictures–the studio of serials and cowboys–the film adopts a rich and elaborate expressionist style; with its shadows and tension-racked frames, it resembles no other film in the Borzage canon. The social conflicts that plagued Borzage’s spiritually attuned lovers in earlier films here become psychological ones, as a young man (Dane Clark) fights to overcome his “bad blood”–his father was a convicted killer. Still, the Borzagian principle of transcendence applies, expressed through a complex mise-en-scene centered on circular camera movements. The earlier, disappointing Smiling Through (1941)–with its image of a blocking, ever-present past–seems a rough draft for this final achievement.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Many of Borzage’s projects, particularly toward the end of his career, were indisputably trivial in conception, but the director’s personality never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded. This, if anything, is the moral of the auteur theory.
In many ways, it is unlike any of [Borzage’s] earlier works. Its plot, dealing with murder and guilt, departs dramatically from the simple love stories the director usually tells [...] Stylistically, Moonrise marks a visual revolution of sorts for Borzage, with its tremendously dynamic compositions, tight framing and low-key lighting. […] Yet even though Moonrise looks different from Borzage’s other work, it reveals as deep a commitment as ever to the concerns that occupy his other films.
- John Belton, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.; London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), p. 112
Moonrise is Frank Borzage’s sensual scrutiny of a man’s free will. In the film’s striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys a throbbing sense of madness cattle-branded into the imagination of a young Danny Hawkins, who is terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father’s execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny’s loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage’s camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he is drowning.
- Ed Gonzalez, Slant
Moonrise snaps on-screen with a shadowplay execution-by-hanging, shot with expressionistic verve, that cuts, on the snap of the neck, to the dead man’s newly fatherless child squalling in his crib over the nightmare image of cold court-ordered death—Borzage is still frequently written off as a better-than-average concoctor of shadows n’ muslin confections, but just try to find anything equivalent to the gutty social outrage of this stark edit in contemporary Hollywood fare. From this point the film rolls into a montage of schoolyard degradation—always the same punk, our fatherless child, always the same bully—that grounds the film in a smotheringly small town where reputation is inherited and it brands like the mark of Cain (the on looking kids mocking chant: “Danny Hawkins’ dad was hanged”), and where grudges have a lifetime to percolate.
Hawkins, played without a hint of petitioning for sympathy by Fifties and Sixties television standby Dane Clark, understandably grows up into a furtive, crabbed, hate-encysted young man. Danny’s introduced full-grown in the thickets behind a local dancehall, at the receiving end of one-beating-too-many from his tireless victimizer—something snaps, a jagged rock gets into the mix, the bully is finally hushed up, dead. He goes back, throws some water on his face, and cuts in for a stiff dance with the corpse’s clueless fiancée, prim schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell). Driving her and some friends home, boozy, he buries the gas pedal, buzzing with rage, and flips the car. Wailing, soaked to the skin, pulling his co-opted date from the wreck through the side door, Danny’s a wreck of inchoate emotion—he wails as if in the trauma of being born.
From this literal and figurative breakdown, the film proceeds as the redemptive chronicle of Danny’s emotional education, his gradual indoctrination into humanity, and his acceptance of guilt for his crime. Gilly is the primary instrument that pries him open, operating through the breach opened by the somewhat baffling romance that’s ignited between them; the two spend plenty of runtime with their faces smooshed together in close-up, scenes that should gain plenty when writ large on the screen, as Borzage was an infamously attentive orchestrator of the minutest tremors of expression. Also crucial in Danny’s rehab is his sole friend, the aforementioned Mose, a retired brakeman-turned-recluse richly played by the great Rex Ingram; it’s a too-rare specimen of a black actor’s performance being allowed to flourish amid an all-white cast without the taint of awkward tokenism, Stepin Fetchit clowning, or phony-worshipful messianic Negritude. Ingram can handle thesis lines and common-sense morality with unpretentious thoughtfulness (“How does he know what’s good and what’s bad?” “Someone told him.”), but he’s best when singing a dolorous back-porch blues—the film’s title may come from the syrupy tune that’s warbled over Danny and Gilly’s first, death-infected dance, but Mose provides this dark-as-pitch picture’s true theme: “Rope hanging from the gallows/ Pit waiting for my bones…”
—Nick Pinkerton, Reverse Shot
Moonrise immerses us in swamp country for a meditation on ‘nature’ of all kinds – including human. The thing about Southern noir is that nature is not only everywhere but a player in the drama. Contrast this with your typical urban thrillers where, amongst all the built structures and machinery we narrow our focus onto the one unpredictable element in the mix – the protagonist. In Moonrise we see, and quickly come to feel , the swamp as metaphor for this small town setting, subtly reinforcing our view of its human inhabitants.
Director Borzage’s clever tactic of showing us all the action from the point of view of Danny, Dane Clark’s central character, is one reason for this sense of immersion, but even more subtle is this native Southern boy’s near-complete lack of an accent, let alone any ‘aw-shucks’ yokelisms. He’s a universal character, his very neutrality earning him center stage in this sphere of fetid growth where the great noir standbys – buried guilts and past secrets – bubble to the surface.
The film’s struggle, which Dane Clark portrays economically and brilliantly, is between society’s labelling of Danny as a ‘criminal type’ versus his belief of his own inner goodness. This is established from the outset through the stunning opening montage limning the story’s background (the execution by hanging of Danny’s father while the boy is in infancy and the ensuing torment and harassment by other children– especially rich preppie brat Lloyd Bridges) which makes it clear you are in the hands of a cinematic master. The brutal linkage this montage climaxes with – cutting from the father’s noose in shadowed profile to a ‘mobile’ hanging over the infant child’s cot – still packs a jolt, especially on the big screen. Clark, an unassuming, 1940s prole-looking leatherneck who often picked up John Garfield comparisons, plays Danny (not surprisingly) as a pent-up ball of resentment who seethes with internalised anger.
- Roger Westcombe, Big House Film Reviews
If the love story in Moonrise is a classic Borzagian scenario, the film’s visual style is decidedly less typical of the director’s oeuvre. From the extraordinary opening scenes, with truncated framings, the forceful play of light and shadow and dynamic cross-cutting, Moonrise represents a departure from the more measured visual style of earlier Borzage works.
With the services of cinematographer John L. Russell (who went on to shoot Hitchcock’s Psycho  amongst others), Borzage employs tight framings and consistent close-ups, (particularly of the beleaguered Danny), off kilter angles, and an odd but effective focus on the hands and feet of the central protagonists. Even the lovers’ romantic clinches are presented from unconventional angles, often obscuring facial expressions, and thereby making the emotional tenor of these scenes more difficult to read.
Borzage’s stylistic innovations in Moonrise, while uncharacteristic of the director’s work, align the film with the classic film noir canon. In Moonrise, as with many a noir work, the expressive visual style makes a significant contribution to the films’ atmosphere of escalating tension and its pervasive sense of unease.
Borzage’s predilection for shooting on studio sets, regardless of the storyline locale, gave the backgrounds of his films, as one reviewer describes, “an unreal fairytale quality”. This is very much in evidence in Moonrise. Despite its rural small town setting with adjoining swamplands, Borzage forgoes any suggestion of bucolic expansiveness. Rendering the town streets and surrounding countryside claustrophobic and oppressive, he creates a subtle feeling of disquiet and vague unreality entirely appropriate to the central protagonist’s troubled state of mind.
Borzage once remarked that “Every good story is based on a struggle”. Haas’ adaptation of Strauss’ novel gave Borzage just such a good story. With powerful performances from his lead actors, particularly Dane Clark in arguably the best role of his career, Moonrise was a romance after Borzage’s heart, with an additional layer of psychological intensity. It remains, justifiably, a critically acclaimed high point in his career.
- Rose Capp, Senses of Cinema
Both the script and the performances were evocative of the mood that Frank Borzage strove to create. Lyrically, Borzage eschewed Sleepy Time Down South for the Sidewalks of New York in the casting of Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins. Clark gives it his all and brings off a difficult part exceedingly well. I didn’t notice that Clark (or any of the other actors for that matter) lacked southern accents until he was obliged to occasionally let loose with a “I reckon” or “Yankee” that momentarily punctured my suspension of reality. Clark succinctly projected the internal moral dilemma faced by Hawkins without resorting posturing or overacting. Moonrise may well be his finest screen performance.
Gail Russell plays the schoolmarm with the right mixture of initial primness, concern, and genuine affection with a dash of lust. Russell’s well-chronicled slide down the Hollywood Babylon oblivion chute awash in a sea of booze ended tragically at age 36 in 1961. Allyn Joslyn scored as one of film noirs most unusual John Lawmen. Imagine a southern sheriff without a drawl who speaks gently, waxes philosophical (“Murder is like love, it requires two people”) and never threatens or brandishes a weapon! At the final denouement, he even prevents a deputy from handcuffing the surrendering Clark, remonstrating with him to “let him walk in like a man”. Perhaps Borzage just didn’t have it in him to cast another heavy other than Lloyd Bridges in this picture. Ethel Barrymore lends credibility as only she could in a brief, but pivotal scene as Grandma Hawkins. Both Harry Morgan and Rex Ingram add additional heft in interesting supporting parts. Ingram’s character, in a surprising display of late 1940’s racial tokenism, is refreshingly absent any stereotypes or similar stupidities.
- Alan Rode, Film Monthly
Moonrise, marking the end of Borzage’s unhappy tenure at Republic, may be a throwback, but to what? That film’s neo-primitive expressionism anticipates The Night of the Hunter in some ways, but it also seems designed to pay lip service to the paranoia that had crept into modern cinema (something that Borzage later professed to despise). Although Moonrise is finally just as romantic as the rest of his work, the disembodied visual scheme of its first half, designed as an illustration of psychological trauma, is a singular event in Borzage –an interesting choice of material that probably marked a sly compromise between the director’s own concerns and the more fashionable notions of the day.
In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage’s distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become “outmoded” and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art.
- Kent Jones, Film Comment
Borzage has his protagonist turn his back to others and avert his gaze during… dialogue scenes… He also regularly positions two characters at an angle of 90 degrees to each other, further stressing their avoidance of eye contact by framing one character in profile. While such a mise en scène contributes to a particularly pictorial storytelling, Borzage repeatedly forgoes any dialogue during the first third of the movie. Instead, he has gestures speak in close-ups. During the opening sequence, words only function to identify Danny and Jerry at young age.
Danny reveals his greatest secret, when he affirms Mose’s suspicion. Yet, Borzage stresses the scene’s quite sadness by contrasting the silent accord between both men with a dynamic tension between foreground and background. In a medium long-shot, we see Danny in the background lying at the edge of the swamp, while Mose in the foreground sits on the porch of his cabin. By alternating close-ups of each men, Borzage emphasizes the distance between them – the more so, as Mose apparently does not have the heart to look his friend in the eye. Framed in close-up, slightly from below and almost in profile, Mose stares off-screen, without ever turning his head to Danny.
The beauty of this mise en scène, which accentuates the emotional charge of the situation, can certainly be attributed to the director, even if it is strikingly different from the style he is mainly associated with. But apart from the mise en scène, this scene has been transposed virtually unchanged form the literary source [by Theodore Strauss]. The same applies to almost every single of the film’s dialogues, while the slight changes to the plot have resulted primarily in tightening it.
While Borzage’s work has lately been the object of a modest revival, Strauss has been completely forgotten.That is a pity, because his earnestness in dealing with a poor man’s Crime-and-Punishment-theme is, like Borzage’s, totally disarming, even if his tone tends to be as grave as one might assume from Mose’s and the sheriff’s dialogues. Strauss’ book featured prominently in the publicity campaign for the film, and was displayed on posters and lobby cards. Film reviewers regularly referred to Moonrise’s literary source and The New York Times even opened its review of the film stating, “The ancient argument as to which medium tells the story best, written words or pictorial images, is again brought into focus by Moonrise.” And the reviewer actually thought that “the book towers above the picture”. However, the novel – as well as the film – had apparently been already forgotten, when in 1951 it was published as a paperback, since Bantam re-titled it Dark Hunger.
Moonrise’s thoroughgoing fidelity to its literary source poses the question: Did Borzage adopt the book’s philosophical quintessence as well? His films after Seventh Heaven have often been interpreted as endorsing the renunciation of all worldly matters. “[A] world destroying dignity is but a sordid deserted place not worth returning to, but of going beyond. [...] Borzage’s heroes do not aspire to reenter into society”, concludes Dumont. Moonrise, however, suggests a different interpretation: “Man ought to live in a world with other folks” is what Strauss and Borzage have Mose say. “What I did was resign from the human race – and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is.”
When Joe McElhaney applies the quintessence of these words – obviously unaware of their origin with Strauss’ novel – onto Borzage’s whole œuvre, he acts overhasty, to say the least. But this particular outlook on the human condition and the world is not only affirmed by the narrative of Moonrise, it is also underscored by Mose’s last words. Addressing one of his dogs as “Mister Dog”, Mose states: “If a man knows how to rejoin the human race, once he’s resigned, it helps, Mr. Dog, it helps.” Tellingly, these are among the few words in this movie which do not originate with Strauss. That Borzage’s film thus, paradoxically, attests to Strauss’ outlook on the human condition by a rare divergence from his book, might offer an ironic moral of sorts for auteurists, too.
- Holger Römers, “The Moral of the Auteur Theory”: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss’ Source Novel). Senses of Cinema
Perhaps Borzage’s greatest film, Moonrise, a brooding tale of a murderer’s son (Clark) driven to violence by others harping on his past, is the perfect answer to those critics who have derided Borzage as a ‘mere’ romantic, a mere celebrator of the magic of love. Deeply melancholic, the film (from a novel by Theodore Strauss) creates a sense of physical reality with its low key lighting and harsh compositions that Borzage’s lovers on the run cannot defeat: their ‘Seventh Heaven’ in an abandoned mansion is only temporary.
- Time Out
It’s a grim melodrama that feels tragically realistic, touching on the raw nerves of the brooding accused murderer who has been forced into violence and going on-the-run because his tormentors have rattled him. The film’s beauty lies in Borzage’s overpowering visual mise-en-scene, making the film a character study as the protagonist wrestles with his inner conflicts between the peaceful and wrathful deities. The conflicted young man eventually overcomes his past bad karma because he finds someone to love, support from his betters and values to believe in. Spiritual ideals such as transformational love are the very things the director, himself, finds very dear in his real life.
This outstanding movie has been dubbed a “melodrama,” and it’s easy to see why. But unlike most melodramas, there’s a deeply serious social message pulsing through; and, while many people, then and now, might have found this too earnest, I’m just grateful work like this exists as a point of moral and artistic reference. Borzage makes a visual homage of his own, this one to silent movies, and along with that he works in a couple of important themes too complex (and too intelligently discussed) to go on the back of a t-shirt; but I’ll risk reducing them anyway. The first is that, when it comes to crime, we should be careful before we start talking about “fate” or “bad blood.” As a child, Danny Crane (Dane Clark, above, second from left) was mercilessly teased about his father’s execution for murder. As an adult, he is again confronted by his chief tormentor from childhood and, in self-defence, kills him. The main body of the film takes us through what happens next. Can he live with the guilt? Will his community discover the truth? If so, will they turn on him? Or will a consensus conclude that Danny, far from being “born that way” or doomed by fate, succumbed to social forces that must also bear some responsibility? As the film actually plays it, what I notice today is that here’s one small-town society capable of making restrained, evidence-based judgments about its own people — and not because of huge amounts of book-learning either!
- D.J.M. Saunders, Bright Lights Film Journal
The titles of Borzage’s sublime (no other word will do) MOONRISE play out over strange, rippling pools of liquid fog.
This eventually resolves, post-titles, into the shadows of liquid fog, pooling eerily in an inexplicable fashion, as we enter a peculiarly abstract landscape of rain, where an execution is about to take place. I will say no more.
But that same year, 1948, Orson Welles was making MACBETH, at the same studio as Borzage, Republic. And when Welles’ weird women peer into their cauldron in Act 1, Scene 1, amid the murk and mist and bubble bubble, we get this liquid fog again:
Welles has double-exposed it with a shot of fas-motion billowing clouds, oddly enough. All playing the contents of an enchanted cauldron. You maybe have to see it moving in good definition to see that it’s exactly the same effect as Borzage’s liquid fog. So, either both men made use of a piece of kit in stock at Republic, which I’m going to call Professor Strickfaden’s Liquid Fog Vortex Projector, or, more likely in my opinion, Welles simply borrowed a few seconds of Borzage’s movie to enhance his own. It’s the sort of thing he’d do more wholeheartedly in F FOR FAKE, and which he’d already done in CITIZEN KANE, which uses footage, and animated bats, from SON OF KONG.
As John Huston says in Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, “It’s quite alright to steal from each other. What we must never do is steal from ourselves.”
Frank Borzage: master of the shadows.
This, the opening of MOONRISE, is what turned me on to F.B. The beauty and boldness of the visual storytelling, the combination of a powerful story idea (a boy is persecuted because his father was hanged — then he himself becomes a killer: all this in the first five minutes!) put over with flamboyant but never inappropriate use of film technique.
Also, in the above image, the little kid is meant to be crying, but he obviously isn’t. Some crying sounds have been dubbed on, while the youngster tries to make a “sad face”. I realised that Borzage was too nice to make a baby cry for his film, even though the lack of tears slightly mars the film. That puts him in a different ethical class from practically all his peers. Can we imagine William Wyler hesitating?
I love that the entire set for this shot is the studio floor, doubling as an implausibly shiny playground. MOONRISE was shot on entirely in a tiny array of tightly packed sets in a single studio, with a very short schedule. Republic seem to have been experimenting with artistically ambitious films on low budgets in 1948: hence Welles’ MACBETH. Of course they were John Ford’s refuge where he could make less overtly commercial projects at lower cost.
The tree-shadow totally MAKES the shot, transforming it from an obvious interior to a poetic, unreal exterior. Shades of Sternberg, who was particularly fond of tree-shadows in the late ’20s and early ’30s.
ABOUT FRANK BORZAGE
Quotes posted on the They Shoot Pictures Borzage page:
“By the mid-1920s, Borzage was one of the most successful Hollywood directors – as witness the fact that he won the newly created Oscar for direction twice in its first five years – for Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. War, and the consequent taste for realism, destroyed the world he had created and after The Mortal Storm, only one other film – Moonrise – properly revealed his talent. As a result, he is now badly neglected.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist…Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real worlds of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Crucial to his films’ incandescent romanticism were his fluid use of the camera, floating through unoccupied spaces to suggest mysterious invisible forces existing beyond the material realm, and a focus on luminous faces; his attention to actresses, especially Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, made unusually palpable the strength of their undying love.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“Borzage’s top films are laden with romance and expressive camera work and lighting.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Frank Borzage had a rare gift of taking characters, even those who were children of violence, and fashioning a treatment of them abundant with lyrical romanticism and tenderness, even a spirituality that reformed them and their story.
- DeWitt Bodeen, Film Reference.com
There’s a director I know who’s fond of saying that he’s more interested in what current filmmakers are doing (even the mediocre ones) than in studying “classic cinema,” older films touching him only to the degree that they illuminate modern experience. It’s a brutal approach to film history, perhaps a bit too brutal for me, but it has a certain validity as an alternative to the ahistorical side of film culture. Perhaps Borzage really is nothing more than the cinema’s Great Romantic –a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside of the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.
He was a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life –the world around Borzage’s lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions. An arch-symbolist with a deep belief in the communion of souls, he woefully lacks any of the credentials necessary for worship by modern audiences (precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir). Nor can it be denied that Borzage’s oeuvre sports a generous helping of mediocre-to-bad actors (Douglass Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Phillip Dorn, and John Howard –the only actor wooden enough to take the air out of Borzage’s billowing romanticism, in Disputed Passage), as well as a high percentage of filler (endless Dick Powell musicals at Warners, topical melodramas for Fox, a biography of Dolly Madison). On top of that, his films don’t even work as satisfyingly snotty postmodern experiences, probably due to the fact that they are almost all structurally identical.
In his lovingly researched Frank Borzage –Sarastro à Hollywood (an act of true literary devotion that provides all of the biographical information for this article), Hervé Dumont cites Borzage’s development of intimate scenes “to the detriment of the action” as the basis of contemporary objections to The River, the director’s fearsome 1929 masterpiece that was caught in the mad crossfire between silence and sound. It’s the same kind of complaint that you hear about “foreign films” today. And the charge of artistry is more than justified. Besides Nick Ray, with whom he has often been compared, Borzage was one of Hollywood’s only truly obsessive artists of the sound era (Welles, who made most of his films outside of Hollywood, doesn’t count), which is what truly made him a favorite of the Surrealists. Borzage’s artistic vision was not a loose conglomeration of tics, talents, and obsessions to be tallied up at the end of his career. He had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life that, at a certain point in his career, took precedence over the delivery of a satisfying piece of entertainment. It may have been a naïve one, nourished by Masonic teachings and quite possibly by his early exposure to the Mormons when he was growing up in Salt Lake City, but he believed it and sometimes bent plots inside out to accommodate it. It also informed his unique way of arranging space. When a character looks in a film by Hawks or Hitchcock, he or she is usually looking at something concrete. When a character looks in a film by Ford, it’s often into the past. When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it’s usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony, around which time tends to dilate and space tends to become elastic to the point of transparency.
For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage’s is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation. The human evidence of Borzage’s superhuman idea of existence –to be found in Charles Farrell’s and Janet Gaynor’s rapturous walk up the stairs and into paradise in Seventh Heaven (27), in the beautifully elongated flowering of their love in Lucky Star (29), in Dane Clark and Gail Russell’s moonlit idyll in an abandoned mansion in Moonrise (48), in Margaret Sullavan sleeping in her shimmering evening dress on Robert Taylor’s doorstep in Three Comrades, in James Dunne and Sally Eilers’s touchingly naïve attempt at marriage in Bad Girl (32), in James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan taking the family marriage cup from Maria Ouspenskaya before their potentially fatal trek over the Austrian border in The Mortal Storm –is one of the great glories of the cinema.
Can a body of work consisting of a hundred films and three television shows, which begins in 1915 and ends in 1959 and passes through almost every major studio in Hollywood, be reduced to such a singleminded preoccupation? In one sense, no. It’s an auteurist tradition to identify something singular in a director’s work and then leave it at that, chucking the quirks, oddities, momentary fashions, and comminglings with commerce and studio style that make up a big part of any Hollywood oeuvre. Such selectivity has probably outlived its usefulness. In Borzage’s case, one can see a whole panorama of momentary influences stretched across his career.
- Kent Jones, Film Comment