[This essay was originally published in an issue of Steadycam magazine devoted to the cinema of Frank Borzage.]
Quentin Tarantino once warned a movie palace full of his fans not to “sophisticate yourselves out of feeling.” It’s a good credo to bear in mind while watching movies by Frank Borzage. When I recently plunged into 16 of this American Romantic’s redemptive melodramas–scarcely one-fifth of his total career output–I wondered if I’d land in comfy cushions of outdated sentimentality, pillowed by the kind of emotional certitude we postmoderns have long since seen through. Instead, the cumulative effect of these cinematic trips was comparable to getting high on revelatory “speed.”
What’s seen and experienced in Borzage’s numinous universe is often so ratcheted up in intensity, so pregnant with his stylized ideas of sin or salvation and stations in between, that your nerve-endings may start to sizzle.
There’s no standing outside Borzagean passion plays like Street Angel (1928), Strange Cargo (1940) and Moonrise (1948); if you cannot give yourself up to the prevailing metaphysics, then you will be blind to the overarching power and beauty of these cinematic autos-da-fe, in which space and time and death are no match for souls on fire with love.
Borzage’s films are Dantean voyages in which flesh-and-blood Beatrices–Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven, 1927; Street Angel; Lucky Star, 1929), Loretta Young (Man’s Castle, 1933), Margaret Sullavan (Little Man, What Now?, 1934; Three Comrades, 1938; The Shining Hour, 1938; The Mortal Storm, 1940); Jean Arthur (History Is Made At Night, 1937); Gail Russell (Moonrise); and, yes, even Joan Crawford (Mannequin, 1938; The Shining Hour, and especially Strange Cargo)–act as spiritual lighthouses for their lovers and thereby, themselves.
In From Reverence to Rape, Molly Haskell’s on the right track when she characterizes Janet Gaynor as a “peasant madonna,” a big-eyed waif turned goddess by Borzage’s sanctifying gaze. But applying traditional religious terminology to Borzage’s cinema too often encourages critical freeze-frames, snapshots of the start-and finish-lines of a complex journey, as opposed to motion pictures of an Everywoman in resplendent transition.
And Borzage can’t be pinned down to any madonna/whore iconography based on light-and dark-haired women: Gaynor and Crawford, Arthur and Russell incandesce equally in his beatifying mise-en-scÃ¨ne.
It’s true that Borzagean goddesses are so wonderfully down-to-earth, they might all be named after The Mortal Storm‘s Freya (Margaret Sullavan). Mostly capable, often courageously independent, they are replete with common sense even as they are carriers of transforming magic. It’s mostly a given that, in the world according to Borzage, lovers enjoy each other sexually. Unless blocked or twisted, the carnal isn’t dramatically foregrounded, but flows naturally from ecstatic spiritual attachment.
Borzage’s no Victorian when it comes to mad love, unwholesome libido. In The River (1928), Mary Duncan’s Rosalie lounges on a riverbank, flanked by a funereal raven Marsden, her brute lover, left behind on his way to prison for murder. Sullen, affectless, she projects an aura of spiritual–even physical–decomposition. At her very feet, naked, open-faced Allen John (Charles Farrell) rises up out of a whirlpool he likes to ride. At first sight of louche siren and her familiar, this natural man lowers himself in the water so that only his eyes are visible. From the start, she mocks his manhood, his ability to keep her as “warm” as Marsden did.
In the dead of winter, beneath the shadow of the raven and its stick cage hugely magnified on the cabin wall, Rosalie throws herself down on her bed, caressing her breast, writhing in sexual hunger. As Allen John leans over her, the raven attacks and she turns berserker, trying to kill bird and man alike. It’s the insane frenzy of a woman buried alive, the flailing of a soul for whom sex has been solitary confinement. Her knife buckles as she tries to plunge it into Allen John’s chest, but her rejection’s enough to propel the boy out into the snowy night where, lost in his own impotent delirium, he chops down tree after tree, wood to warm a “dead” woman.
In the kind of doubling scene Borzage favors, Allen John lies bare-chested in Mary’s bed, dying from exposure. Undone by love, she ritually loosens her clothing and slips in beside him. Flesh to flesh, the two become a community of one, their “marriage” a mutual resurrection.
Few critics bother to go much beyond plot in casting their votes for or against Borzage’s rampant Romanticism. (John Belton’s a notable exception; in Hollywood Professionals, he offers sharp readings of the way these movies actually move and look.) Too bad, because Borzage’s distaff saviors figure in a cinematic carpet that’s woven in remarkably formal patterns. The paradigm for his redemptive journeys remains constant, though his wandering Eves and their spiritual ups and downs are differently expressed from film to film.
Having fallen in some literal or figurative sense, Gaynor and her sisters become dead women, immobilized or on the run, often shot in shadow or silhouette. Don’t think “fallen” simply in the sense of conventional sin; Borzage’s “angels” may be brought low by falling for the wrong guy, socio-economic or political circumstances, physical infirmity–some decline that works as catalyst to get them up on their own two feet, on the way to renewed faith and self-reformation.
Borzagean “dead” grow small and distant in his frames. The world is too much with them, dwarfing or fragmenting their bodies and spirits. Early on in Street Angel, when Angela (Janet Gaynor) is dragged into court for soliciting and stealing, Borzage bulks the bottom of the frame with silhouetted officials, the peaks of their hats jutting upwards. In the distant background, Angela’s tiny, dim figure seems to float before–and is nearly subsumed by–the dark shape of a looming policeman. As she walks forward for sentencing, her white, strained face is eventually cut in half by the docket, so that only her terrified gaze remains above the blackness filling the bottom of the frame. (Allen John’s face is bisected in the same way in The River, as Rosalie’s cold gaze drives him deeper underwater.)
The “making” of Borzagean character often plays out on stairs and mountains, where up is not always heaven, down isn’t necessarily hell, and dying’s hardly a dead end. Frequently framing only a character’s feet or legs, Borzage emphasizes the part to suggest as yet unachieved wholeness, paralysis, or distance from selfhood, home, spiritual high ground. (This visual trope informs the entire, brilliantly expressionistic opening sequence of Moonrise.)
Street Angel‘s Angela escapes a prison sentence for streetwalking by joining the circus. In our first glimpse of the runaway in her new life, we see only black-stockinged legs, upraised in the frame. Her mother’s death, the failed foray into prostitution, the identity-robbing brush with the law–all that has cut Angela off from any whole-hearted faith in herself or revivifying love. Her up-ended “private parts,” visually detached from the rest of her, signal spiritual disequilibrium.
It’s not until Angela tumbles down from her circus stilts at the sight of two policemen–exemplifying false and limiting perspective–that she’s truly launched on her pilgrimage into the past where, reconstituted, she gives and gets a true picture of herself. Similarly, in Man’s Castle, Spencer Tracy’s Bill, a stilt-walking advertisement, stops to look in a second-story window and, fleeing Trina’s anchoring love and beauty, “falls” for a goodtime gal (Glenda Farrell) who’s all show and no go, in Borzagean terms.
Emotionally and spiritually detached at the start of A Farewell To Arms, Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) faces and fondles a whore’s curvaceous leg, dangling in left of frame. The visually amputated part suggests stasis, alienation. Moments later, taking cover from a bomb attack, the footloose soldier grabs a fleeing nurse (Helen Hayes) by the ankle, pulling the whole woman down into his frame of reference–a felix culpa that first pairs Frederic and Catherine in their long, often hallucinatory drive toward the film’s triumphal climax: Strongly upright, Frederic holds dead Catherine in his arms and faces the light streaming in from a picture window. Death’s defeat and their eternal marriage is confirmed by the magnificent sweep of white sheet that curves from her body around his legs.
From their first encounter in Strange Cargo, Verne (Clark Gable) and Julie (Joan Crawford) are tethered to each other by sado-masochistic physical attraction. Vamping her way down a wharf to check out a docking ship, Julie drops her lipsticked-smeared cigarette. Instantly, a clutch of convicts who are unloading the ship scramble for the precious butt. When Verne snatches up the prize, he lasciviously sniffs, then tongues the cigarette, eying her as though she were just another kind of oral gratification.
Moments later, Julie’s down-and-dirty suitor has crawled behind some barrels to hook her ankle, twisting it to make her cooperate, enjoying the chance to fondle a woman’s flesh. In reply to some sexual overture, Julie sneers, “Yeah, you’d like to cut yourself a piece of cake like that, wouldn’t you?” Every word this demonic pair aim at each other is the verbal equivalent of biting; their subsequent kiss is more a meeting of teeth than lips. They’re like sharks, feeding as much on themselves as on their natural prey.
But that initial tethering attaches them, flesh to flesh; it’s the first step toward ultimate spiritual union. Listening to the mysterious Cambreau (Ian Hunter) read over a convict’s grave–“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy”– Crawford’s hard-faced tramp snorts derisively. And Verne brings it all down to his level, jabbing a finger at his chest in cynical riposte: “Here’s where you’ll find sanctuary … in the old temple of God!” By the end of these sinners’ terrible odyssey, they have been remade–body and soul–into each other’s refuge.
Ambiguously arrested by the warden of the penal colony from which he escaped so long ago, waiting for the return voyage to begin, Verne asks, “OK to move around?” That casual query–so heart-stoppingly mundane–celebrates Strange Cargo‘s spiritual itinerary from standstill to freedom. The transfigured couple stroll away from the camera, down the ship’s deck, rapt in each other’s gaze, their vita nuova.
The winding sheet that visually weds the soulmates at the end of A Farewell To Arms signals a special kind of holy ground. “Time’s wingÃ©d chariot” may threaten but never conquer this charmed circle of warmth and light (think of hearth in Man’s Castle: Trina’s luminous face, the emblematic stove); even the grave can become a “fine and pleasant place” where lovers do embrace. (Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” informs Farewell‘s every stolen moment; it might stand as epigraph to Borzage’s cinema.) Such a heaven’s proof against grounded life, visualized in constricted, dehumanizing spaces where isolated, inauthentic souls are darkly deformed.
In Seventh Heaven, Borzage’s privileged world is invoked by the mantra of “Chico–Diane–Heaven.” Loretta Young’s Trina calls her Shantytown shelter a “safety zone,” “a clearing in the forest”–though love’s evolution shifts that safe house to moving boxcar by the end of Man’s Castle. Dreaming with her boyfriend on a Coney Island beach, Mannequin‘s Jessie (Crawford) draws a protective circle around their bodies in the sand: “our little space” that eventually grows to “three little rooms.”
It is the power of love that animates Borzage’s Galateas, makes them visually/spiritually whole and upright once more. Their energizing attachments depend on seeing and being seen with total clarity. Borzage’s lovers are almost literally re-created and set in motion by the clear-eyed, transparent gazes they exchange during their pilgrims’ progress. The couple’s spiritual eyesight, their ability to keep their true selves in view is tested as they pass through versions of hell, purgatory and heaven. So long as that shared gaze of mutual revelation and regeneration holds, the imperfect vision of the rest of the world can be confined to a different plane (Borzage often visually separates his lovers from the crowd, shooting them in front of back-projections, totally abstracting the background during closeup embraces, showing their sacral circle under siege by demonic spies and shadows).
These epiphanies are often marked by soft-focus closeups, in which a woman’s upturned face seems to swim in light or lowers, filling the frame, becoming her fallen lover’s only, saving frame of reference (Catherine, from Frederic’s supine, intensely subjective POV, after his leg has been shattered, in A Farewell To Arms; Gilly, from the same POV, after Danny jumps off the Ferris wheel, in Moonrise). Sometimes the shock of illumination seems to literally scour a woman’s features into pure form, all that’s dross or extraneous burned away. One of the most extreme examples of this effect is the closeup of Julie’s white face in Strange Cargo, as the sinner she loves (Clark Gable’s Verne) assaults her with lines from the Song of Solomon, his venomed voice precisely nailing down the distance between her Magdalene and Solomon’s spotless ideal.
Opening one’s eyes to something beyond a constricting frame of reference, seeing through appearances to unimpeachable icon, may precede and/or follow a Borzagean dark night of the soul, often expressed in Miltonian weather–fog, snowfall, downpour that blinds pilgrims and lends cover to demons and phantoms. Somewhere in the lovers’ environs there will always be a window, small or CinemaScope-sized; it frames freedom and their brightest dreams, lost or at hand. Mirrors may magnify the sustaining light of a guardian angel’s face–as with Margaret Sullavan’s three-glassed dressing table in Little Man, What Now?–or they may reflect a false or killing vision.
In History Is Made At Night, aptly named Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) eyes his wife (Jean Arthur) avidly as she fabricates lie after lie to protect the man she loves. He then deliberately violates Irene’s framespace, crowding her as he lights her cigarette. As he immobilizes Irene in his vampiric gaze, their reflections in the mirrored wall behind them emphasize false perspective and perverse proximity. The sequence slant-rhymes back to Street Angel, made a decade earlier. An artist who can’t paint because he believes his muse has cuckolded him, benighted Gino (Charles Farrell) staggers blindly through a nightmarish world of fog. Pausing to leer at whores, their features hellishly lit by the sudden flare of his match, Gino searches for his false “reflection” of the woman he loves, as an angel whose soul is “black as hell.”
Extending John Belton’s apt observation, these false reflections are comparable to shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. The obsessed Vail tries to create fictions that will guarantee him possession not of a flesh-and-blood woman, but of a pristine image for his eyes only–as “framed” as the two full-length portraits of Irene that mesmerize him. Scripting an ugly chamber-drama of near-rape and infidelity, he “creates” (Irene’s words) her spiritual co-star (Charles Boyer). “Tell me about him,” this Mephistophlean actor-director goads her, “Perhaps I could follow in my master’s footsteps…. If you were a magician, you could turn me into him–what would you give for that?” Borzage’s “portrait” of Jean Arthur, her flayed face and anguished voice cutting through Vailâ€™s unclean pretense, just about burns celluloid: “I’d give my soul!”
In Borzage’s stages of spiritual evolution, variations on re-imagining character and experience–play-acting, dressing up, making art–impede or accelerate epiphany, when masks fall away and “real” faces are revealed. At the conclusion of Street Angel, when Gino is on the verge of murdering his “faithless” Angela, Borzage conjures epiphany and resurrection through montage. It’s art that saves these souls.
Centered in the frame, at medium distance, Gino’s dark bulk finally crouches over Angela, whom he’s bent backwards over an altar. Only her white arms are visible, limply bracketing his torso, “amputated” from the rest of her body. Gino looks up to register the painting that hangs above the altar. It’s his own early work, the portrait of a pure Angela they once called their “guardian spirit”–now altered by a forger to resemble a radiant Madonna. Cut to a steep shot from the POV of the canvas, looking down at the couple splayed in murderous embrace. The “look” literally propels Gino back and away from Angela: “To think I painted you like that!” he rages at the prostrate woman, who turns to gaze up at her likeness, then at him. “But I am like that still!” Angela cries, her features incandescing with authentic self-regard. It’s revelation generated by cutting from form to matching form.
Borzage’s self-supporting women (Bad Girl, Mannequin, History Is Made At Night) often become models, dressed up in fashions far beyond their means. They feed the fantasies of men and women who want to be–or have–more. Bad Girl opens on what appears to be preparations for a fairy-tale wedding; only after a waiter wheels through the frame and the bevy of models begins to wind around tables full of leering men do we realize that this parade is going nowhere. In contrast, the modeling sequence in Mannequin–Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey appreciatively eyeing Jessie (Joan Crawford) in morning dress, party gown, nightgown–prefigures the authentic marriage and life to come.
Borzage celebrates the making (or re-making) of a lost girl’s character, the revelation of a beloved woman’s saving grace, through something like sacramental costuming. There’s potent ritual in putting on white ruffles or silver lamÃ©, the bright side of Borzage’s penchant for Manichean fashion–black slickers, tailored suits and gowns being the preferred attire for dark nights of the soul. Such rites signal transubstantiation, from everyday form to platonic ideal.
In the cab on the way to his first opera, Three Comrades‘ Eric (Robert Taylor) asks Margaret Sullavan’s Pat if her beautiful new dress makes her happy. She thinks about it, then softly says: “I don’t know yet.” Prompted by that lovely innuendo, an ancient top hat, heretofore recalcitrantly flat, telescopes up dramatically in Eric’s lap, a “happy” resurrection. Towards film’s end, spending Christmas in a TB sanitarium, Pat deliberately dons her resplendent silver gown, working to maintain her sustaining magic for the two men who love her. In what’s almost a shock cut, the screen fills with an X-ray of Pat’s damaged lungs. It’s T.S. Eliotâ€™s “skull beneath the skin,” a seeming demonstration of flesh–and human love–as illusion.
Earlier, when Eric’s disintegrating tuxedo, held together with string, made him the laughingstock of Pat’s rich friends, he exploded in awful pain, “I just can’t be fixed!”. That’s the anguished cri-de-coeur of all of Borgage’s fallen souls, trapped in the shadow world of mortality and partial vision. The tubercular heroine and her loving comrades–a lost generation “drifting” in post-WWI Germany–style themselves “fragments” and walking dead. Pat’s shining sacrifice, a visual crucifixion, guarantees resurrection for them all, so that in the final shots of the film Borzage visually “marries” the quick and the dead, setting them on the road together.
Informed neither by easy sentimentality nor religious cant, such moving pictures are simply the way this director “sees” the energizing power of love. The function of Borzage’s rapturous mise-en-scÃ¨ne is to “fix” spiritual and visual imbalance, by imagining illuminating patterns of shadow and light.
The elements of Borzage’s Romantic expressionism are imbued with fluid significance. An artist with a medievalist’s eye, he creates and animates a bell-jar world in which everything dilates with spiritual immanence. In this fraught mise-en-scÃ¨ne, weather, city- and countryscapes, a woman’s face–all are spiritualized zones, aspects of a metaphysical hyperreality. Every image seems charged with the possibility of transubstantiation. Though it’s hard to avoid using the language of Christian transfiguration to describe Borzage’s narratives, they can’t be reduced to standardized religious parables. Whatever god is the primum mobile of these films, the composing power that exists outside the cinematic frame feels more like a poet’s passion for formal order and beauty than the grand plan of a conventional Father in Heaven.
In Seventh Heaven, when Gaynor’s diminutive Diane is whipped to the floor by her absinthe-addicted sister, the brutality of the blows, the demonic ugliness of the drunk’s face, aren’t euphemized. Borzage cuts to a high shot of Diane supine, a broken, black-clad figure; her white face looks up, a small pool of light brimming with despair. Her gamine features seem to sink away from definition. This is palpable hell; you feel it and see it. We are looking down into a grave: the body/soul is drained, enervated, becoming formless.
Not much later, this tiny woman is lying unconscious in a gutter, totally ignored by towering Chico (Farrell), the sewer-worker who snacks with his pals after saving her from another savage whipping. He finally lifts her up and props her against a wagon wheel; looming large in the foregound of the frame, he confidently professes himself “a remarkable fellow!” while she droops bonelessly behind and below him. Shortly, Borzage shows Diane, alone in the frame, her hand rising to plunge a knife into her heart. An arm, more force than flesh, drives so powerfully (rightward) into the frame it seems magnetized, a special effect. It’s Chico‘s arm, of course, but disconnected from the rest of him, as though something had possessed the fellow who just moments ago opined that “a creature like that is better off dead!”
Unwillingly, the sewer rat turned street cleaner plays Christ to Diane’s Lazarus. And, in Heaven‘s climactic scenes, her love will literally raise him from the grave: Chico’s outstretched arm, pointed leftwards across the room (the couple’s designated Heaven) toward Diane (medium shot, both lovers in frame), is the physical extension of Borzage’s previous leftward-tracking camera movement, as blind Chico, magnetized by love, cuts unerringly through the rightward-pressing crowd.
In Moonrise, one of Borzage’s most exquisite devotionals, Danny Elkins (Dane Clark) comes in from the dark woods–where he’s killed the man who’s “deviled” him from childhood–to a brightly lit dance pavilion. Self-shattered, Danny (and Borzage’s camera) cuts through the dancers, who part like curtains to reveal the woman he’s designated his sanctuary. His own face and fate besmirched by generational guilt (mud applied by schoolyard bullies, Borzage’s pattern of lighting), Danny is magnetized by the primal purity of Gilly’s features. Attaching himself to her light, he forces his unwilling Beatrice to ride home with him.
Speeding dangerously through the rain, it’s clear that Danny has abandoned all hope and doesn’t give a damn whether he or his passengers live or die. The sight of his victim’s ghost sends the car into a skid, and it overturns, landing on its side. Blackout. Then, in one of those utterly mystical movie-moments of which Borzage’s a master, Danny lifts Gilly’s limp body out of the car window; in an electric silence, her upturned face, shining with rain and moonlight, rises out of the darkness like a divine apparition. “It’s all right, Danny. It’s all right,” she assures him, in strangely disembodied monotone. What power shines and speaks through Gilly at this crucial station in Danny’s via dolorosa? The quiet certitude of that otherworldly voice is like a mother’s (a director’s) blessing, a ward against the paternal shadows that haunt Danny to the point of madness.
To punctuate crucial junctures in their spiritual excursions, Borzage chooses to view his lovers’ from a god’s eye POV. Strikingly, in Moonrise, his ceiling-level camera slides past a chandelier, adjusting to frame an unimpeded view of Danny and Gilly below, waltzing amid the shadows and silence of the abandoned Blackwater mansion, pretending to be a long-dead Southern lady and her cavalier. That elevated POV is an eerie coign of vantage: one doesn’t feel superior or all-knowing, compassionate or indifferent, but rather… profoundly interested, as a painter might be deeply engaged by the magical play of light and shadow, or a film editor by shots/souls freeze-framed or in motion.
Strange Cargo‘s Christ-like Cambreau personifies that POV. His reiterated “I’ll see you again” isn’t just dramatic shorthand for an appointment for Judgment Day; in Ian Hunter’s even tones, the words suggest the literal possibility of finding oneself once again in his viewfinder.
Indeed, despite the fact that these films fairly hum with intimations of supernal power, one never feels one can latch on to indisputable evidence of some familiar Old or New Testament God. Something–animating force, ordering eye, perhaps some cosmic agent of balance–palpably exists outside Borzage’s frames, and in the fundamental workings of what we see of his world. But this brand of the “divine” seems closer to the kind of transcendentalism a Wordsworthian pagan might conceive, unhampered by conventional distinctions between earth and heaven, sense and soul.
In The Mortal Storm, Borzage frames Martin (James Stewart) and Freya (Sullavan) in extreme longshot, tiny silhouettes skiing desperately down a mountain towards the Austrian border and freedom. In the foreground of the shot, a clutch of dark-clad Nazis raise their rifles, the gun barrels cutting into the purity of the snow-filled landscape below. Shots are fired; one of the far-off figures falls. From the Nazis’s elevated point of view, that collapsing stick-figure could as well be ant as dying woman. Moments later, Freya’s out of the picture, even the signature of her blood staining the snow menaced by a ski-pole spiking slantwise into the frame.
At film’s end, the camera drifts through the home where Freya and her family once lived. The dark, empty dining room is a Borzagean negative of the clean, well-lighted place in which family, friendship, civilization itself were celebrated as Storm began. Nothing here but shadows now, and the voices of ghosts. The camera retreats from that haunted house, heading outside. Tracking away from the once-welcoming front door, it follows in the footsteps of those who let in the dark. The world is white, supernaturally still and silent. The snow falls softly, filling, erasing the footprints. It might be the end–or the beginning–of creation.
It’s a Cambreauvian eye that witnesses for Freya’s enduring humanity, revisits that shadowed, empty home, and records those fading footprints. Few filmmakers achieve Borzage’s unwavering faith in the power of visual consecration. “I’ll see you again,” this movie-man promises, raising the dead and making miracles as though these were everyday feats of magic. As Freya passes away, her head resting on Martin’s shoulder, her lover whispers, “We’re free.” In Frank Borzage’s catechism there’s not one jot of retarding irony in those words. “OK to move around?” his Eves and Adams inquire, and this director always gives them leave.
Â© 2008 Kathleen Murphy
[Ed. note: The films of Frank Borzage are very poorly represented on DVD. However, on December 9, 2008, Fox Video releases the 12-disc box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox, featuring 10 complete Borzage features, including Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, and Bad Girl, plus a reconstruction of the partially lost The River.]