Frank Borzage: Hollywood Romantic, Week Two

Museum of the Moving Image
Queens, New York
July 15-August 20

The River
by Nick Pinkerton

MOMI’s lovingly curated overview of Hollywood melodramatician Frank Borzage’s career enters its second weekend tomorrow, showcasing a handful of silent works which originate from the filmmaker’s prolific vocational years (The Gun Woman and Until They Get Me from 1917 [both Westerns], and 1920’s poor-fiddler-made-good yarn Humoresque, all shy of an hour), a later, feature-length “rural romance” (1925’s Lazybones), and, most alluring, the excavated fragments of a little-seen feature, 1928’s The River, whose conception coincides with Borzage’s sustained run of primacy in the late Twenties that culminated in his collecting the first-ever Best Director Academy Award.

The difficulty in wanting to talk up five-and-a-half hours of from-the-vaults, battered-but-unbowed silent celluloid is this: those inclined to be interested in this sort of thing don’t really need to be sold. Ticket-stub hoarding completists will be duly present, as will that smattering of drained, haunted eunuchs who drag their plastic bags of baloney sandwiches between repertory series, sobering warnings of the screen’s vampiric powers. But, to address anyone outside of those stand-bys who are lucky enough to find The River playing within a gas tank’s worth of distance (a select group, for a select time frame—MOMI’s 16mm print is a loaner from the Cinemathèque suisse), I can offer a reason to make the trip that has nothing to do with formulating a more complete understanding of Borzage’s recurrent themes, genre contextualization, or any such drear stuff. What I am talking about is the thing that makes filmed images not only move, but palpitate; the medium’s major selling point for a century-and-some-change: I am talking about sex.

About the best description of of moviegoing’s salacious pleasures comes in Cèline’s Journey to the End of the Night: “I picked a movie house with posters of women in slips, and what legs! Boyohboy! Heavy! Ample! Shapely!...Dreams rise in the darkness and catch fire from the mirage of moving light. What happens on the screen isn’t quite real; it leaves open a vague cloudy space for the poor, for dreams and the dead. Hurry hurry, cram yourself full of dreams to carry you through the life that’s waiting for you outside, when you leave here, to help you last a few days more in that nightmare of things and people. Among the dreams, choose the ones most likely to warm your soul. I have to confess that I picked the sexy one. No point in being proud; when it comes to miracles, take the ones that will stay with you. A blonde with unforgettable tits and shoulders saw fit to break the silence of the screen with a song about her loneliness. I’d have been glad to cry about it with her.”

I imagine Cèline could’ve well been watching Mary Duncan, the dream, the miracle of The River—she’s a brunette for Borzage, but certainly a beauty not in the chic, makeup-and-eveningwear-carapaced sense, but in the “Oh, my God, I really would like to touch this woman” sense—of all the uncanny sensations that moviegoing can offer, there is little to match necrophiliac lust directed toward a female in the full bloom of supple sensuality who, in the years since being photographed, has had time enough to live a very long life and die. Herve Dumont’s new Borzage bio has it that the director “discovered” Virginia-born Duncan on the Chicago stage in Spring 1927; other sources suggest her successful 1926 Broadway turn in The Shanghai Gesture preceded a Hollywood migration—whatever the case, she’d accrued some screen credits (including appearing for Murnau in 4 Devils) prior to doing her first work under Borzage in The River. The source of her “presence” in this film isn’t difficult to articulate, so let’s not mince words: she’s perfectly portioned, and can’t occupy a scene without an unspoken proposition, and the suggestion of a Tijuana Bible’s worth of sexual possibilities. When she first appears on-screen—in motion, that is—the film ceases to have a subject beyond the appreciation of her body. Any viewer with eyes to see will be aware of nothing but her mouth, a little black pucker hinting at sardonic scorn even in repose and yes, her breasts, explicitly outlined in a scoop-neck dress which had French critics of the time protectively positioning their cahiers in their laps. Rumors of pre-Code actresses going nude under clingy silk abound; I’m in no position to confirm or deny that such is the case here, so I’ll defer that judgment to sharp-eyed viewers.

My description notwithstanding, I should note that The River is not, in fact, a litany of cheesecake revealing Borzage as a proto-Roger Vadim. It is, rather, the prototypical Frank Borzage film—a sensitive, sincere, full-blooded romance leading toward an equation of love by which one plus one combine to make One. The film as it exists, is a tatters—the beginning, finale, and two action-heavy intermediary scenes are all missing, forcing us to make do with (admittedly well-integrated) intertitles and production stills. Brawny, square-jawed picaro Allen John (Borzage regular Charles Farrell, handling what’s known in contemporary film lexicon as a “Brendan Fraser part”) leaves the sticks, and the only home he’s ever known, seeking his fate downriver in a handmade barge. His voyage is held up at the secluded construction site of a dam (the movie’s slightly mythical stage includes stacked rows of workman’s shacks), where he ties up just as the workers are draining out via rope bridge; meanwhile the camp’s resident floozy, Rosalee (Duncan, conspicuous amidst salt-of-the-earth types in flapper couture), reels from the fallout of a crime of passion—the engineer whose mistress she’d been (Street Angel‘s Alfredo Sabato) has murdered a potential competitor and been hauled off to jail.

Thinking herself now nearly isolated from the deceits of menfolk, Rosalee is surprised to meet a new fella in town—as she muses by the river, Allen John bobs into her life, tempting fate by floating dangerously close to a whirlpool in a barrel. When he pops out of the water naked as a jaybird, Rosalee and Allen John surprise one another; at their first meeting he’s half-submerged, exposed, demure; she’s unabashed, forward, sardonic; and the unconventional template for their relationship—naive masculine vulnerability against cynical feminine experience-—is established. Allen John, you see, hasn’t been close to a woman’s nether regions since the day of his birth—wheras Rosalee, well... Ms. Duncan’s eyes tell that story. “Kinda fun to see how close you can get without getting pulled in,” explains Allen John of his little game—cue foreboding.

Rosalee invites Allen John over, playfully belittles his boyishness (why does she lift her ban on the company of men for him? “You don’t count.”), tricks him time and again into missing his train (a toy engine rolls by on a distant overpass), overloads his provincial sense of decency (when she reveals that her locked away lover wasn’t, in fact, her husband—flustered Allen John looks as though he literally cannot process how such a thing is even possible), and flirts with the happy doofus. As their relationship carries along, it would be painfully obvious to anyone save a complete sexual novice like Allen John that his sometimes antagonistic playmate is, yeah, trying to get the lug into bed. Borzage shows no indication of wanting to punish his heroine for her usurping of the sexual initiative—there’s nary a looming threat of VD or the Unwed Mothers’ Home; if anything, one can imagine a rowdy contemporary crowd stomping and hissing down the leading man ("C’mon!") when kimono-clad Duncan goes supine on her bed at the suggestion of a “celebration,” and Allen John sets up for a game of checkers. And just when consummation seems close at hand, Allen John’s swept into a turmoil of inchoate jealousy of her past lover that sends him plunging into the winter night, proving his manhood by the time-tested method of whacking down trees (and, I guess we can infer, working off his hard-on simultaneously).

After this rampage, Allen John almost freezes to death, but for the grace of sexual healing—the film’s finale, at least in its truncated form, is Rosalee, draping herself over Allen John’s bare, ice-rimed chest to bring him to, a resurrection enacted through the pulse of flesh. Fragmentary as this 53-minute presentation of The River (as complete a version as anyone’s likely to see) is, much of what’s missing has fallen away like chaff; we don’t feel terribly slighted for missing out on Allen John’s relationship with a gentle giant deaf-mute (Lithuanian ex-wrestler Ivan Linow), or the rock ’em sock ’em comeuppance that has Rosalee’s ex-lover strangled in the woods. In fact, I can imagine that this pared-down River, in its singular emphasis on the awakening attraction between Allen John and Rosalee, and their arduous road to understanding, compassionate touch, may acheive a luminous narrative purity that the complete film, waterlogged with subplot, lacked—you rarely find a gesture of contact imbued with this much meaning outside of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Returning finally to our starlet: Duncan, a friend of Marion Davies, with whom she vacationed at San Simeon, found access to moneyed circles beyond Hollywood’s neurotic nouveau riche—she ditched her career while the getting was good in 1933, married playboy polo celebrity (apparently such a thing exists) Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, and became the grand dame of Palm Beach society. Before departing the picture business, she followed The River with other notable turns, among them Murnau’s City Girl and Morning Glory with Katharine Hepburn—but Borzage’s film may be her physique’s finest hour.