July 7, 2015


“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.


Republic Pictures was born as a conglomeration of six smaller Poverty Row studios, making money off of adventure serials and quickie B-pictures that cost little and turned modest profits. But as they grew they experimented with A-features, bringing in top talents for a couple of “Premiere” pictures a year, which were budgeted around $1 million. A few years later John Ford (The Quiet Man) and Orson Welles (Macbeth) would sign with studio head Herbert J. Yates. According to Herve Dumont’s biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Borzage’s five-year contract called for him to make one Premiere picture a year, “conceived in complete artistic freedom”, with a maximum budget of $1.5 million. He would be given his own production unit, with his choice of actors and technicians (he hired Tony Gaudio as DP, whom he last worked with on 1924′s Secrets), while his brother Lew Borzage was named associate producer. The most amazing part of the deal is that Borzage had an opt-out at the end of each year, so Yates had plenty of incentive to keep him happy. The first project Frank Borzage was attached to was the John Wayne Western Dakota, intended to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor. That project was eventually downsized to B&W and was directed by their “Deluxe”($300,000 budgets) filmmaker Joseph Kane.


Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a biography of Frederic Chopin, was a recent hit for Columbia, so Yates and Borzage settled on a story set in the classical milieu. They also trucked $40,000 to Arthur Rubinstein to curate and play every piano performance heard in the film (he is credited as “The World’s Greatest Pianist”). They chose to adapt a short story by Borden Chase, entitled “Concerto”, first published in 1937 for American magazine. A former Brooklyn cab driver, Chase had written some WWII screenplays (The Fighting Seabees) and would go on to write classic Westerns like Red River (’48), so he was an unlikely chronicler of high culture. But it was personal for Chase, as he based the story on his wife, pianist Leah Keith, who had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of eight. Borzage hired him to adapt his story into a screenplay – his advice was to “make me cry.” Concerto was the working title of the film late into the production, but in October 1945 Borzage and Yates decided to change it because, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of exhibitors polled “were afraid the public wouldn’t know what ‘concerto’ means.”


The story concerns Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod, plucked from MGM bit players), a beautiful young piano prodigy who is discovered by the revered maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, a pre-WWII star in Germany), who whisks her away from her rural American home to the capitals of Europe with his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and assistant Nikolas (a fastidiously hilarious Fritz Feld). Eventually the sexist Goronoff becomes threatened by Hassman’s talent, and humiliates her at her Carnegie Hall debut. She is thrown out of Goronoff’s circle, and she returns home to marry her childhood sweetheart George (William Carter), a sympathetic slab of All-American blonde beef who recognizes that Goronoff – and her professional dreams – will always have a place in her heart. Their daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) shows some talent at the keys, and so Myra is thrust back into the classical world, ready for one last duet with Goronoff and a resolution to her divided self.


The majority of action in the film are men and women standing in rooms and auditoriums either standing next to or caressing a piano. When they are not playing the piano they are eyeing it ravenously. It is the only means of communication – in the film it replaces speech as well as sex. Goronoff is entranced by Myra at an audition after she rejects his suggestion to play Rachmaninoff, and performs Beethoven’s “Appassionata” instead. She wears a light blue frock over a white blouse, her attire blending into the similarly colored wall. Their attraction is never stated, but envisioned as a combative creative union on stage, when at Carnegie Hall Goronoff drowns Myra out with his orchestra. He demands submissiveness, and Myra’s brilliant performance challenges his authority. As critic David Phelps noted to me, there is something of Dracula in Philip Dorn’s florid, hypnotic performance (and in the way Nikolas repeatedly refers to him as “Master” in a Renfield-ian manner). In this initial battle Myra is wearing blossoming pink chiffon against a wall of dark green. She literally stands out, and for one night becomes a star.  But she still yearns for approval, the sequence a series of desperate close-ups of Myra staring at Goronoff, desperate to know what set off this rage. After her split from Goronoff, his mother says of Myra, “her voice is the piano.” Borzage then cuts back and forth between Goronoff performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto on stage with Myra playing the same composition at home, their two renditions blending into one temporary bliss. That is, until George grabs Myra’s hands, and the link is broken. Goronoff is a shadow who only has power through his art, while George is artless but physically present – in the non-professional William Carter’s performance, he’s almost nailed to the ground.


In the final performance, Myra once again joins Goronoff in the Concerto. Her hair is piled high, setting off her cheekbones, above a pink form-fitting gown. No more girlish chiffon. When Goronoff stares her away, she focuses on her hands or the crowd, communing with the music herself, secure in her own talents for the first time. Goronoff is humbled, and defers to her through his posture and orchestration. The concluding scenes, in which Myra actualizes her pianistic talents and declares her true love are intensely moving. She who could only speak through music, finally finds the words.


November 5, 2013



In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix.  But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.


7th Heaven was the culmination of Borzage’s work in the silent cinema. With the full backing of Fox and production head Winfield Sheehan, Borzage constructs a cathedral to love atop a slum in Paris. Together with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, a run-down loft becomes a pulsing symbol of spiritual and physical yearning. It even changes shape along with the tenor of the characters’ emotions, a bright and shining religious expressionism. The film was based on the smash hit play by Austin Strong, which ran for three years on Broadway. It’s a love story between a street sweeper and an orphan girl during WWI, and how their love expands and contracts the universe around them. F.W. Murnau was filming Sunrise at the same time as Borzage was shooting 7th Heaven, and the similarities are evident, especially in the thrumming connection between people and the places they occupy. As George O’Brien’s touch seems to electrify Sunrise’s fair, so does Janet Gaynor’s romantic yearning transforms a clock into a vision of her beloved.


A coveted property, all the top stars auditioned, including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Joel McCrea and George O’Brien. Borzage, on a $35,000 per film contract with Fox, had enough clout to to keep Sheehan from casting his mistress Madge Bellamy – and instead he gave the orphan girl role of Diane to Janet Gaynor, who he had seen on the set of The Return of Peter Grimm (Sheehan encouraged Murnau to cast her in Sunrise as well). John Gilbert was slated to play the male lead, Chico, until he left Fox for MGM because of a salary dispute. So Borzage chose another relative unknown, Charles Farrell. The athletic and handsome actor was working as an extra before being plucked from obscurity. Borzage worked with an intense closeness to his actors. A contemporary report said that Borzage, “talked to Janet Gaynor about each scene until his mind and hers were in tune, then he told her to go on the set and think it. The physical reaction he left to her, and she was unconscious of it.” The performances he was after contained a heightened realism – a prickling sensitivity.  He reportedly told Margaret Sullavan, one of his axiomatic muses, that, “I’ll direct you when you stop being natural, not before.” He was after the actors’ essence – their spirit.  This is grandly realized in 7th Heaven, in which Farrell and Gaynor are vibrating in tune. Every minor act of their love becomes enhanced and studied. Kent Jones described this as “the collapse of time outside of the space created by love”.


Farrell is an unkempt innocent, bounding through the sewers and the streets without a care for the past. His face is completely open, his hair a wild shock that flows with the direction of the wind. Gaynor is an abused animal, awaiting the worst behind every corner she hides behind. One of the key gestures in the film is the look up. Farrell is introduced in the sewers looking up at the street cleaner through the grate of a manhole cover. It is an aspirational glance. Gaynor looks up to everyone around her, but it one of cowering docility. When he brings her up to his loft for the first time, Borzage films it in an uncut rising crane shot, visualizing their upward mobility. Once upstairs, everything slows to a crawl in the cocoon of their regard.

The wild despair that sluices through Farrel’s face after learning of his deployment expresses the fear of demolishing this cocoon. Farrell’s character is a vocal atheist, and Gaynor a quiet believer, but both pray during his stay in the Army. Not to any god, but to each other, each lover’s highest value.  And in the final scene, when a sanctifying ray shines down on them both, it is an image beyond the reach of words.



January 17, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 11.25.36 AM

The Warner Archive continues to summon the ghosts of Hollywood past onto DVD, a bit of studio witchery we should all get behind. One of their most intriguing recent séance jobs is Frank Borzage’s Smilin’ Through(1941), a haunting WWI melodrama. Despite the mammoth Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, there are still great stretches of Borzage’s career missing on home video (including essential titles like Man’s Castle (’33, hopefully a Sony MOD candidate) and Moonrise (’48), which is streaming on Netflix)). Smilin’ Through, though flawed, has moments of doomed romanticism that rival anything else in his work, with superimpositions establishing the intractable hold the past exerts on the present. A similar theme is lugubriously told in Welcome to Hard Times (’67), a Western in which old studio hand Burt Kennedy flails to channel A Fistful of Dollars on a low budget. Originally made-for-TV, MGM decided to release it into theaters before airing it on ABC, after which it disappeared. Featuring a spate of studio standbys, including Henry Fonda and Aldo Ray, it’s a fascinating failure in which MGM hires old studio craftsman to make a film that blatantly reaches for the youth market.

Frank Borzage had moved from Warner Brothers to MGM in 1937, starting with Big City, and continued there through Seven Sweethearts (’42, also on the Warner Archive), after which he became an independent contractor. The Warner Archive has released seven of these titles, all of which (excepting the well-regarded Mortal Storm (’40)) are due a second look. His stay at MGM was not a smooth one, with the usual studio interference and hijinks (producer Victor Saville famously claimed to have directed the majority of The Mortal Storm, an idea debunked by biographer Herve Dumont).  In January 1941 Borzage was removed from a re-telling of Billy the Kid after initial location shooting (he was replaced by David Miller), and was shifted to a Joan Crawford project, Bombay Nights, which never materialized. He didn’t sit idle long, with production on Smilin’ Through starting in early May.

The project was a rather moldy chestnut, based on a 1919 play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin, that had already been adapted twice for the screen, in 1922 (starring Norma Talmadge) and 1932 (with Norma Shearer). The scars of a 19th century love triangle are torn open on the eve of WWI, as Sir John Carteret (Brian Aherne) refuses to sanction the marriage of his adopted daughter Kathleen (Jeanette MacDonald) to Kenneth Wayne (Gene Raymond, MacDonald’s husband), whose father had destroyed Carteret’s marriage decades before. Borzage opens the film on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, celebrating 60 years of her rule. The camera pans left to a church, with the ramrod figure of Aherne the only figure not gesticulating in a celebratory fashion. He sourly says, “I don’t like anniversaries”, the weight of the past present in each of his deliberate steps.

He is momentarily levered back into the present by the appearance of Kathleen, the niece of the woman he loved, Moonyean (also played by MacDonald). Entranced by her forthrightness (and resemblance to Moonyean), he temporarily eases his obsession with the past, which manifested in conversations with his ghostly deceased love, and embraces an attentive, active role as a father. Immediately upon making this decision, and loosing the grip of his memory, Borzage collapses time in a gorgeous, layered montage of spring flowers and children’s games. Kathleen’s childhood is compressed into thirty seconds, the narrative resuming once Carteret is once again ensnared by his loss of Moonyean.

The world of the film becomes a kind of necropolis, with Kathleen first meeting Kenneth in the abandoned mansion of his father, Jeremy. They dust off his decanter of wine, untouched since his death, and hold hands for the first time while staring up at his portrait, deeply ensconced in Carteret’s memories of his dead nemesis. Carteret is entombing his family in his obsessive memory, and can only free them by telling his story, and moving on. Borzage privileges this moment in an extended flashback of his doomed wedding day, an unburdening and a confessional, that ends with Carteret cradling Moonyean in a Pieta-like pose, allowing himself to mourn for the first time, instead of simply nursing his hatred. It ends on a transporting image, of a ghostly Carteret-Moonyean and a physical Kathleen-Kenneth passing in the night, going in different directions on time’s arrow, but both savoring the moment.

Please read Kent Jones’ wonderful career overview in Film Comment for a fuller view of Borzage’s career.


In 1967, MGM was trying to crank out genre films on a budget by making deals with television networks, while still reaping the box office rewards from theatrical release. Kerry Segrave wrote in Movies at Home that the studio had renegotiated its deal with ABC, allowing the final three of their six co-productions to be released theatrically before they hit the tube. These were Day of the Evil Gun (starring Glenn Ford and Arthur Kennedy, 1968), Hot Rods to Hell(with Dana Andrews, 1967) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967). Warner Archive has just released Hard Times in a handsomely remastered DVD, and is an artifact of a studio’s shfit to producing tele-films and catering to the burgeoning youth market. Director/writer Burt Kennedy, famous for scripting Budd Boetticher’s psychologically astute Ranown cycle of Westerns, had moved from helming TV shows to becoming a reliable worker on cheap genre films. Right before Hard Times, Kennedy cranked out Return of the Seven (1966), a sequel to The Magnificent Seven (1960), and afterward he made a couple of popular comic-Westerns with James Garner, Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Hard Times is the likely nadir of Kennedy’s work in this period, a slackly paced adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s first novel (Doctorow told the NY Times that the film was the “second worst movie ever made.” The worst? Swamp Fire (’46) starring Johnny Weissmuller).

The film concerns the Mayor and de facto Sheriff of the Western town of Hard Times, Will Blue (Henry Fonda), a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who only acts out of base self-interest. When a drunken hell-raiser (Aldo Ray, credited as “The Man From Bodie”), razes the town to the ground, Blue just watches from a distance, not willing to get involved. Blue and a local medicine show carny build up Hard Times again by turning it into a good-times destination for local miners. As business booms, Blue braces for the return of “The Man From Bodie”. The film opens with a bang, in a near-silent sequence that is an homage to (or straight rip of) the start of Rio Bravo. Instead of a drunken Dean Martin, it’s a buzzing Aldo Ray, who smashes a bottle in close-up, drinking from the shards that are left. Ray is framed to be a force of nature, presaged by a dramatic clap of thunder and causing  raging fires. Ray starts out as intimidating, but is reduced to cartoon villainy by this overdetermined symbolism, a hacky attempt to provide the stylish ultra-violence the young crowds desired, and were delivered in the Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Even the film’s cynicism seems half-baked, as Fonda’s brittle, passive exterior gives way to a conclusion of straining sentimentality. And opening sequence aside, the film is indifferently put together, despite the incredible rogues gallery of faces Kennedy had to work with. In addition to Fonda and Ray there is Warren Oates, Elisha Cook Jr., Lon Chaney Jr., Keenan Wynn and Royal Dano. As these weathered, instinctively expressive faces slide past the screen in this ill-conceived oater, it feels like a roll call at classical Hollywood’s funeral.


July 26, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 2.36.41 PM

Rebecca Yancey (Kathryn Grayson) taps into popular sentiment with the modernist anti-landscape above. The second daughter of Cap’n Bob Yancey (Frank Morgan), longtime district attorney in Lynchburg, Virginia, Rebecca is trying to escape the role of a proper lady, with the suffragettes’ equal opportunity rhetoric ringing in her ears. Set in 1913, Frank Borzage’s The Vanishing Virginian (1941) is equal parts bittersweet nostalgia and progressive optimism. Just released on DVD from Warner Archive, along with Borzage’s follow-up, Seven Sweethearts (1942), it is a lovely bit of propagandistic Americana, released two months after the U.S.’s entry into WWII.

In the February 1942 issue of Boys’ Life, “Chief Scout Librarian” Franklin Mathiews called The Vanishing Virginian “a model movie in the way of the [sic] diversion for a war-weary world.” An MGM publicity flack couldn’t have made the marketing pitch any clearer. An escape to a mythical American South, screenwriter and Dallas newspaperwoman Jan Fortune adapted the memoirs of Rebecca Yancey Williams into a digressive series of vignettes of the Yancey family’s gentle misadventures . Cap’n Bob is considering running for a 6th term as city prosecutor, while his wife Rosa (Spring Byington) urges him to retire and focus on his family. Bob is modeled after Robert Davis Yancey, a mayor and seven-term commonwealth’s attorney in Lynchburg. Frank Morgan plays him as an endearingly absent-minded old coot, with a dizzying array of Ron Burgundy-esque exlamations: “Bilous Bonaparte!”, “Roaring Romulus!”, “Howling Hades!”, “Naked Neptune”, “Nostalgic Nicodemus!”, et. al. In Men of Mark of Virginia, Yancy is described as politically moderate, “an old-line Democrat, but he opposes the extreme views of Mr. Hearst and his followers.”

In the film he is a paternalistic egalitarian, frequently invoking the Bill of Rights and then going home to his black servants, presumably his former slaves. Then he intentionally botches the only case we see him prosecute, after he determines the all-white jury will not conduct a fair verdict for the black defendant. The servants are characters of Southern wish-fulfillment, slaves happy to stay with their masters, but Borzage and the actors  give them a depth and dignity that pushes against their essentialization.  Leigh Whipper plays “Uncle Josh Preston”, a sweet old man with beatific eyes whose mild manner masks an iron will. In a film where most of the movement is inside the frame (there are some great choreographed family pratfalls), each tracking shot carries extra force, and the most complex one occurs after Uncle Josh collapses. The camera trails back from Bob carrying his prone figure, and then there is a cut to a movement forward to the church that will forever house him. This latter image contains no human figure, a shock in a film configured around the family. The clapboard church is privileged to hold the frame, and Josh’s spirit with it.

Whipper was the first black member of the Actors’ Equity Association in 1913, making his film debut in Oscar Micheaux’s groundbreaking “race films” Within Our Gates (1920) and Symbol of the Unconquered, and was one of the founding members of the Negro Actors’ Guild of America (1939). The Louise Beavers character, “Aunt Emmeline”, is more stereotypical, a “mammy” type who smiles at her employers’ jokes and scuttles in the background. But at a funeral of one of her friends, Borzage continually cuts to close-ups of Beavers’ face, where Emmeline’s bottled up sadness and rage quivers to the surface.

The eldest Yancey girls, Rebecca and Margaret (Natalie Thompson) push back against their parents’ social conservatism, with Margaret eager to study law, and Rebecca a singer. Rosa responds that a woman lawyer would be as absurd as a female driver. When James Shirley (Johnny Mitchell), a young progressive defense lawyer, comes into town, he attracts both of the girls’ attention. His mother Marcia is one of the leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, and causes Rosa no end of marital and political heartburn, having also been a young love of Bob’s. Marcia is based on Nancy Astor, a Virginia-born lady who became the first woman elected to British Parliament in 1919. These stories slowly weave in and out, with none given pride of place. Borzage gives the film the same lazy rhythm as the lives he’s trying to portray.

In the end, horses and carriages have given way to cars and the women who drive them, including Rebecca. Bob continues to run for election, accepting the new social landscape as it shifts around him. In the final shot, the town gathers ’round him to honor his service, as in the end of another paternalistic dream of Southern community, John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Each profiles a doddering relic holding their towns together with principles that time and politics are rendering obsolete. It is up to the viewer to decide which of their disappearing beliefs is worth mourning.


Seven Sweethearts is a bizarre item, a Hungarian operetta re-staged in Michigan, with the perpetually-smarmy Van Heflin as the ostensibly dashing lead. Kathryon Grayson is his small-town inamorata, and Borzage stages a number of scenes to show off her impressive coloratura soprano vocals. The story goes that Heflin is an entry-level reporter, getting a story on a Tulip festival in the small Michigan town of Little Delft. It’s a Dutch town where the neighbors practice their French horn during work hours and where Viennese composers never pay rent. S.Z. Sakall is the proprietor of the local hotel, and the single father of seven beautiful daughters (all with male names – since he was hoping for boys). It is tradition that no girl can be married until the eldest is hitched, so the younger girls are itching for Reggie (Marsha Hunt) to tie the knot. Creaky wackiness ensues, and Heflin is ill-suited for the thin air of this sub-Lubitsch atmosphere. It just seems to make him queasy. Borzage speeds through it with seemingly little investment, but I enjoyed the too-in-love Honeymoon couple and the broad caricature of the supporting cast, especiall Sakall’s jolly windbag.

At, Jeremy Arnold reported an unsavory postscript to this sweetheart tale:

“In 1949, Hungarian playwright Ferenc Herczeg sued MGM, Pasternak, and screenwriters Walter Reich and Leo Townsend for $200,000, claiming they had plagiarized his play Seven Sisters, which he had written in 1903 and which Paramount had adapted into a 1915 movie starring Madge Evans. Herczeg was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Hungary when Seven Sweethearts was produced and released, and consequently he didn’t learn of the film’s existence until years later. The suit was settled out of court.”