June 27, 2012

The Other “Moonrise”: Frank Borzage and “The Wondrous Inner Life of Lovers”

Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real world of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal. and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.

—Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Several reviews of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom have pointed out the title’s seemingly inadvertent reference to Academy-Award-winning director Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948), the film numerous critics and filmgoers consider to be his last masterpiece. Borzage, who died 50 years ago this month, June 19, 1962, is still, incredibly, the dark horse among major American directors as well as the most shamefully under-represented on DVD in spite of Fox’s massive 2008 box set of his silent work. Thus, sadly, this is a “DVD review” in name only.

Last week also brought news of the death June 20 of Andrew Sarris, the critic who alerted the film world to the director he hailed as “that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist.” Writing in his highly influential compilation-as-manifesto, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris saw Borzage’s abiity to make the most of “the glorious opportunity of Moonrise” as a vindication of “the moral of the auteur theory.”

Citing Moonrise in his Chicago Reader review of Moonrise Kingdom, Ben Sachs suggests that both films “are love stories about social outcasts” that “advance the optimistic message that we become better human beings through loving others.” Sachs calls Borzage “one of the most stalwart romantics in movies. Even when his stories feel contrived, the director’s sincerity comes through overwhelmingly.”

What comes through overwhelmingly in Moonrise Kingdom, however, is Anderson’s directorial panache, which is expressed on the grand scale, with flashily orchestrated set-piece flourishes like the life-sized doll-house opening and wildly implausible, borderline cartoonish action sequences. The adult characters, with the possible exception of Bruce Willis’s kind, thoughtful, sad sack sheriff, are little more than caricatures, and even the two 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), whose scenes together are the essence of the film’s charm, sometimes seem to be reciting their lines like pre-teen automatons. On the other hand, their romance is one Borzage would have appreciated, and quite probably have been moved by, for Anderson’s young lovers do find their own version of that “wondrous inner life … in the midst of adversity.”

The Heart of Darkness

Books on film noir generally include Moonrise, in spite of the fact that it takes place in the backwoods of Virginia rather than in the urban setting typically associated with the genre. Take the term literally, as black film, and few pictures can match Moonrise for pure, swamp-deep, unremitting blackness. Orson Welles’s wild night ride, Touch of Evil, comes to mind, not to mention films like Producer Val Lewton’s Cat People, where Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur use darkness to disorient the audience, the better to break down its defenses and, in effect, its hold on reality. More often than not, the “noir” in film noir is the substance of its mood, its atmosphere.

Night is the primary element in Borzage’s most characteristic pictures, from Street Angel’s Neapolitan murk to the nocturnal Devil’s Island wilderness of Strange Cargo. He has no interest in mood for mood’s sake, nor in scaring or titillating the audience with shocking or menacing effects. Borzage plunges his stories into the element of night because night is the lifebreath of romance, and he’s the “uncompromising romanticist.” In Moonrise it’s a manifestation of the dark night of the protagonist’s soul. But in the heart of this film’s darkness, there is a place for “the wondrous inner life” Sarris was talking about.

The embattled lovers are a schoolteacher named Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell at her most warmly alluring) and a fugitive wanted for murder, Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, the Brooklynite who reportedly got his film name from noir hero Humphrey Bogart). Danny is the benighted soul in need of saving, since he’s responsible for accidentally-on-purpose killing his nemesis, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who has never stopped taunting Danny about the fact that his father was hanged for murder. The couple’s trysting place is an abandoned mansion where, at the teacher’s insistence, they play out a Civil War fantasy of a ball as she executes Scarlett O’Hara moves as Mrs. Blackwater, the lady of the house (one of the film’s most rapturous moments involves a high-angle shot looking down at the dancing couple) — until his pursuers and the baying hounds arrive.

That a woman as beautiful, sensible, and intelligent as Gilly could ever have been engaged to an obnoxious bully like Sykes (the banker’s son, wouldn’t you know) is hard enough to accept, but for her then to become so suddenly and devotedly in love with the slayer of her fiance without losing our sympathy or her credibility is further evidence of Borzage’s mastery. What draws the teacher to Danny even as it repels and frightens her is the mixture of rage, anguish, fear, and remorse overflowing from the killing, that and his lot in life, the feeling that he’s been cursed from birth by his father’s fate. It’s the wildness in Danny that stirs and compels the teacher (much as similar qualities in James Dean a decade later attract Julie Harris in East of Eden and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause); Gilly doesn’t want to reform him, she wants to save him, and so she does, with some help from Mose, a black sage (Rex Ingram) who has “withdrawn from the human race,” a deafmute named Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan), Danny’s grandmother (Ethel Barrymore), and a sympathetic, philosophical sheriff (Allyn Joslyn).

To Save a Soul

The mission driving the plot of Moonrise is to save a soul.

Does saving or restoring a soul sound  presumptuous? Melodramatic? Old Fashioned? Dated? Without commercial viability? Probably. Why else has so worthy a mission been so rarely attempted in Hollywood, let alone accomplished?

While it’s possible to think of major American writers whose ambitions are on this level (most obviously, Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself”), it’s not so easy to find the moral equivalent among landmark American films, including those made by Andrew Sarris’s pantheon of directors, where the attempted saving of souls is rarely on the agenda (exceptions being, among others, D.W. Griffth’s Broken Blossoms, Josef vonSternberg’s Docks of New York, and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise).

Frank Borzage has beamed his soft, steady, sympathetic light time and again on the “souls” mentioned in the opening title of Street Angel (“Everywhere … in every town … in every street … we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity”). It happens when Charles Farrell’s Chico saves Janet Gaynor’s Diane in 7th Heaven. It happens in Lucky Star, with a couple again played by Farrell and Gaynor. It happens with the couples in Man’s Castle and Little Man, What Now? and Three Comrades and Strange Cargo and with the nun and the soldier in Till We Meet Again.

You could even say that some soul-making is going on, at least superficially, in Moonrise Kingdom, where Suzy and Sam save one another in love and are saved from an impersonal society by the sheriff, who, like the sympathetic sheriff in Moonrise, perceives the human truth beyond the law.

Book and Film

The novel by Theodore Strauss from which Moonrise was adapted, title intact, was published by Viking to good sales in 1946. Compare the opening of the book with the first three minutes of the film, and the difference is stunning. The novel begins with Danny looking down at the man he has just killed; the first paragraph ends with a trope right out of the hard-boiled private eye playbook: “Jerry could almost be asleep and dreaming. Only he wasn’t asleep, and dead men don’t have dreams.”

The movie begins with grim music, a death march accompanied by nightmare imagery, dark pools of slime three dark figures are walking through, no faces, just the legs of three men plodding across a mire of gleaming darkness. Next a clearer view of the men walking toward you, the man in the middle in prison garb, still no faces, the figures casting shadows on the black gleam of the water. As the three men climb the steps in the foreground, more people come into view, a group holding umbrellas over their heads, all looking upward at the same time. What they see we see in silhouette: a gallows, the noose being fitted over the victim’s head, no faces, only the ink-black figures, one of them the executioner whose hand is on the lever that will drop the body, and down it goes, done with a fierce finality, after which the film cuts to the shadow of a hanged man swinging back and forth over white bedclothes, a baby crying, it’s a crib, and the hanged man is some sort of doll suspended overhead. Then the screen clouds up, a mass of ominous chaos, all floating shadows until you’re looking down at the lone figure of a boy walking across a school yard of kids chanting “Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged.” As in a nightmare, young Jerry Sykes looms up with his hands clutching his neck in a gagging hideous mockery of hanging, his enormous shadow looming behind him against a stormy sky. Danny jumps on Jerry, they fight, the other kids gang up, jeering as Jerry rubs dirt in Danny’s face, all this intercut with images from the march to the gallows and the executioner slamming the lever down.

One minute and forty seconds into the film, the motive essence of the novel has been expressed with a force few if any writers, including Theodore Strauss, could have approached. At this point, you enter the present with another dark half-formed figure pacing in a deeply shadowed woods. A dance is in progress on the other side of a pond; you can see the lights and hear the music. Now you hear contentious voices, it’s Danny and Jerry, grown-up now, Jerry sneering, “It’s about time you had another beating,” followed by a crack about the hanging, and so begins the fight that leads to Jerry’s death.

You can see this opening sequence on YouTube, and if you’re inventive and persistent, you can probably view the film in its entirety. Again, it’s appalling that there is no DVD of Moonrise or Man’s Castle or History Is Made at Night, or any number of other classics by this great director. Meanwhile, you can see Moonrise Kingdom at various area theatres.