Frank Borzage, Hollywood Romantic
Museum of the Moving Image
Queens, New York
July 15-August 20, 2006

Of all the auteur-centric retros appearing in New York’s parcel of repertory-driven theaters this summer, there are few that will seem so long deferred as Museum of the Moving Image’s 24 film overview of ace melodramatist Frank Borzage’s nearly half-century spanning career. For this critic, as for the layman viewer, Borzage has long been an elusive beast, thanks to the slim home-video availability of his oeuvre and the waiting-list status of his auteurdom application, despite an impressive coterie of admirers (Martin Scorsese’s Personal Journey Through American Movies treats Borzage to especial reverence, though the promiscuous effusiveness of Scorsese’s project tends to lose specific names in the din). So the jury is still out on Borzage—his 1927 Janet Gaynor vehicle 7th Heaven, a box-office smash, made him the first winner of the Academy Award for directing, but it was the Gaynor-starring Sunrise that was heralded as the “Unique and Artistic Production”—but there is much reason to suspect it will be delivered soon, or at least that the happy few of us (well, perhaps not so happy) who take an interest in popular culture outside of the present tense will have more ample evidence to draw from: MOMI’s Borzage series overlaps with retrospectives at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives and Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, and the director’s most tireless advocate, Cinematheque suisse director Hervé Dumont, is having his Borzage biography published through McFarland & Company.

Already, there have been glimpses enough of Borzage to suggest that this creature is some remarkable Lost World relic, like the teasing sonar images from Loch Ness that indicate the outline of a Jurassic fin—catching a screening of his 1928 Street Angel (playing July 29 for this retro) a few years back was intriguing; it’s a startlingly beautiful film, set amidst a fabulist phony Naples, and lush with feeling. But I was a fan of Borzage well before seeing any of his work; as a teenager, I grew rather attached to an attributed quotation of his that I picked up God-knows-where: “Critics are inclined to belittle them and call them cheap. But they don’t seem to sense the idea that life is made up largely of melodrama. The most grotesque situations rise every day in life.... And yet when these true to life situations are transferred to the screen, they are sometimes laughed down because they are ‘melodrama.’”

It would be a difficult proposition to re-establish Borzage, as that statement accords, as a chronicler of “real life”—ardent, voluptuous classical filmmaking stands in sharp contrast to the lazy contemporary shorthand for authenticity: offhand, coarse, shaky, grainy, grubby—but Borzage deserves credit as more than a preternaturally talented designer of long-lashed, wet-eyed affairs set adrift in inflated soundstage dioramas. The director, raised in poverty to a large immigrant family (MOMI’s bio identifies him as the son of an Italian stonemason; David Thomson would have it that his parents were Swedes), was marked by his experience of want, and so he would contextualize his big-budget romanticism in the world of palpable squalor, misery, and deprivation; the Salt Lake City coal mines branded Borzage, as the workhouse branded Dickens. The genteel, rather touching rung of poverty on which Borzage tends to dwell may seem faintly silly to modern eyes, but if so, that’s fault that I would sooner assign to contemporary mores—you’ll have to scour the previous century fairly thoroughly to find an entertainment culture more openly contemptuous/ dismissive of the poor than that of today. The old saw for writing about film revival is that such-and-such is “more relevant today than ever”—if that’s so, than Borzage’s lesson to a modern audience may best be encapsulated in the statement of Mose, a supporting player in the director’s 1948 film Moonrise: “There isn’t enough dignity in the world.”

After the MOMI retrospective’s leadoff, the one-afternoon-only unveiling of Lucky Star (per the press kit, a “long-lost masterpiece” from the director’s fecund late-1920s output), this weekend’s should-see event is Moonrise, a noirish late-period corker released through borderline-B Republic (the director’s reputation—and presumably powers, as this is the latest-released selection in the retro—was massively diminished in Postwar America). The film’s pretense at Southern Gothicism is tenuous at best—though set in creeper-choked backwater Virginia, the accents never quite congeal, and the only concession made to local specificities comes in potted weeping willows and a hobbling Civil War cavalry veteran (!) who talks about “Yankees,” just one of several agonizing bit players—but the movie boasts at least a handful of extended passages featuring what we connoisseurs like to call shit-hot filmmaking.

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...”

If a lot of the provincial-asphyxiation material seems over-familiar, Borzage’s handling of it is anything but; anyone could be forgiven for doubting that another Golden Age Old Master’s name needs to be canonized, but look at this film’s fairgrounds scene, a staple of any film staged in Small Town, USA. Not only do you get Moonrise’s best sliver of detail work—a “Syrian Enchantress direct from the forests of Lebanon” in front of the sideshow tent who’s clearly a gum-chewing slattern from Louisiana—but Borzage’s bravura staging of Danny’s opening up to Gilly on a ferris wheel, to the toot of “Oh, Susanna,” is incontestably fine, fluid work, ramping in emotional pitch into a vertiginous freak-out. This considered: if consensus finally determines Borzage a master or a deft hack, where he settles in the Sarris-style rubric of reputation, is an undecided matter. What’s certain: There is nothing more indispensable playing in theaters right now. —NICK PINKERTON