Frank Borzage: Hollywood Romantic, Week Four
Little Man, What Now?
Museum of the Moving Image
Queens, New York
July 15-August 20
MOMI's consideration of auteur canonization also-ran Frank Borzage continues this weekend, proffering four more little screened titles, all strangers to DVD. Borzage, working in the prime of his influence through the Twenties and Thirties, made movies that can in the main be reduced to a common description: the delicately made story of two people, beleaguered and tender to rawness, learning to love themselves and each other. If that sounds trite or commonplace, it's only because it's been too long since you've seen it done properly.
A fine example of how seamlessly Borzage translates the delicate emotional vicissitudes of a couple into cinematography comes fairly early on in his 1934 film Little Man, What Now?, screening this Saturday afternoon. Our protagonist, earnest-but-unestablished young striver Hans (Douglass Montgomery, whose waxen, almond-eyed handsomeness recalls the silent screen), comes home from the unemployment bureau one evening to find that his young wife, Lammchen (Margaret Sullavan), a mother-to-be, isn't home, and has left without giving notice. Distraught, he takes to the street to catch up with her, finally finding her riding a carousel, alone. They have a choppy conversation, broken by the rotation of her “steed,” in which she admits that she was afraid to go home. And she sounds dismal. Lammchen finally dismounts and explains herself—she couldn't go back because, in the grip of an irresistible pregnancy craving, she ate all of the salmon bought for their tightly budgeted dinner. As soon as she speaks, she's forgiven, and they return to ride the carousel, now together. The discordant uncertainty of their first broken exchange gives way to a harmonious understanding; it's just one of those timid little episodes of fear and forgiveness that makes up still-fresh love, but it's high drama to them, and Borzage gives it the appropriate gravity.
This couple's hardscrabble story takes place in Germany's Weimar Republic, in its mass unemployment-hobbled final limp towards dissolve, events only a few years removed from the film's release date—though a tremendous shift in German life was already apparent; when the film was released in May of 1934, Hitler was already Chancellor, and the death of President von Hinderburg—the final nudge to push the teetering civilization into fascism—was only months away. Hollywoodized Europe is here, as ever, a mutt fantasia (Little Man supporting actress Muriel Kirkland is from Yonkers, and sounds it), but popular entertainment's investment in the rest of the world during this era-in-crisis, well ahead of American policy, is a rebuke to current film culture. The movie's source is a 1932 novel of the same name by German author Hans Fallada, apparently filmed in '33 in Deutschland. (If the title is familiar now, it is probably not from acquaintance with Fallada's novel or either film; cinephilic pop icon Morrissey borrowed it for a track on his LP "Viva Hate," a tune which does the honor of "remembering" a faded Sixties TV star, "too old to be a child star/ too young to take leads"—the career eulogized has alternately been attributed to Jack Wild and Malcolm McFee.)
Though I haven't read Fallada's book, I assume that the film's air of palpable political anxiety has been imported intact. The central romance of Little Man, What Now? is pressed on all sides by the tectonic movements of social and political forces: the film begins with a streetcorner ideologue barking about "equality"; one of Hans's co-workers comes to the office with a black eye and his arm in a sling, a victim of the era's "politics in a sharper key"; and, like a rejoinder, the film is periodically visited by a middle-aged, rough-hewn couple (Fred Kohler and Mae Marsh) in the midst of hard times, who act as a sort of dark-hued counterpoint to Hans and Lammchen. They're first encountered in a gynecologist's waiting room, where the husband unloads undeserved contempt onto Hans for enjoying perceived class preference (the irony is that there is probably little difference in the men's station of birth, though they're a world apart in comportment); every time we see this couple thereafter they're more destitute, and he's filled with greater bile. Whereas Hans and Lammchen ameliorate the wounds of life through absorption in their world for two, this brusque proletariat directs himself outward, haranguing against the world and persisting on his bitter dreams of an apocalypse of the world order.
The film never really makes clear to what party line this man, or the sidewalk orators he's eventually drawn toward, ascribe—Communist? Nazi?—but then, does it really matter? What comes across is the impression of a culture at a crossroads, with empty stomachs and free-floating resentment as ready tinder, and rhetoric spouting off every soapbox to light it. The solution Little Man, What Now? offers is either hopelessly naive or ingeniously simple—I could go for either, depending on the day I’m asked: it proposes a lover's armistice. What if they called a war and everybody stayed home, fucking? Our protagonist is buffeted between degrading work and the deeper degradation of jobless uselessness, but never loses sight of the small picture—that is, Lammchen. "Nothing very wrong happens to the peaceful man," says our hero, a statement optimistically predicated on a world of peaceful men, but like seemingly all of Borzage's couples, there's a pronounced isolationist streak in these two. The rest of their lives are nourished by the moments they're alone, together: on a erotically suffused countryside idyll, where Sullavan flashes her slim legs and flitters sparrow-like across wide shots; in the loft room they eventually inhabit, a typical Borzage love-retreat that recalls Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell's Paris walkup in Seventh Heaven (Lammchen introduces it to Hans as their "gateway to heaven"), replete with bunting-lined shelves and an impossibly scenic deck view of the Berliner Dom in place of the Sacre Coeur.
Hans is not impervious to the scent of blood in the air; in desperate moments, he'll look down to find a knife clenched in his hand—it's up to Lammchen to ease it out. As always, Borzage's men show unusual vulnerability; confessing his inchoate will towards violence, Hans sinks to his knees, imploring salvation from his wife: “Take care of me, please.” Even now, 70 years along, when the demarcation of gender roles has presumably been softened, this is a rare moment of totally naked masculine need (never mind that on the “screen machismo” scale, Montgomery's plaintive presence ranks in Farley Granger territory). An opening intertitle proves the film is attuned to the precarious state of the world and is guttily competent of its ability to proffer an alternative to destruction: “The story of Little Man is the story of Every Man—and the question of What Now? is the World's Daily Problem, a problem that can only hope to be overcome by a courage bourne of great faith in the hearts of women.” Essentially: Let love in.
I am not the first to evoke Dickens in discussion of Borzage, though a blanket comparison is overly convenient while being under-specific, and unfair to both men. Nevertheless, it's undeniably apt in the case of Little Man, What Now?, particularly in the manner that secondary roles are handled; when we first encounter Hans's employer, Dusseldorf dry-goods dealer Kleinhotz (Donald Haines), the camera surveys him bottom-to-top, and the accentuated details—his bunion-padded feet, his imposing forked beard—function like one of Dickens's descriptive paragraphs, the fanfare announcing a grotesque domestic potentate, illustration by Phiz. There are other, more muted characterizations that recall Dickens in their branding of identifying eccentricities: Hans's stepmother, Mia (Catherine Doucet), a high-society madame, ever paranoid about losing her toy dog; the benevolent coachman Puttbresse (Christian Rub), who makes a disadvantageous show of “haggling” with his boarder, Lammchen, the better to conceal his charity. The closing reprise of the players, because “a good cast is worth repeating,” would be mere pretense in nine cases out of ten; here the goodwill is earned, and the gesture is touching. But Borzage's most Dickensian tendency is something more oblique. It is, essentially, the ability of both men to depict virtue in a way that is neither cloying, cheerily sexless, nor chidingly haughty—in the form of an Esther Summerson for Dickens, as a Janet Gaynor or Margaret Sullavan for Borzage. The popular adage goes that "happiness writes white," and the same might go for that ambiguous human quality called "goodness"—but this is true only for the inferior artist, who uses miserablism as a shortcut to fatuous truths. Borzage's wisdom is in affirming the possibility of decency in the world, though not its inevitability.
Vice and virtue, though, may not be ideals that have survived quite intact into this century, and too much of how the critical community tends to think and talk about Borzage already highlights his distance, his antiquity; there are elements of Little Man, What Now? that exceed the common run of its popular contemporaries not only in style but also in storytelling modernity. So much of the drama in Little Man, What Now? is petite, anecdotal. It’s quotidian melodrama shorn of death-defying escapes and exhalted ever-after triumphs—the only accomplishment that's possible in this life is managing to survive another day without shutting out the world and losing the ability to love. The posed inquiry of this film—What Now?—brings to mind a question by an ideal Borzage actor born a decade too late, Montgomery Clift: "The sadness of our existence should not leave us blunted, on the contrary—how to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable, and stay alive?" —NICK PINKERTON