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Vol. LXIII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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DVD Review

Unheard Melodies From Borzage and Murnau: Sunrises, Angels, Stars, and A Legendary River

Stuart Mitchner

Imagine yourself in the heart of Times Square on an April night in 1928. You’re looking uptown from the corner of Broadway and 45th and the Great White Way is blazing, all those furiously incandescent white lights illuminating the massive movie billboards dwarfing the facades of the theatre buildings. A western, The Trail of ’98, is playing at the Astor. Looming next door above the marquee of the Gaiety is a billboard for the Fox production, Four Sons. In the next block at the Globe is my time-travel fantasy’s primary inspiration, another Fox production, Frank Borzage’s Street Angel starring “America’s Sweethearts,” Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Now let’s cheat the facts a little and install F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (from 1927) up the street at the Strand and temporally relocate Borzage, Gaynor, and Farrell’s Lucky Star (which actually came out in 1929) to the Capitol, the largest moviehouse in the world with a capacity of over 5,000. In 1928 none of these silent screen palaces in America’s motion picture Mecca charges more than a buck to get in, unless you want a “divan or box seat” at the Capitol, which will cost you $1.10. Like I said, it’s a fantasy.

The cost for a trip back to the period I’m talking about is a bit steeper. The 12-DVD set Murnau, Borzage and Fox, a box of movie dreams — ”infinite riches in a little room” — can be had online for anywhere from $175 to the list price of $240.

Sunday night I stood in the heart of Times Square with the haze of New Year’s Eve three day’s gone and who did I see up there, larger than life, where the billboard stars used to shine? Sean Hannity of Fox News. Thud. Welcome back to reality.

Surely the laughing angels of the absurd would be delighted by the thought that the Fox who financed the art of Borzage and Murnau, Gaynor and Farrell walked the earth long before Fox News was a fair and balanced gleam in Roger Ailes’s eye. Thanks to William Fox, the founding father, here are 12 movies (13 if you count Borzage’s The River, the set’s 43-minute secret treasure) that viewers in 2009 need only insert into a DVD player to be taken back to “An Era of Artistic Genius” (according to the literature that comes with the set). Get your fantasy mojo working and when you play the DVD of Street Angel you can almost believe it’s 1928 and you’re watching a freshly minted print of that Neapolitan romance in the dark plush of a Broadway moviehouse with an audience seasoned by more than a decade of silent-movie watching. Speaking of fantasy, it’s good to remember that films like the ones in the Fox set were first seen in movie houses tricked out in Moorish, Romanesque, and Baroque flourishes — Deco mind-benders offering artful simulations of everything from starry skies to Cleopatra’s barge.

Lost and Found

My curiosity about Street Angel was stirred long ago by some images and a brief description in a paperback called Lost Films published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. The full page stills were pure mood-drenched shadow magic, the work of a master of imagery painted in light with living subjects. The idea that a film of such apparent beauty was lost added to the allure, along with the fact that it had been made and seen in that “genius” era between silence and sound, 1927-1930, a special time for sure, with the 1927 Yankees and the Babe’s Big 60; Lindbergh’s flight; Hemingway writing “The Killers” and finishing A Farewell to Arms; the manuscript of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury landing on some about-to-be-challenged copyeditor’s desk; Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe slaving over Look Homeward, Angel; Louis Armstrong recording “West End Blues”; Duke Ellington composing fantastias in sound like “East St. Louis Toodle-O”; and Charlie Chaplin and Hart Crane getting drunk together one night in Manhattan.

Not long after Lost Films was published, a print of Street Angel turned up, and in April of 1977, 49 years to the month of its original New York release, it was shown at MOMA and I went in to see it. By this time I’d been searching out films by Frank Borzage and had finally seen 7th Heaven, the Parisian romance that made Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell famous. Though the love scenes in Angel didn’t quite measure up to the moving intensity of the ones in Heaven, the visual style surpassed even the wonders I’d anticipated on the strength of the images in Lost Films. It was all I could think of on the bus home and as a result, I spent the next year in the stacks at Firestone and at the Lincoln Center Library doing research for a paper or a book on Borzage, who is the true subject and star of the Fox set. Since his best work has been either underrated or ignored, the package represents a long-delayed introduction to one of the indisputably great American directors. While Murnau has always had a place in what Andrew Sarris called “The Pantheon” in his landmark guide to American Film, Borzage has been consigned to the level below in, to use Sarris’s term, “The Far Side of Paradise.” Until this miraculous set, only two of Borzage’s major works were available on DVD, one, A Farewell to Arms (1932), because it was in the public domain, the other, Strange Cargo (1940), as part of a Joan Crawford collection. Most of Murnau’s German work has been available, and since Fox issued the same Sunrise DVD several years ago, the implication is that even now, Fox thinks Borzage needs to be in the company of Murnau for the set to be given the attention it merits.

The Unheard Melody

The two stars who appear in one or another of most of the major works in the Fox set illustrate the contrast between the poetry of silent film and the prosy minefields of talking pictures. Once you’ve seen Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor silently discovering and holding and exulting in one another, first and most passionately as Chico and Diane in 7th Heaven, try to imagine the sound of Farrell’s high, reedy tenor and Gaynor’s thin, slightly nasal voice exchanging words of love. Translating into sound the cry of love you see in intertitles but never hear (“Chico! Diane! Heaven!”) would challenge even as skilled a director of actors as Frank Borzage. The same would be true of Street Angel and Lucky Star, where looks and gestures and movements do all the talking, with some help from the intertitles. Not that the silence is total. You have background music of one kind or another, live or recorded, and you can see the actors speaking, but the most important voice comes from the invisible director. When you see Gaynor cuddle up next to her dead mother and pull the woman’s lifeless arm over her shoulder in Street Angel, or when she first beholds wounded war vet Farrell in his wheelchair in Lucky Star, or shyly and wonderingly undresses on her first night in Farrell’s 7th-floor garret, you can be sure that Borzage’s voice is gently guiding her. “So soft and slow was the tempo of the filming,” according to a piece about Gaynor and 7th Heaven in Pictorial Review, “that Frank Borzage literally crooned his direction to her.” Gaynor said as much herself in interviews, that he was continually “talking” them through the action. While “Diane,” the lilting theme from 7th Heaven, was the equivalent of a hit record in 1927 in terms of sheet music sales and had people walking out of the theater humming it and half-in-love with “America’s sweethearts,” the music that mattered most was made by the director’s voice. Keats had it right. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

“Magic” is a cliche of movie language, but how else can you explain the New Yorker review of Street Angel by the routinely cynical John Mosher, who while admitting the story is “a mild and synthetic rehash of 7th Heaven” and “a tear wringer with a happy ending,” nevertheless calls it “a masterpiece of beauty…. Such lovely use of black and white has seldom been achieved by any artist. Here is the artistic medium of the motion picture at its best and happiest.”

If you doubt the negative impact sound might have had on the silent flow of imagery and emotion, consider Charles Farrell’s performance in the title role of his first talkie, Liliom (1930), which was adapted from the Molnár play that became the musical, Carousel, and which received possibly the most immaculate remastering among the DVDs in the Fox set. With his thin voice that no amount of directorial skill could improve upon or disguise, and the impact on his movement as an actor caused by the need to speak lines requiring special inflection, the stamina and presence and fluid physicality of Farrell in his silent roles is lost. Thanks to the poetry and intensity of Rose Hobart’s performance (she credits Borzage for teaching her how to act in film) and the visual beauty of the cinematography, Liliom is one of the joys of the set (and so is 1925’s Lazybones, Borzage’s haunting slice of Americana), but Farrell’s sound-confounded performance ultimately denies it a place among the director’s greatest works.

Of the other sound films in the Fox package, all of which are directed by Borzage, the only one besides Liliom that comes near the silents in quality is Bad Girl, where the essence of the central relationship is created by the way the leads, James Dunn and Sally Eilers, understand and misunderstand one another vocally. After Tomorrow (1932), in which Farrell is obviously more at ease, and Young America (1932), with a decidedly miscast Spencer Tracy, both show the director’s touch, but they are clearly closer to studio assignments than artistic missions. In the other two sound films in the set, Borzage had to modify his vision in order to showcase two special talents, Will Rogers in They Had to See Paris, his first talkie, and Irish tenor John McCormack in Song O’ My Heart.

Mastery and Magic

Viewed as a great director’s grandest gesture, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is incomparable. While his City Girl is a less high-powered treat and the lost Four Devils (the subject of a beautiful restoration in book form that comes with the set) looks fascinating, in Sunrise Murnau never lets you forget that he is the visionary, the ruling force, the master attempting impossible feats: a deeply visual mood, hypnotic sex, attempted murder, love reborn (in a sequence that is one of the pinnacles of 20th century art), the sweep of city, pinwheeling wonders of sheer cinematic virtuosity, comic delirium, a peasant dance, a placid lake dream, fabulous storm scenes, a semblance of death, and another rebirth. Sunrise not only deserves but demands a place among the Greatest Films of All Time. When you compare Gaynor in Sunrise to Gaynor in 7th Heaven or Street Angel or Lucky Star, however, Borzage’s poetry, the “unheard melody” behind the scenes, is a powerful match for Murnau’s flamboyance. In Murnau you’re always aware of the effort to create magic. In Borzage, the magic simply happens. Like, well, magic.

Better Than a Bonus

Finally, Borzage’s legendary 1928 film, The River, the aforementioned secret prize in Murnau, Borzage and Fox. Fortunately, the surviving half of the 80-minute-long film contains the scenes between Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan (and her jailed lover’s jealous crow) that made the movie a legend, creating particular excitement in Paris, where it played to full houses in the Latin Quarter for months. Called “the most erotic film of the silent era,” and, according to Cahiers du Cinema, “one of the three or four high points of silent film,” The River’s reception in France provoked a story in the NY Times (“Paris Screen Chatter”) claiming that it had provided “a Roman holiday for the esthetes of Paris.”

My sense is that Fox wasn’t aware of the treasure they had here or they’d have found a way to use The River to attract interest in the set. Again, much of the wonder of Mary Duncan’s performance would be lost if spoken words interrupted or distracted from the eloquently amused and wondering gazes she lavishes on Charles Farrell, who is thankfully seen but not heard. Duncan’s worldly but heartfelt Rosalee lifts these scenes above the stereotype of the vamp toying with the hapless hunk. Borzage’s guidance is there again, you can almost hear it, the kind of amused but humane understanding of sex and love that is notoriously lacking in von Sternberg’s direction of Marlene Dietrich, who is on record about her preference for Borzage’s handling (as is Janet Gaynor, who speaks of going from Borzage “all heart” to Murnau “all head”). Rosalee is worldly, but there is a depth to the evolution of her playful, patronizing, and all the while sexually aware response to Farrell’s male beauty, so that when the situation demands it, her act of love toward the end is absolutely beautiful, and yet no less astonishing — the act that amazed those Parisian esthetes and surrealists. Vive l’amour fou!

The Princeton Public Library will soon be making these films available for check-out as indvidual rentals.

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