February 7, 2018

The Capacity for Wonder: Dreams, Dreamers, and Frank Borzage

Atmosphere is radiance, glamour, warmth, mystery. It is what gives beauty a soul and makes it alive. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Stuart Mitchner

As the current news cycle has made clear, Dreamers is a word to be reckoned with, creating instant sympathy for the cause it represents. That’s why the State of the Union speechwriters made a feeble attempt to undermine the cause by having the president say “Dreamers are Americans, too” when it’s generally understood that the true heroes of the narrative of the American dream are the immigrants who came to this country looking for a new life.

There’s an echo of that narrative in the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby when F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of “the last and greatest of all human dreams,” and of “the enchanted moment” when “man held his breath in the presence of this continent … face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” The narrator then thinks of “Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him. somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” 

Besides being one of the pinnacles of 20th century American literature, the passage has a cinematic grandeur suggestive of Fitzgerald’s fascination with the pot of Hollywood gold at the other end of the republic. When his three movieland expeditions fell short of his dream, he staked his aesthetic claim with The Last Tycoon, an unfinished, posthumously published novel, and with his screenplay for Eric Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades, where he found a female character he could respond to much as he did to Gatsby’s Daisy. In one of the many paradoxes of Fitzgerald’s embattled film career, two lines of dialogue expressive of his own stylistic ideal, written to define the “radiance, glamour, warmth, mystery” of the film’s heroine, failed to make it into director Frank Borzage’s finished print. As if that weren’t enough, the lines pay inadvertent homage to Borzage’s stylistic ideal, a vision of cinema that “gives beauty a soul and makes it alive.”

Fitzgerald may have found some consolation in the fact that Sullavan’s performance in the role he gave so much sympathetic attention to brought her a Best Actress nomination as well as Best Actress awards from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics.

The First Oscar

If Scott Fitzgerald is the Great American Dreamer among writers according to the title of a 1997 A&E documentary, Frank Borzage is the equivalent among Hollywood directors. With the dream makers of Hollywood preparing to stage their annual Academy Awards ceremony, it’s time to point out that Borzage was the winner of the first Best Director Oscar for his silent romance, 7th Heaven (1927). He won another Oscar for Bad Girl (1931), about the struggles of a young couple in Depression era New York, a subject he took on again two years later in Man’s Castle, a masterpiece in spite of being savaged by the censors.

Borzage’s biographer Hervé Dumont points to that “unforgettable” film’s last image as proof that Borzage “is among those who dream wide-awake” (des rêveurs éveillés).” What sets the closing shot apart from the stereotypical Hollywood ending of embracing lovers is the way the couple is viewed, lying on a bed of straw in the boxcar of a moving train, the woman’s elaborate, old-fashioned dress forming the luminous center, a landscape of fabric, pure imagery, the man nestled up against her, cradled in her arm as if he were her child, as if she were everything and everyone to him, all life, all the world. The full emotional force of this visual poem composed by Borzage and the cinematographer Joseph August depends, however, on the audience’s having witnessed Spencer Tracy’s evolution from a tough, borderline abusive male and Loretta Young’s from a needy, naive, submissive female to the woman bearing his child, both of them nourished and fulfilled by love.

The loving supremacy of the woman is a Borzage trope most famously played out in 7th Heaven when Janet Gaylor’s frail, frightened Diane gathers moral strength through love of Charles Farrell’s “remarkable fellow” Chico, who gives her shelter and courage and in the end literally comes back from the dead, blinded by war but reborn through the power of love. You have neither the time nor the inclination to doubt Chico’s resurrection. You, like the director, are dreaming wide-awake

“A Special Glow”

Borzage’s engagement with another iconic American writer won a Best Picture nomination a year after he scored the Oscar for Bad Girl. Writing in 2014, The Guardian’s John Patterson notes that while Borzage’s 1932 version of A Farewell To Arms “is certainly a great movie, as sublime and rapturous as anything he made,” his “aesthetic values are the polar opposite of Hemingway’s — shimmering and intensely romantic, all his movies feel as if they were shot in heaven — and the result, which fits snugly into the director’s canon, has no place at all in the writer’s.” You can understand why Hemingway supposedly refused to see the picture of which the New York Times reviewer said, “It is Mr. Borzage rather than Mr. Hemingway who prevails in this film.”

You’d think that Hemingway would have wanted to see how his good friend Gary Cooper, born to speak the author’s distinctive dialogue, would handle the role of Frederic Henry. Cooper is everything Papa could have hoped for, particularly in the bleak intimacy of the cafe scene toward the end when he’s desperately murmuring a prayer for his dying lover Catherine Barkley, played by Helen Hayes in one of her rare film roles. Borzage’s magic touch with actors is celebrated by Hayes on two different occasions: “He’s a genius,” she said in 1932, “and I’ve never applied that word to any director of stage or screen before.” Half a century later, she recalls his “wonderful gift for intimacy: he knew how to get inside an actor’s heart and mind, and that rapport gave a special glow to his films.”

Waking Strange 

My entry into Borzage’s dream world happened in the no-man’s-land between sleeping and waking, the room dark except for the gray glow of our 11-inch SONY. I must have dozed off watching something on the Late Show. Another movie’s on the tiny screen, must be the Late Late Show. The picture’s jumping, so I have to move the rabbit ears, still half-asleep as a Devil’s Island prison camp comes into focus. Even in daylight, the sense is of a shadow world more dreamed than real and yet the people moving around in it are vividly physical, and none more so than the bearded convict being pulled out of the black void of solitary confinement, his hands blocking the glare of daylight, a movement I can relate to, having just emerged blinking and disoriented into consciousness. The man has Clark Gable’s voice, but this is no Rhett Butler. He’s too dark: a raw primal life force, giving the guards a hard time, pitching every line with a snarl. I’m still not fully awake when my attention is caught by a distantly familiar woman with nice ankles and a big hat smoking a cigarette and then tossing it aside. The convict picks it up, leering (yes, it is Clark Gable) as he lasciviously licks it, makes love to it; he’s somehow distracted the guards and is positioned under the pier the woman’s standing on, close enough to grab one of those ankles, which he keeps hold of, twisting it, pulling her back while they trade insults and he arranges to sneak into her room that night.

What holds me as I settle into a more wakeful state of mind is the woman. She has Gable’s raw physical vitality, a believable slattern, a tiger, a prostitute with a heart of ice and just a hint of something vulnerable in her voice, and what a face, what cheekbones. By the time the truth sinks in, that this is the same Joan Crawford who starred in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the future Pepsi CEO played by Jessica Lange in The Feud, everything takes a truly dreamlike turn as a convict with an otherwordly glow in his eyes shows up in time to lead Gable and Crawford and some others on a journey to death and redemption.

When I turn on the light, it’s 4 a.m., and I have no idea what I’ve just seen or who directed it though the omniscience of the man with the otherworldly aura makes me think that he must be the filmmaker’s surrogate. It takes some research to find out that the film’s title is Strange Cargo, that it was released in 1940 and directed by someone I never heard of. I don’t even know how to pronounce Borzage. For months I pronounce it to rhyme with corsage when in fact it rhymes with leggy. No matter, I feel that I’ve discovered “something commensurate” with my “capacity for wonder.”

Four decades later, with dreams and dreamers dominating the national conversation, the life’s journey that took Frank Borzage to Hollywood complements the American narrative Fitzgerald imagined “beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Borzage’s father, a stone cutter named Luigi, arrived in America in the early 1880s along with as many as 60,000 other Italians, found work as a coal miner in Hazelton, Pa., and migrated to Salt Lake City, where he and his Swiss wife Maria, another immigrant, raised eight kids, including the child born on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, 1894, who left home in his mid-teens with a traveling group of actors and found his way to Hollywood.

Borzage on FilmStruck

For too many years Frank Borzage’s work was all but inaccessible. The first real sign of progress was the 2008 release of Fox’s massive Borzage/Murnau set, which includes his Oscar winners 7th Heaven and Bad Girl and has been repackaged in individual DVDs at the Princeton Public Library. Nine other Borzages including Man’s Castle, Three Comrades, A Farewell to Arms, and Strange Cargo are currently available on FilmStruck. My Feb. 20, 2008 column on Man’s Castle and my Jan. 14, 2009 review of the Fox set can be found online. The image behind Borzage on the cover of Dumont’s biography is the final shot of A Farewell to Arms.