January 5, 2009

A quartet of Borzage


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5):
Under consideration
Liliom   (Disc 8 of 12): ***
Bad Girl   (Disc 10) ****
After Tomorrow  ***½
Young America   ***½ (Both Disc 11)

If you think the catch-phrase "So many movies, so little time" has meaning when you're young, I can only advise you: Just wait.  With this in mind, I decided to tackle only four of the thirteen films in the new Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set from Fox--which offers several from each director plus a documentary about the two men and their history with the Fox studio.

Oddly enough, the least of the four is probably the best-known property in the series: Liliom (1930) -- from the Ferenc Molnár stage play, which has been filmed a half dozen times (two of these for TV and once as Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel).  Liliom is the title character, a carnival
barker/ladies' man (Charles Farrell) who falls in sort-of love with a young serving girl, Julie (Rose Hobart).  The story is simple in the extreme, and for all of director Frank Borzage's vaunted skills in serving up tasty melodrama while drawing good performances from his cast, the film has a stagy look and feel.  The dialog is slow and the filmmaking obvious,
although it is interesting to see what kind of "special effects" were available back in the day, and there is one choice political line about the name of a particular train.  Farrell and Hobart do what they can, as does the supporting cast, and the cinematography is good (Fox and its collaborators have done a wonderful job of obtaining and then burnishing the best remaining prints, so these four transfers are pretty spectacular).

If this is your first experience when any of the Liliom versions, you'll probably enjoy it; if you've seen several of them, however, the appeal is likely to be more from a historical/technical perspective.

Borzage's ability to combine social-problem themes with comedy and tears -- and then whip it all in fast-moving, easy-to-enjoy package is on display in two films from 1932: After Tomorrow and Young America. In the former, a young couple who can't afford their own apartment get little help from either's mom. One of these is a complaining widow, the other is having an affair and both are narcissists of a very high order. While the situations are melodramatic and typical (albeit a bit racier than post-code) Borzage and his cast handle them with such charm and spontaneity that the viewer can't help but go right along with it all.

Young America, even more interesting although less believable, deals with the younger generation and the problems of possibly "wayward youth." It's a hoot in its depiction of everything from a judge (Ralph Bellamy) in charge of minors to the town businessman-Grinch (Spencer Tracy, in his usual fine form) and the kids themselves. And yet, the movie works beautifully as a time-capsule melodrama, due to Borzage's gift for finding and capturing the humane moment. His films are full of these, and they come nearly as close to breaking our hearts now as they did, I suspect, at the time of the film's release. This director was no ironist, at least not in the way we define that term today, but he certainly knew how to humble the moviegoer.

The best of the lot is Bad Girl from 1931. (Having just said that Borzage was not ironic, his title for this one certainly is.) Communication -- or the lack of it -- sparks the plot for this romance, as two attractive misfits Dorothy (Sally Eilers, Sunrise -- also in this set) and Eddie (James Dunn) meet, fight, mate, fight and generally misunderstand each other. Eilers is fine but it is Dunn, with his macho stance barely covering an innate decency and sweetness who is the revelation here. He, and the absolutely splendid Minna Gombell (who also played the unfaithful wife/selfish mother in After Tomorrow) as Eiler's sassy best friend. So smart is this character and so dead-on is every one of Gombell's line readings that you can't help but feel she paved
the way for Thelma Ritter a decade or so later. Her constant sparing with Dunn provides some of the movie's funniest and -- oddly enough -- moving moments. Borzage deals here with the problems inherent in the lives of the young: money, jobs, family, housing. And the Depression-era setting, instead of coating the whole thing in gauzy nostalgia, makes it seems all too timely.

I hope I've induced you to sample some Borzage. I'll certainly come back for more myself -- including that documentary and the Murnau movies -- in the weeks and months to come. It seems more than worth the effort.

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Posted by cphillips at January 5, 2009 3:44 PM
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