THE LIFE AND WORK OF A GREAT AMERICAN DIRECTOR: In Hervé Dumont's new book, Frank Borzage's extraordinary career and adventurous early life have finally been put between two covers. You can get a good sense of the director from the photograph on the cover: this is the calm, steady presence admired by actors like Helen Hayes ("the finest director I ever worked with a genius and I've never applied that word to any director of stage or screen before") and Gary Cooper (he "taught me that the best acting is not acting at all, but a perfect naturalness, which comes easy when he stands behind the camera"). The image in the background is the climactic shot (Gary Cooper holding Helen Hayes's body) from A Farewell to Arms, the only Borzage film presently available on DVD. It can be checked out at the Princeton Public Library.
I know. Frank who?
As director Martin Scorsese points out in his foreword to Hervé Dumont's Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic (McFarland $55), it's shocking enough that some people still don't know who John Ford is: "So where does that leave Frank Borzage?"
First, his name is pronounced Bor-zay-ghee, which rhymes, as it happens, with Scorsese. When "Borzage" first jumped out at me from the pages of Andrew Sarris's groundbreaking 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, I thought it rhymed with "corsage." Rather than including him in the "Pantheon" with directors like Chaplin, Ford, Hawks, and Welles, Sarris placed Borzage one level down in "The Far Side of Paradise." One reason was that if he'd dared to put the man he called "that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist" in the Pantheon where he belonged (and will always belong), numerous film people in the States would have said "Sarris must be crazy! Frank who?" I would have said so, too, in 1968.
As Scorsese rightly observes, Borzage's reputation has had the misfortune to be linked to Hollywood romance, a genre the mention of which is likely to be greeted with yawns or patronizing smirks. Hold that smirk, block that yawn! You might as well turn up your nose at Nathaniel Hawthorne or Scott Fitzgerald for their connection with the R-word. To use an admittedly extreme analogy: Imagine that Borzage's 1933 picture Man's Castle (to mention one of at least a dozen masterpieces) is as important to 20th century American film as The Great Gatsby is to 20th century American literature. Now imagine not having easy access to The Great Gatsby. Imagine not being able to simply go into a bookstore and buy it or check it out from the local library. And worse yet, imagine how it would be if the only copy of the book available had been thoroughly censored. Here's a unique, funny, sexy (the Hays Office had a fit), passionate, visually stunning movie that contains Spencer Tracy's liveliest and most luminous performance, not to mention Loretta Young's, and it simply isn't available and never has been. Never. Not on video, and not DVD, even though it was released by a major studio (Columbia) that has packaged and made public other pictures from the same period by more famous directors like Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.
The image Dumont chose for the cover of his book along with a photo of the director is from the one Frank Borzage film that is relatively easy to find. Thanks once again to the collection on the shelves of the Princeton Public Library, the DVD of A Farewell to Arms (1932) is not only available, it is actually made from the most complete print, the one Dumont himself studied. Until relatively recently, the only version you could see was the one the censors dismembered when it was rereleased in 1938. We still don't have a remastered print but you can see even in this less than perfect copy how visually rich a film it is. To put it gently, Ernest Hemingway did not approve of this, the first Hollywood adaptation of his work, even though his good friend Gary Cooper was one of the stars, along with Helen Hayes. What may have most displeased the novelist was that the movie expressed the director's vision at the expense of his own. He was also understandably furious at the way his macho image was being used to publicize the film, not to mention the fact that Paramount provided an alternate happy ending for theatre owners who thought their audiences could not stomach the death of Helen Hayes. One thing Hemingway should have appreciated, however, was how bravely and openly Borzage's depiction of the central couple's "illicit" love relationship exceeded what was acceptable to the moral arbiters ruling Hollywood during the Hays Office years.
As Dumont illustrates in his diligently researched chronicle of the director's career (possibly the most thorough picture-by-picture account we have of an American studio-system director at work), Borzage's films more often than not ran afoul of the censors, here and abroad. In both Man's Castle and A Farewell to Arms (and in virtually all of Borzage's major works), it's clear that the lovers are having a sexual relationship outside marriage. That this could be considered daring in 2006 is obviously a stretch, but what counts is that Borzage challenged the limits again and again because he passionately believed that the force of love was greater than the forces of war or evil or adversity. But because words like "romance" and "romantic" still evoke notions of dated quaintness considered the opposite of force and intensity, Borzage's films continue to be hard to find and no doubt this was one reason Martin Scorsese was "truly astonished" when he looked at a number of them "all in a row": "I was astonished by Borzage's artistry, by his passion, and by his extraordinary delicacy." That last word may suggest a telltale "softness" but then as now, "delicacy" was something rarely found in even the best Hollywood movies.
Apparently timed to coincide with the publication of Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, two retrospectives of the director's work are now in progress at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The Queens showings are on Saturdays and Sundays through August 20. Information is available online or by calling (718) 784-0077. For the book, visit www.mcfarlandpub.com or call 1-800-253-2187.
I've seen hundreds of American films from the period between 1920 to 1950, many of them available on cable and some on DVD thanks in great part to Turner Classic Movies. Nothing is harder to look at than Hollywood's numerous travesties of love relationships. Yet love was one of the forces that made the world of film go round, along with music and action. Like it or not, the iconic Hollywood moment from those years was the "The End" Kiss (the movie version of "They Lived Happily Ever After"). Probably one reason Borzage has suffered from being labeled "romantic" is that Hollywood had made such a shallow mockery of love, mindlessly (or money-mindfully) ringing the same changes time and again.
Another reason Frank Borzage is not a household word like Frank Capra or Alfred Hitchcock is that he made no "big" movies after 1940. He was a celebrated, highly paid director, but the picture he's still most closely associated with is the silent romance, 7th Heaven (1927), for which he won the first Academy Award ever given for directing. If knowledgeable film people were polled as to what the greatest love story ever filmed was, 7th Heaven would almost undoubtedly top the list.
An Actor's Director
Frank Borzage was far more than just a great director of love stories, however. He was a masterful stylist involved in every aspect of every film he cared about, from the cinematography to the editing and even to the shooting of stills for publicity (one reason why the lavishly illustrated original French/Italian edition of Hervé Dumont's work is one of the most visually stunning film books ever published). He was also arguably Hollywood's greatest director of actors and actresses. If you want to see the essence of Clark Gable, see him in Borzage's Strange Cargo. The same can be said of Joan Crawford in the same movie, and (as already mentioned) Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young (in Man's Castle), Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes (in A Farewell to Arms). Then, to mention only some of the most obvious examples: Margaret Sullavan (in all three of her Borzage films), Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur (in History is Made at Night), James Stewart (in The Mortal Storm opposite Margaret Sullavan), Marlene Dietrich (opposite Cooper in Desire), and Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor (in 7th Heaven and Street Angel). Borzage could work wonders with actors known more for their glamour or charisma than their acting. The campy essence of Marlene Dietrich is on display in the more famous Josef von Sternberg films, but in her memoirs (as quoted in Dumont's book), she pointed to Desire as the only film she "need not be ashamed of," telling a reporter: "Until Desire I always had to conceal my feelings." Although Desire is not one of Borzage's great films (being a curious merging of his style with that of Ernst Lubitsch, who produced it), Dietrich's remarks say a lot about the director's genius for bringing out the deepest feelings of his actors and actresses. Time and again he inspired his players to transcend themselves. He can take someone typecast as a loathesome hood (Jack LaRue) and inspire his gentle, deeply felt performance as a priest (in A Farewell to Arms). He can take Joan Crawford, fresh from a decade of MGM fluff, wave his magic wand, and presto, she's the fierce prostitute in Strange Cargo, in which she's rarely seen with makeup, although she does apply some lipstick in the "mirror" of a tin can lid while Clark Gable reads in heavily sarcastic tones from the Song of Songs. Equally brilliant and rare in Hollywood films are the moments of intimate signaling unique to lovers expressed so naturally between Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy in Man's Castle (no wonder: the two actors fell in love "in real life" when making that movie).
A Great life
It would take a writer as good as Jack London to do justice to Frank Borzage's life, especially his early years in the west. London could write a whole novel based on young Frank's adventures running off with a troupe of traveling actors when he was barely into his teens and ending up in Hollywood just in time to act in and direct the first westerns. Dumont's book does an excellent job of gathering up the sketchy details and then going beyond the call of authorial duty to hunt down every conceivable source of information. Regardless of what you may think about his Masonic interpretation of some of the films (Borzage was a Mason), Dumont's presentation of them is sound, articulate, and uncluttered by the sort of filmic myopia that burdened an earlier study of Borzage's work by Frederick Lamster. Most admirable of all is the exemplary job of research Dumont has accomplished, even to the point of seeking out the surviving sisters, wives, nieces and nephews from Borzage's large family (that he had no children of his own is just another enigma related to this elusive figure). Dumont also presumably convinced Borzage's widow Juanita (his third wife) to finance this excellent translation by Jonathan Kaplansky of the abovementioned original 1993 French-language edition, originally titled Sarastro à Hollywood. I will say it again: that elegant, voluminous book has to be seen to be believed. As helpful as the illustrations in the edition just published may be, they are only shadows of the originals, which all by themselves offer crystal clear evidence of Frank Borzage's cinematic genius.
Return to Top | Go to Cinema Review