[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redemptive melodramas–scarcely one-fifth of his total career output–I wondered if I’d land in comfy cushions of outdated sentimentality, pillowed by the kind of emotional certitude we postmoderns have long since seen through.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.