Seen today, even the most austere films by Hollywood’s first Romantic Frank Borzage might cause the uninitiated to chortle at the hopelessly out of date plots and squirm uncomfortably at the naked emotion on the screen. Granted, we’ve come a long way in the last eighty years but try to imagine how the current, sorry state of modern love in the popular arts will look to future generations. Teen vampire fantasies, Reality TV dating, the crass caterwauling of dim-witted Divas, and the saccharine genre of “chick flicks” all reek of phony, forced feelings.
The studio system’s spin on the romanticism of Old Europe was an ideology born out a struggling populace aiming to elevate itself, not a marketing idea to be cashed in every St. Valentine’s Day. That’s why it’s important to give pause and re-evaluate the deeply-felt, spiritually rejuvenating films of this mostly forgotten filmmaker.
Borzage’s was a cinema of the underdog where innocent lovers and hard-bitten little people longed to find happiness and peace of mind while they were being smacked-down by the law, the Great Depression and the World Wars. For a glorious fifteen years no director wore his heart on his sleeve more proudly. Borzage asked his audience to take leaps of faith and those still willing to do so will be richly rewarded by his films.
Born in Utah to parents of Italian and Swiss ancestry, the young Borzage worked as a miner before the acting bug bit prompting him to leave home and join a traveling troupe. At twenty the unconventionally handsome, curly-headed actor had landed in California and immediately got work in the flickers, quickly advancing to the role of a heavy in a couple of William S. Hart oaters as well as getting the lead in several comedies at the Mutual Studio. The impressed producer Thomas Ince soon signed Borzage to star in a slate of western and melodramatic shorts.
Borzage convinced Inge to let him set up shop behind the camera and before long the matinee idol was directing a series of ambitious westerns. Among Borzage’s few existing films from this era The Pitch o’ Chance, The Pilgrim, Nugget Jim’s Pardner and Until They Get Me, often found him co-starring as a mysterious outsider trying to ingratiate himself into rough and tumble frontier communities.
Even with such a small sample size it is evident these character-driven films were made with care taken towards the performers and steps above the starchy oaters being churned out by Ince and fellow early moguls at rival studios. For the next decade Borzage would make a wide range of features for Universal, Paramount, First National (Warner Brothers), MGM before finally settling at Fox in the early 1920s.
Borzage’s first film of real significance, Humoresque, was made at Cosmopolitan, an up-start Manhattan-based studio run by media mogul W.R. Hearst with only a few features under its belt. Based on a novel by Fannie Hurst this warhorse of a story (memorably remade as a 1946 soaper starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield) follows the rise of a brilliant young violinist from the Jewish Ghetto to world prominence before an injury at the trenches in France during WWI put his career and future happiness in jeopardy.
Had it been left in the hands of a less sensitive filmmaker, this syrupy story could have dated badly but Borzage took pains to create both a hardscrabble New York City divided by class and posh, old Europe where aristocratic talents like Leon Kanter (Gaston Glass) flourished. Unlike the blood and thunder re-make Borzage’s film is an affectionate love story between Leon and his ever-doting Mama (Vera Gordon) who pinches pennies from her tightwad husband to finance her son’s musical dream.
Borzage was a prolific director from 1921-23 but slowed down to make just one film in 1924, Secrets, an epic reminiscence of love and regret told through from the point of view of a seventy-five year old woman at the death bed of her husband. When the young British aristocrat Mary Marlowe (Norma Talmadge) falls in love with commoner John Carlton (Eugene O’Brien) her parents forbid her from ever seeing him again. When threatened with banishment to Scotland Mary runs off with John to America’s Wild West where they encounter poverty and hardship.
She takes to the role of a frontierswoman by giving birth to a child and ordering John to bear arms to protect the homestead when band of outlaws descend upon them. Years pass and the Carltons are now comfortably well-off when Mary is confronted by the haughty Estelle Manwaring (Gertrude Astor) who claims she is having an affair with John. Mary is devastated but she is willing to give John a divorce so he can marry the younger woman.
Coming to his senses the ne’er do well John asks Mary to forgive him and even tells Estelle he has lost all his money which effectively scares off the gold digger. Old Mary is distracted from her reverie with the news her husband has recovered from his illness and she goes into his room to comfort her life partner.
This big budget romance, co-produced by Talmadge and husband Joseph M. Schenck and penned by esteemed screenwriter Frances Marion, was another box office hit for its star and helped solidify Borzage’s burgeoning reputation as a first-rate director of women.
Borzage filmed a curiously stripped-down remake of Secrets in 1933 with Leslie Howard and Mary Pickford as the romantic Carltons. Despite the presence of the A-list leads and some brilliant use of montage the disappointing talkie lacked the sweep of its predecessor and its dismal box office business sent the forty-one year old Pickford into early retirement.
After accepting a lucrative contract from MGM Borzage’s set upon adapting Somerset Maugham’s naughty hit play The Circle for the screen. This Lubitsch-influenced comedy-drama is the story of a family of aristocrats forced to come to grips with a thirty year old scandal. Inspired by the woman who abandoned her father in-law for a life of excitement and romance Elizabeth Cheney (Eleanor Boardman) is ready to toss over her drip of a husband Arnold (Creighton Hale) for the more virile Teddy (Malcolm MacGregor).
As fate would have it Elizabeth’s mother in-law Kitty (Eugenie Besserer) has decided to pay an impromptu visit on her former husband Lord Clive (Alec B. Francis) with her longtime boyfriend Lord Hughie (George Fawcett) in tow. Elizabeth notices the years haven’t been kind to the lovers which helps put a damper on her own romantic aspirations. When Arnold gets wind of his wife’s betrayal he makes a surprising stand for Elizabeth’s affections and punches out Teddy before returning her to the safety of the family manor.
Unlike the eternally youthful Lubitsch, Borzage takes little interest in the fickle Passion Play of Elizabeth and Arnold to instead examine the behavior of the older menage-a-trois who have got past old resentments and moved on with their lives with both regret and relief. It was a very mature take on life for a thirty-two year old filmmaker just beginning to come into his own.
Before becoming MGM’s most successful scenarist in the early 1930s Frances Marion had already formed a strong working relationship with Borzage, working on several of his best films to date (Humoresque, The Nth Commandment, Secrets, etc.) among an enormous volume of writing screen credits in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Around the time of the production of her next collaboration with Borzage, Lazybones, Marion had already shown a talent for rural pictures having scripting the scenario for John Ford’s robust comedy Lightnin’ and would soon adapt the tearjerker Stella Dallas for its first incarnation on the screen. In Lazybones Marion and Borzage add a gentle humor and much tenderness to what could well have been just another knee-jerk take on small town prejudice.
Steve “Lazybones” Jones (Buck Jones) lives a sleepy existence with his mother (Edythe Chapman) who has a difficult time motivating her good-hearted son to get serious about courting the lovely Agnes Fanning (Jane Novak) who is clearly stuck on him. Agnes’ mother (Emily Fitzroy) despises Steve and has pinned all her hopes on her daughter Ruth (Zasu Pitts) who has spent the last two years away at college. When she demands Ruth come home to marry the boring, successful Elmer Ballister (William Bailey), the older daughter despairs her rigid mother will think her infant child was born out of wedlock, so she throws herself into a river in a suicide attempt.
As fate would have it, Steve is fishing downstream and he pulls the unconscious Ruth out of harm’s way. Ruth tells Steve her sad story and he ends up adopting the child to the dismay of Agnes and Mrs. Fanning who think the baby girl is the product of his fecklessness. Mrs. Fanning soon learns the truth from Ruth but she lets the lie stand, then fester, leading to Ruth’s unhappy marriage to Ballister and a spinster life for Agnes.
Steve does his best to bring up the little girl as his “niece”, but the locals know she is illegitimate and make her life a misery. But, Kit (Madge Bellamy) has spine and spunk and she grows into a cute tomboy of considerable mettle. When the world war descends upon the town, Steve is called up to serve as a doughboy at the French front. His laziness in the trenches leads to a rip-roaringly funny event in which he captures twenty German infantry man and becomes a war hero.
Word of Steve’s exploits are cause for celebration and when he returns home the town embraces their beloved Lazybones. His reunion with Kit is bittersweet as he has fallen in love with the now-adult woman, but to his dismay she has her heart set on a young man closer to her own age. Although faded, the still attractive Agnes has finally learned the awful truth about Kit from her now-demented mother but there will be no happy reconciliation between her and Steve. Indeed the film fades out with Lazybones assuming his position in a tree above the river, waiting for the big catch that will never come.
A poignant and profound tale of human vulnerability and bitter disappointment, Lazybones was Borzage’s first exceptional picture. It would take two years before he would soar again to such lofty heights.
By the late 1920s Fox boasted F.W. Murnau, John Ford, and Raoul Walsh among their canon of top level directors, but the studio tended to spurn Continental glitz, expensive epics, and booze-drenched romps about “It” girls in favor of Americana and the sort of sentimental film that could play for audiences in the “stix”.
Finding this sort of creative environment ideal, Borzage began what may have been his greatest creative collaboration with the winsome twenty year old studio starlet Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven. Impressed by artistic achievements of Murnau and other films coming out of Berlin’s UFA studio, Fox sent Borzage and set designer Harry Oliver to Paris to gather inspiration for recreating the back streets of Montmartre on a studio set.
Set in the days before WWI, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in a Parisian sewer but his sundry job doesn’t dampen his hopeful spirit. Hardly an ambitious fellow, Chico only wants to be promoted to a street sweeper and find a nice girl to marry. Enter Diane (Gaynor), a lovely waif with a shady past. Chico helps Diane escape from her manipulative sister and the police and soon the couple falls giddily in love. An atheist, Chico decides this girl must be God-sent so he vows to become a believer.
Their passion overcomes all obstacles except The Great War and once hostilities break out Chico is called to the front. Diane has been transformed by the love of this simple man but after four long years at the front news of his death arrives prompting her to renounce God. But actually, Chico is very much alive and though now blind from his battlefield wounds. He manages to find his beloved urchin who offers to be his eyes until death do they part.
Given its hoary plot it is likely Seventh Heaven wouldn’t have succeeded so wonderfully had Borzage not planted some very real seeds of doubt throughout his unlikely romance. The great revelation here is the feisty Gaynor who shines in the first of a series of transcendent screen performances for her new mentor and Murnau (Sunrise).
The two stars returned in the richly atmospheric Street Angel for which the narrow streets and foggy wharves of Naples were recreated on an even more elaborate set by Borzage and Oliver. Trying to scrounge up twenty Lire to pay for her ailing mother’s prescription, innocent Angela (Gaynor) tries in vain to hustle a local worker then gets caught stealing another man’s change, landing her a stiff one year sentence in a labor camp. She escapes and makes a beeline home, but to her horror her mother has died. But, as the gendarmes are hot on her trail she skips town with a gypsy caravan.
In the countryside she falls in love with Gino (Farrell) a happy-go-lucky artist who has painted her portrait, and against her better judgment he brings her back to Naples. Their hand to mouth existence is pure bliss until the day a gendarme shows up to arrest Angela. Angela’s disappearance sends Gino into a downward spiral and when he learns she was jailed for solicitation his mood turns black.
One night, he finds Angela in rags near the docks. In a chilling sequence, Borzage’s fluid camera follows a mad Gino as Angela chases her into a church where he sees her portrait at the altar piece. Struck by the beautiful vision he makes a teary reconciliation with the wronged and adoring woman at his feet.
Inspired by the pyrotechnics of Murnau, Street Angel would turn out to be Borzage’s technical tour de force even if the film was slightly derivative of its predecessor. Nevertheless, audiences loved the formula paving the way for Gaynor and Farrell to become Hollywood’s top romantic team and Borzage to have the pick of the top properties at the studio.
As fate would have it, the advent of sound helped phase-out the painstakingly produced and visually splendid films of both Murnau and Borzage. The immobile cameras and planted microphones used to capture the human voice rendered tracking shots impossible and gave movies a stilted look for the early, awkward years of sound cinema. Not willing to nip Borzage’s recent successes in the bud Fox executives allowed him to shoot silent versions of two more metaphysical romances.
In the hauntingly beautiful Lucky Star Mary Tucker (Gaynor) is a lonely, unworldly farm girl who loves soldier Timothy Osborn (Farrell) who has returned from the French battlefront paralyzed from the waist down. Timothy adores Mary but since he feels his infirmity makes him something less than a man, he does not declare himself to her.
Meanwhile, Mary’s mother (Hedwiga Reicher) arranges a marriage to Martin (Guinn Williams), Timothy’s mean former sergeant. The bad news brings out the Lion in the incapacitated man leading to a life-transforming confrontation with the unscrupulous bully. Again, Borzage and Gaynor delicately pull on the heartstrings in a small, exquisitely nuanced story with huge ramifications. Lucky Star is a pitch perfect film.
Completed months before cameras rolled for Lucky Star Borzage’s great lost film The River was the director’s most complex and erotically-charged effort to date. Reconstructed as a partial talkie by Fox after the film flopped on its initial release, The River disappeared from studio archives and seemed destined to oblivion until half of the film was recovered and restored with stills and title cards covering the missing scenes in 1993. Even in its incomplete state, The River is an extremely impressive work of cinema and plays quite differently from the films of the Gaynor-Farrell trilogy.
This time Charles Farrell plays innocent child of nature Allen John Spender to Rosalee (Mary Duncan), a mistress to a convicted murder. After the jealous Marsdon kills a man who dares to flirt with Rosalee, the notorious woman chooses to sequester herself in a mountain shack next to a river in an effort to forget about men. Weighed-down by a black raven Marsdon has given her to remember him by, Rosalee spends her days in a solitary sulk until she spots a skinny-dipping Adonis swimming dangerously close to a whirlpool.
Alternately bored and charmed by the young rube, Rosalee succeeds in tantalizing Allen so completely he ends up missing the last train out of town until the spring. Rosalee tries to push the naive paramour out of her life prompting Allen to commit a mad act of love in the midst of a crippling blizzard. He is found near death by the deaf mute Sam Thompson (Ivan Linow) who brings the comatose Allen back to the desperate Rosalee. She succeeds in bringing him back to life and they brave out the winter together.
Their romantic idyll is broken in spring by the appearance of Marsdon, freshly escaped from prison and ready to reclaim his lover. The criminal cold cocks Allen and dumps him in the river and likely to get sucked under by the whirlpool until Rosalee intervenes. Meanwhile, Sam catches Marsdon and kills him leaving the two lovers to return to civilization on a barge.
From the forty-three minutes of the existing footage it’s clear this was meant to be a dark take on humanity. Owing to the brilliant set design by Harry Oliver this would-be outdoors film takes on a claustrophobic quality helping make Rosalee a prisoner of her own desires. Mary Duncan’s brooding persona and innate sensuality make her intimate scenes with Farrell smolder with a sexual tension that resonates eighty years on.
Having labored on so many artistically ambitious dramas during the last few years Borzage’s first all-sound film They Had to See Paris would prove to be a charming and very funny respite. Wise-cracking Will Rogers, also in his first talkie, plays Pike Peters a struggling but happy owner of an auto repair shop in Oklahoma.
When his long dormant oil well comes in, Pike’s wife (Irene Rich) becomes high-falutin’ and pressures her husband into taking the family to Paris. Once in the City of Lights, Mr. Peters’ down home ways embarrasses Mrs. Peters who is ready to cast the rube aside. With the frightening revelation his two adult children have hooked up with bootlicking Eurotrash, Pike uses a little reverse psychology by going Parisian and taking a mistress in an effort to heal his debauched and horrified family.
For Liliom Borzage moved his Continental base of operations to modern day Budapest—painstakingly recreated on a Fox lot—to direct a sumptuous adaptation of Molnar’s classic play about doomed love and spiritual redemption. Buoyed by Chester A. Lyons’ evocative cinematography, Harry Oliver’s stunning set design and Borzage’s impeccable talent for pushing all the right emotional buttons one almost wishes this masterpiece of mise-en-scene was shot as a silent but, alas, Liliom suffers from static delivery of the spoken word.
As Julie, the erstwhile object of the carnival barker’s affections, stage actress Rose Hobart suffers nobly but doesn’t make a great love match with the boyish Farrell whose light tenor speaking voice wasn’t done any favors by the primitive sound process. Still, the otherworldly scenes depicting Liliom’s stark suicide and his cosmic regeneration are stunning examples of visual cinema on par with anything in Borzage’s lustrous silent films and the masterworks of Murnau.
Unlike many directors working in Hollywood during the difficult transition to sound Borzage survived and flourished because he remained in step with the populist heartbeat of his country. Dictated by the lower budgets he encountered by the box office flop of Liliom Borzage’s films of the early 1930s focused on struggling romances but now they were told within the context of the darkest days of the Great Depression.
In the opening sequence of Doctors’ Wives we find the women behind the men whose job it is to cure disease and save lives to be a catty and superficial bunch. But as the doctors seem to have no use for these women beyond parading them around as trophy wives, it’s no wonder their wives have become either spoiled or bored. Hard-working Dr. Judson Penning (Warner Baxter) makes the mistake of marrying the much younger and idealistic Nina Wyndram (Joan Bennett) who becomes frustrated by Penning’s devotion to duty and turns her attentions to an even greater workaholic Dr. Kane Ruyter (Victor Varconi) who may be onto a discovery that will revolutionize the world of medicine.
But it turns out Kane is gravely ill and won’t last long enough to fulfill his destiny so the exhausted Dr. Penning is enlisted to perform an operation, thus buying a little more time for Ruyter to perform his miracle. While washing up in the operating room Penning gets a surprise visit from Nina who, unlike most other doctors’ wives, has taken an earnest interest in bettering mankind.
While the story and some of the playing comes off starchy Doctors’ Wives is recognizably Borzagean, especially the sequence where shy Nina reveals herself to be Penning’s able medical assistant. Even if the Pennings are a mismatched romantic pair they managed to forge a fond partnership.
A different sort of romantic cynicism runs rampant in Bad Girl, the story of a struggling Manhattan model who falls for the one guy in town who resists her ample charms. On a dare from a friend, flinty-hearted working girl Dorothy Haley (Sally Eilers) flirts and finally manages to seduce regular guy Eddie Collins (James Dunn). When she returns home after a curfew imposed by her narrow-minded brother and sister in-law Dorothy is evicted from their flat and moves in with best friend Edna (Minna Gombell).
Though Dorothy and Eddie have made a tenuous marriage pact, she lives in nervous anticipation the stranger will follow through on his promise. Even after the wary couple takes the marital plunge they suspect the worst of one another leading to a near break-up after Dorothy delivers their first child.
As with many of Borzage’s films during this transitional period to sound Bad Girl works better in its many poignant sequences than it does as a whole. Although it would be a stretch to anoint Bad Girl as major Borzage its cautious take on the American Dream struck a true note with audiences of era and won him his second (and last) Academy Award for Best Director.
For his next film, After Tomorrow, Borzage stuck with this winning formula of a young couple struggling to make a go of it in New York. As with Bad Girl it’s the couple’s relatives who prove to be major obstacles to their happiness—in this case a pair of selfish mother in-laws are the culprits.
After being engaged for three long years Peter Piper (Charles Farrell) and Sidney Taylor (Marian Nixon) finally seem to be on the verge of matrimony when her mother Else (Minna Gombell) deserts dull husband Willie (William Coller Sr.) for a handsome embezzler. Willie has a heart attack prompting Peter and Sidney to spend their future nest egg on a doctor to nurse him back to health. Meanwhile, Peter’s mother (Josephine Hull) lays a heavy guilt trip on Sidney in the hopes her son will return to the fold. As fate would have it a long shot investment brings in an unexpected dose of cash and propels Peter and Sidney to the altar.
Anticipating Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, a similar indictment of greed and indifference in the family unit, After Tomorrow finds Borzage more comfortable with sound and dialogue giving wings to a wide array of memorable performances.
Although Young America features both Spencer Tracy and Ralph Bellamy in lead roles the real stars of this film about the roots of juvenile delinquency are Tommy Conlon as the stand-up bad boy Arthur Simpson and Borzage’s son Raymond as his sidekick Nutty Beamish. After being expelled from school for defending Nutty in a fight against a neighborhood bully and thrown out of his home by his exasperated mother Arthur is hauled into juvenile court for stealing medicine from a pharmacy for Nutty’s ailing mother.
Unwilling to implicate Nutty in the crime, Arthur is prepared to accept his sentence to a boy’s home until the wife of the pharmacist Jack Doray (Tracy) begs Judge Blake (Bellamy) to let the Dorays take charge of the errant boy. Arthur seems to have turned over a new leaf until he violates the Dorays’ orders and skips out one night in attempt to say good-bye to the dying Nutty. But rather than turn Arthur in to the court, Jack has a change of heart and decides to keep the misunderstood boy on.
Like many of Borzage’s underdog heroes, Arthur Simpson lives by a code of honor which also plays heavy in No Greater Glory, the director’s seldom-seen, stylized adaptation of Molnar’s The Paul Street Boys. Blindly following the examples of their parents and teachers two packs of teenage boys have split into military-style gangs that terrorize the weak and each other in an Eastern European city. The greatest victim of the gangs’ cruelty is Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), a sensitive boy who pays the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to be accepted into their ranks.
No Greater Glory was the first of several films Borzage would make criticizing the growth of Fascist-like states in Europe and the Far East and remains a fascinating historical document about a world soon to be plunged into a hell of its own doing.
Before Spencer Tracy became the grand old duffer of MGM, he was an unusually feisty leading man who appealed to audiences as a dependable guy who could tread through tough times and come out ahead. Borzage tapped into Tracy’s working-class idealism in the wonderful A Man’s Castle, arguably the best of many films made about an America on the brink of collapse during the first year of the New Deal.
Bill (Spencer Tracy) is a big-talking, out of work laborer who chooses to live in a Hooverville next to Manhattan’s East River. He wins the heart of the ethereal yet plucky Trina (Loretta Young) who much to his surprise becomes in live-in lover. Trina sets-up a home in their meager confines and her desire to have an expensive stove puts him on a slow death on the installment plan.
Wearying of his new tranquility and itching to skip town, Bill falls in with Fay (Glenda Farrell) a hard-boiled showgirl and is ready to run off with her to London when Trina informs him she is expecting a baby. The responsible father tries to make amends by marrying Trina then plotting a robbery which will allow his little family to live in comfort. Caught then freed by a benevolent night guard, Bill returns to Trina who suggests they catch the next freight car out of town and let the big blue sky dictate where they’ll set down roots.
For Big City Tracy took on the role of Joe Benton, a cab hack married to the beautiful Anna (Luise Rainer), an Eastern European immigrant. Looking to rid Manhattan of cabbies like Joe and give all the business to the city’s large taxi combine, the scheming Beecher (William Demerest) arranges to make a bombing look like an act of terror perpetrated by the independent drivers. Not wishing to implicate forty drivers in the bombings, the government charges Anna with the crime of inadvertently putting the bomb in a box which killed a man.
Rather than risk an unpopular trial Anna is to be deported but Joe’s friends hide the pregnant woman from authorities until she can be granted legal citizenship and fight the charges against her. Worried about the plights of Joe’s friends, Anna turns herself and faces deportation bravely until a motley crew of heroes step up to save the day.
By casting Tracy, fresh from his success in Fury and Rainer, the reigning two-time Oscar-winning queen, and such sporting Hall of Fame heroes like Jack Dempsey, Jim Thorpe and James Jeffries, MGM probably figured they had a big hit on their hands but, unfortunately, Borzage didn’t have Frank Capra’s touch for interweaving social-issue populism with slapstick humor. Big City features one of the very few screen performances by Rainer, a heavy spirit, whose performance sinks under the weight of suffering and self-sacrifice.
The final film in this collaboration was much more up Borzage’s alley. In Mannequin Tracy plays John L. Hennessey, a shipping magnate who returns to his old Lower East Side neighborhood in hopes of winning local girl Jessie Cassidy (Joan Crawford) away from her ne’er do well husband Eddie Miller (Alan Curtis). When Eddie gets wind of Hennessey’s intentions he tests Jessie’s love for him by suggesting she marry her rich benefactor, make an advantageous divorce settlement then return to the fold as Mrs. Miller once again.
Unlike most all of the star-crossed lovers in the Borzage canon tender feelings between the two leads are not reciprocated leading the worldly businessman to woo Jessie by relocating to their own heaven on earth far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Inspired by the joys and comfort of the simple life Jessie will later convince the financially-ruined Hennessey to begin anew with her.
The uneven quality of Borzage’s films of the early 1930s could be chalked up to the stripped-down production values directors faced as the Depression took its toll on Hollywood. For an exotic artist such as Borzage to flourish, he needed starry-eyed men and winsome women involved in transcendent romances and for his first great talkie he found such material in a most unusual place.
In adapting Ernest Hemingway’s groundbreaking novel A Farewell to Arms, Borzage chose to look away from the horrors of the battlefield to concentrate on the impossible romance between American ambulance driver Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). Both are volunteers to the war effort, though Frederic’s reasons to enlist have more to do with adventure versus Catherine who joined to be close to her fiance doomed to die in battle.
After an awkward and atmospheric initial meeting where ladies’ man Frederic succeeds in seducing the wary Catherine the unlikely pair falls in love as he rehabilitates in the Swiss-Italian Alps. Their idyllic union is shattered when he is sent back to face more senseless slaughter the front. Now alone, Catherine learns she is pregnant but unaware the letters she has been sending to Frederic have been intercepted and destroyed by his jealous friend Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), she wrongly assumes Frederic has written her off.
Longing for word from his beloved Frederic deserts and risks his life in a mad pursuit of Catherine. In the heartbreaking finale Frederic finally locates Catherine in a Swiss hospital where, after delivering their still-born son, she will die gloriously in his arms as news of armistice cheers the local populace.
Borzage always seemed most at home in make-believe Europe and in A Farewell to Arms he succeeds in creating a comfortable nest for his lovers even as the world around them is going to hell. Photographed by Paramount veteran Charles Lang, Borzage’s tasteful adult love story was awash in the studio’s lush production values and he managed to coax an impish and charming performance out of Hayes, an actress whose prodigious stage talents didn’t always lend themselves to the screen.
The sophisticated and breezy caper Desire is more reminiscent of the Champagne and caviar style of its famous producer Ernst Lubitsch than anything in the Borzage oeuvre. But one can make a case for good-hearted Tom (Gary Cooper), the naïve American engineer duped into smuggling jewels over the Spanish border by the lovely thief Madeleine de Beaupre (Marlene Dietrich), being a textbook Borzage man-boy. When Madeleine tries to get the hot booty back from the stuffy stud muffin her cynicism melts and she inexplicably finds herself falling in love.
After years of playing Sternberg’s magnificent mannequin Dietrich is a revelation as the thieving minx and the warmness she lends to the role is more typical of a loyal and steadfast Borzage heroine than a flighty Lubitsch heiress. Nevertheless, this one-shot collaboration brought out the best in two auteurs and remains one of the most overlooked romantic comedies of that golden era.
After productive working relationships with Fox and Columbia, Borzage signed on with Warner Brothers in 1934 but his penchant for stories about struggling lovers didn’t take with the most proletariat of Hollywood studios. And, indeed, we begin to find when Borzage couldn’t embrace the material he could turn out uninspired cinema. Aside from Hearts Divided, a charming period romance starring Marion Davies as a southern belle trying to pry her man out from under the clutches of Napoleon (Claude Rains!) and the earnest Green Light, Borzage’s Warners films starring urban sophisticates like Kay Francis and George Brent and the aging boy-girl musical team Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are disappointingly slick and conventional.
Often overlooked by critics and fans of Errol Flynn Green Light is the story of Newell Paige (Flynn), a rising young doctor who takes the blame when his mentor botches an operation causing the death of the hospital’s greatest benefactor, Mrs. Dexter (Spring Byington). Inspired by the victim’s selfless life and the wise words of man of the cloth Dean Harcourt (Cedric Hardwicke), Paige turns the page on his career to join an old colleague in Montana in an effort to quell a deadly virus. Buoyed by this cleansing spirit Paige risks life and limb going the extra nine yards to put down the disease.
Although Green Light brings to mind John Ford’s adaptation of Arrowsmith the newly liberated Newell Paige doesn’t have to play by the same rules as Ronald Colman’s pressure-cooked physician. Paige is a precursor to the fearless heroes and heroines in History Is Made at Night, Three Comrades, Strange Cargo and The Mortal Storm who, having made peace with God, find release and ecstasy in death.
For independent producer Walter Wanger’s History is Made at Night Borzage was given his most improbable story since Liliom and rose to the occasion to create his talking picture masterpiece. Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) decides to divorce her insanely jealous husband Bruce (Colin Clive) but his plan to blackmail her back into his arms backfires when the chauffeurs he hires to “seduce” his wife gets knocked out by a would-be cat burglar who kidnaps her. Irene quickly learns her captor, Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), is a knight in shining armor who takes her to an after-hours Parisian restaurant where they dance the rest of the night away in romantic bliss.
When Irene returns to her apartment the next morning she learns from Bruce the man who attacked her is dead, murdered by the man who came to her rescue. Rather than turn Paul into the police Irene agrees to return to Bruce to resume their loveless marriage in New York. We learn Paul is actually the head waiter of the restaurant but he does not take news of Irene’s departure sitting down. He convinces the head chef Cesare (Leo Carrillo) to join him in a mad quest to Manhattan where their fruitless search leads them to plot the take-over of a struggling restaurant in the hopes Irene will inevitably dine there.
But when she does show up it is on the arm of Bruce who has again blackballed her into returning to Paris to give evidence in the murder of the chauffeur. Paul misinterprets Irene’s giddy behavior as an act of the wealthy looking down on the working classes but she convinces him otherwise and together they take one last romantic trip on an ocean liner back to France to clear an innocent man.
Unbeknownst to the lovers, Bruce has set the ship on course to hit an iceberg. As water gushes in and the ship seems certain to slip into an icy grave, amidst the fading light and fog, the doomed Irene and Dumond make precious vows leaving no doubt their love will transcend death.
Rather than treat the unwieldy subject manner and plot points with irony or a straight-face, Borzage turns the heat up several notches in an uncompromising pursuit of romantic nirvana. After an impressive iceberg wreck of Titanic-proportions, this ideal reaches its climax in the breathtaking scene where Irene chooses against fleeing ship with other passengers in the lifeboat, instead choosing her own kind of safety in Paul’s arms. In light of Irene and Paul’s sublime pact of love the resolution, in which the ship settles itself and all on board are saved, turns out to be perversely disappointing. As we shall soon find, Borzage wouldn’t always spare audiences an unhappy ending.
As Janet Gaynor was the heart and soul of Borzage’s great silent films, the enchanting Margaret Sullavan would prove to be the most simpatico player of his sound period. A petite, accomplished stage actress from a wealthy Virginia family, Sullavan was an aristocrat of the spirit and her natural, delicate acting made her the perfect heroine for the boyish leading men she encountered in her films with Borzage.
Based on the Hans Fallada novel and set in Germany during the hungry years of the Weimar Republic the deeply moving Little Man, What Now? follows the saga of young newlyweds Lammchen (Sullavan) and Hans Pinneburg (Douglass Montgomery) struggling to make ends meet in a country village. When the merchant Kleinholz (DeWitt Jannings) learns his employee Hans is married, in violation of their working agreement, he fires the young man leaving Pinneburg and pregnant Lammchen destitute.
She contacts Hans’ stepmother Mia (Catherine Doucet) who arranges for the couple to move into her flat in Berlin with the promise of a job at a department store. But as Hans is not cut out to be a salesman he is continually threatened with dismissal by his new employers. Things come to a head when Hans learns Mia and her nogoodnik boyfriend Jachman (Alan Hale) are running an upscale escort service in the apartment.
Lammchen finds them a cheap but tiny apartment which only further depresses Hans who is sorely tempted to join the local hatemongers—an early incarnation of the Nazi party. But, Lammchen’s undying spirit inspires Hans and although there will be struggle ahead the couple’s love for one another will transcend their poverty.
Little Man, What Now? is a masterwork of rich characterizations, boasting zesty performances from Jannings, Douceet and especially Hale who was never more likeable as the unashamedly amoral Jachman. Although it would be a stretch to call Sullavan a natural beauty she is simply radiant as the young woman whose job it is to build confidence in her insecure husband. Instead of dressing Lammchen down for her impracticality Hans basks in her glow helping make the rigors and monotony of the work place more palatable.
Based on a hit play by Keith Winter, The Shining Hour finds Sullavan in a supporting role as Judy Linden, a girl next door who made the mistake of marrying a rich man who doesn’t love her. Her brooding husband David (Robert Young) is infatuated with Olivia Riley (Joan Crawford), a New York dancer who also happens to be the fiancee of his milquetoast brother Henry (Melvyn Douglas).
Initially, David thinks Olivia is a gold digger but Judy becomes increasingly aware her husband’s hostility towards her new friend is just a thinly-veiled pose hiding the inner fire in his heart. Ultimately, both women take the high road and give up on David, charitable acts which only lead to more unhappiness culminating in Judy’s suicidal dash into Henry’s burning dream home and Olivia’s decision to flee the dysfunctional Linden clan.
A theatrical piece transcribed for the screen, Shining Hour doesn’t fly as effortlessly as a first-rate Borzage picture but there remains a spirit of generosity and understanding between the unhappy couples—a delicacy not shared by a jealous older sister (Fay Bainter) who, like Bruce Vail, will run roughshod over anyone who steals the heart of her beloved.
Borzage’s third peak of exemplary filmmaking coincided with his arrival at MGM, a studio known for taking more pride in its producers and writers than directors. Fortunately for Borzage, he found a sympathetic boss in Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the studio’s latest boy wonder who had already run afoul of L.B. Mayer by producing Fritz Lang’s controversial anti-lynching potboiler Fury. For the adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Three Comrades, Mankiewicz hired F. Scott Fitzgerald to collaborate on the screenplay in this first entry in a new transcendent trilogy for Borzage.
The film opens with three German soldiers Erich Lohkamp (Robert Taylor) Gottfried Lenz (Robert Young) and Otto Koster (Franchot Tone) returning home after a crushing defeat in WWI. Together they open an auto-repair shop and fall in love with the lovely Patricia Hollmann (Margaret Sullavan), a former aristocrat who becomes their compatriot.
Psychically damaged by the war Otto and Gottfried encourage Erich to pursue Patricia but the naive young man is puzzled by her restraint in love matters. It turns out Patricia is suffering from tuberculosis and simultaneously being pursued by a rich but vulgar businessman (Lionel Atwill) who hopes to set her up as his mistress. Won over by the puppy dog charm of Erich, Patricia sets aside her fears and marries the young mechanic but while on their honeymoon she suffers a setback where he learns his new wife hasn’t long to live.
Meanwhile, political activist Gottfried is murdered by a reactionary prompting Otto and Erich to stalk the assassin to dark alley where Otto shoots him down. Patricia’s health takes a turn for the worse but on her deathbed she comforts Erich by convincing him he must continue on in the spirit of their love. The denouement finds Erich and Otto leaving the grave site of Patricia and Gottfried soon to be joined by a familiar pair of celestial spirits who will stand by their sides on the rest of life’s journey.
The weird and wonderful Strange Cargo took the omnipresent religious themes in Borzage’s work to a new level. Roughneck Verne (Clark Gable) is a career criminal doing hard time at Devil’s Island penal colony. Although he has only three years left on his sentence Verne spends his waking hours scheming to escape. The warden Rideau (Frederick Worlock) takes an interest in Verne and tries to talk him out of his fixation on freedom to no avail. Verne wants to join up with his archenemy Moll (Albert Dekker) in a break-out but when he doesn’t have enough money to buy into the gang he gets a loan from an unlikely source.
A mysterious stranger, Cambreau (Ian Hunter), pays Verne’s way then decides to accompany the men on their breakout. This Christ-like figure is first seen taking Verne’s place in line at the prison camp but later turns out to be a moral and spiritual guide for Verne and Julie (Joan Crawford), a good-time girl who has been evicted from the island. After being crossed by the gang leader, Verne and Julie join Moll and Cambreau on a small boat headed to the French mainland.
Hunger, thirst, suspicion and fear kills off most of the escapees, including Moll, but Cambreau’s influence helps Verne and Julie survive the treacherous sea journey. Once in France Verne plans to separate from Julie but her new won belief convinces him to return to the prison camp with her and finish his sentence.
Strange Cargo turned out to be the rare Hollywood film about faith where the values of the Christian prophet are effectively threaded into a mainstream narrative. More than any of his films to date Borzage pushes the concept of earthly human love as a spiritual act where holy redemption is won by a man and woman overcoming all obstacles to be together.
Set at the onset of the Nazi takeover in Germany, The Mortal Storm follows the plight of a family of a cherished college professor whose friends turn against them because of their Jewish faith.
Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is the belle of the Alps village where she lives her professor father (Frank Morgan) her mother, younger brother and two step-brothers. Her affections are divided between the extroverted Fritz (Robert Young) who is gung-ho about the new Germany and Martin Breitner (James Stewart) whose reservations about Hitler’s gang makes him an unpopular figure in the community.
Unsettled by Fritz’ strident politics Freya breaks-up with him and turns to the gentle Martin who soon takes flight from his homeland when he smuggles an elderly Jewish friend over the border to Austria. After being pushed out of the college Professor Roth is arrested for his progressive ideology and sent to a concentration camp where he dies. The Roths try to leave Germany but they are detained at the border when the Nazis find Freya with the manuscript of the Professor’s final book.
Placed under house arrest Freya is soon summonsed to the Breitner house by Martin’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya). There, she is surprised to find Martin who convinces her to flee with him on skis over the Alps to Innsbruck. Against his wishes Fritz is assigned to capture his two best friends and at the Austrian border he orders his snipers to fire on the refugees. Freya is wounded by a bullet and dies in Martin’s arms just as he crosses the border. Word of Freya’s death spreads back to the village where her one of her stepbrothers is left to question his blind devotion to the Fuehrer’s treacherous regime.
With Nazi tanks rolling over most of Eastern Europe and, soon, into France Borzage no longer needed to treat fascism as an abstract threat as in No Greater Glory. Life and death choices had to be made and those who side with a malignant ideology will be left like Fritz; broken, loveless and forlorn. Meanwhile, Freya and Martin live on as inspiration to those fearless Borzagean souls who dare buck collectivism and take to the sky.
Borzage’s career lost a good deal of steam during the war years. A painful divorce and a battle with the bottle forced Borzage to quit during the production of Billy the Kid and take much of 1941-42 off to recuperate. When Borzage returned to the fold at MGM he was relegated to churn out lackluster historical dramas and tepid Americana.
At Paramount in 1944 Borzage returned to form with another strong portrait of a man and woman grappling with love and God in Till We Meet Again. Set in occupied France, a young nun Sister Clothilde (Barbara Britton) sequesters an escaped American pilot (Ray Milland) from the Nazis in her convent. After the Mother Superior (Lucile Watson) is shot down in cold blood by the SS the unlikely pair goes on the lam in the hopes of smuggling John out of the country.
Desperation and loneliness forces John and Clothilde to bond and inevitably the married pilot and the unworldly nun find themselves falling in love. With the Nazis closing in and John’s life in peril, Clothilde makes the ultimate sacrifice for her man, her Lord, and her country.
Borzage briefly resurrected his career at Republic Studios, a Poverty Row operation which also seduced the likes of John Ford and Orson Welles with guarantees of creative freedom and revenue sharing. The post-war years saw a flood of Hollywood features drawing inspiration from classical music. Borzage’s contribution to the genre, I’ve Always Loved You, may well be the best of the bunch.
Classically-trained musician Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod) falls under the spell of her father’s old friend, the famous concert pianist Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn). Enchanted by her talent and beauty, the bombastic ladies’ man sweeps Myra off her feet and takes her to Europe where she becomes her protege and waits for her chance to make her concert debut. Myra spends the next two years practicing and pining for Leopold who finally grants her wish to perform for an audience. Her performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is a profound success with everyone except her conductor Leopold who seems threatened by her talent.
Myra breaks away from her mentor and moves back to her father’s farm in America. She marries her childhood sweetheart and has a daughter who inherits her musical talent but some twenty years on she remains dissatisfied with her life. Meanwhile, Leopold has given up performing and spends his days and nights regretting the loss of his soul mate Myra. Hoping to ease his wife’s suffering and free her to be her own person, George Sampter (Bill Carter) arranges for Myra to reunite with Leopold to discuss her daughter’s debut at Carnegie Hall.
The star-crossed pair finds time has healed their psychic wounds and when Leopold arranges for Myra to play the concerto again that evening she finds she is no longer under the spell of the great Goronoff.
I’ve Always Loved You found Borzage back in his comfort zone and he delivered one of his most cosmic romances. The unrealized love affair between Myra and Leopold finally comes to fruition up on the stage where the frustrated young woman struggles to free herself from her mentor’s controlling hand. Sensing Goronoff will never accept a woman as his equal Myra accepts her defeat and retreats to the farm. As yet another benevolent Borzage figure, husband George helps fuel Myra’s regeneration and also helps save the broken Goronoff from some depressing golden years.
Following the tenor of the times, Borzage next took on the unusual challenge of making the atmospheric crime drama Moonrise. After his father is hanged for murdering his dead wife’s irresponsible doctor young Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is beaten and mocked by the local kids right up until the day the finally flips out and accidentally kills his chief tormentor Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges). After dumping the body in a nearby lake desperate Danny takes up with Jerry’s fiancee Gilly (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher who ends up falling in love with the troubled man.
As the search for Jerry’s body heats up Danny becomes tormented by guilt and his irrational acts prompts sympathetic Sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn) to suspect the young man. Otis wants Gilly to ask Danny to turn himself in so he can claim he killed in self-defense at his trial. A frightened Danny retreats into the woods to the house of his proud grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) who gives him the courage to face up to his crime and destiny.
Rich in southern, small town atmosphere and shot with an expressionistic murkiness (by cinematographer John L. Russell), Moonrise is too mystical to pass as pure noir but its neuroticism showed Borzage willing to make concessions to an uneasy time. Danny, a throwback to the man-boys played by Charles Farrell and Douglass Montgomery, and the warm, nurturing Gilly are an ideal Borzagean pairing giving rise to the notion the director’s chops and Romantic take on life and the cinema hadn’t been dimmed by the horrors of world war and its bleak aftermath.
At the time Moonrise looked like a tease for promising projects to come, but in hindsight it really was a lyrical swansong for the big director of little men and women. Having made a fortune in real estate Borzage went into semi-retirement in the 1950s only re-appearing in Hollywood to direct three episodes for the Screen Directors Playhouse and two nondescript features before his death in 1962.
Books on Borzage:
Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic – Herve Dumont ****1/2 Just when it seemed like Borzage was relegated to obscurity alongside so many less talented craftsmen of his generation Dumont’s impeccably researched and brilliant critical biography of Hollywood’s great romantic was published just as several of the director’s “lost” classics saw the light of day once again. Not content to expound upon well-worn clichés, DuPont brings to light Borzage’s career and life-altering relationships with a skeptical immigrant father and his Masonic beliefs.
Films by Borzage:
1915 Pitch o’ Chance ***
1916 The Pilgrim ***
1916 Nugget Jim’s Pardner ***
1917 Until They Get Me ***
1920 Humoresque ***1/2
1923 The Nth Commandment ***1/2 (partial)
1924 Secrets ***1/2
1925 The Circle ***1/2
1925 Lazybones ****
1927 Seventh Heaven ****1/2
1928 Street Angel ****
1929 The River **** (partial)
1929 Lucky Star *****
1929 They Had to See Paris ****
1930 Liliom ****
1931 Doctors’ Wives ***
1931 Bad Girl ***1/2
1932 After Tomorrow ***1/2
1932 Young America ***1/2
1932 A Farewell to Arms ****
1933 A Man’s Castle ****
1933 Secrets ***
1934 No Greater Glory ***1/2
1934 Little Man, What Now? ****
1934 Flirtation Walk ***
1935 Living on Velvet ***1/2
1935 Stranded ***1/2
1935 Shipmates Forever ***
1936 Desire ****
1936 Hearts Divided ***1/2
1937 History Is Made at Night *****
1937 Green Light ***1/2
1937 Big City ***1/2
1937 Mannequin ****
1938 Three Comrades ****
1938 The Shining Hour ***1/2
1940 The Mortal Storm **** (w/Victor Saville uncredited)
1940 Strange Cargo ****1/2
1941 Flight Command ***1/2
1941 Smilin’ Through ***
1941 The Vanishing Virginian ***
1942 The Seven Sweethearts ***
1943 The Stage Door Canteen **1/2
1944 Till We Meet Again ***1/2
1945 The Spanish Main ***
1946 The Magnificent Doll **½
1946 I’ll Always Love You ****
1948 Moonrise ****
1958 China Doll ***
1959 The Big Fisherman ***