May 14, 2018
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Rex Ingram, Lloyd Bridges.
Frank Borzage’s Moonrise marks a milestone of sorts, albeit one that’s beyond arcane, as the first movie from Republic Pictures to appear under the Criterion banner. Of course, Olive Films has its own deal with that long defunct studio’s quirkily lovable library, which is currently under control of Paramount — meaning that the John Ford Republics, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Orson Welles’s Macbeth have already gone the high-def route, to name a few goodies that otherwise might have merited Criterion treatment. And yes, it’s true: Republic may have been the premier home of ‘B’-Westerns and the entire Vera Ralston oeuvre — and had it not been for that magnificently perched eagle that became its logo, Rod Cameron probably wouldn’t have had the career standing to land a gig recording those snicker-bait radio spots for 4-Way Cold Tablets that regaled my early adolescent self around 1960. But the studio raked in a lot of cash during World War II, and in the postwar period, it occasionally got ambitious.
Even though Borzage was only in his mid-50s in 1948, his glory days were behind him — though the days had been pretty glorious, to be sure. He’d won the first Oscar for direction (7th Heaven) and soon followed it with a second (Bad Girl, which now looks like a voting stretch). But even in the ’30s through 1940, he could claim the Gary Cooper-Helen Hayes A Farewell to Arms (whose rep has improved over the years), Man’s Castle, Little Man, What Now?, History Is Made at Night, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm (hey, that’s a hell of a list). By post-1940, however, Borzage was basically working under a for-hire banner and on less impressive projects, and his first two Republics hadn’t made a ripple, though I’ve Always Loved You was ambitious (if stillborn), and the studio even sprung for three-strip Technicolor when shooting. (On Criterion’s bonus interview, Borzage biographer Herve Dumont says Loved You was Republic’s only release filmed in that process, though The Quiet Man not only was, but also got its year’s color Oscar — and Herbert Wilcox’s super-strange Laughing Anne was Technicolor as well).
Borzage was one of the screen’s great romantics (possibly even the romantic), which may help explain why third-outing Moonrise in 1948 wasn’t popular at the time nor even particularly well received, despite having film noir trappings at a time when noir was in its heyday. The picture certainly isn’t soft-boiled but might leave some liquid residue if you dropped it on the floor — a lousy metaphor, actually, because I do like a lot of it, even if I can’t quite go all the way. Its opening, though, is superb, as a condemned prisoner is led to his execution — setting up his son for a life of preordained doom, much of it in his mind. Dane Clark, who’d been a back-bench John Garfield at mutual studio Warner Bros., has the role — just as Clark was coming off the best role and movie of his career playing a not dissimilar character in Jean Negulesco’s underappreciated Deep Valley opposite one of Ida Lupino’s very best performances.
Clark’s tortured Moonrise protagonist may be bringing some of his problems on himself — but still, it’s a marshy rural community, and his adolescent peers don’t let him forget his heritage when they’re growing up. Worst of his tormentors is the banker’s son (Lloyd Bridges), who’s quickly dispatched to that great country club in the sky after a brutal fight with his less privileged lifelong adversary. At this point, Clark becomes a fugitive of sorts despite still hanging around town, always looking over his shoulder. The woman who has attracted both men is an essentially innocent schoolteacher, though one who rather surprisingly manages to keep her job despite repeatedly being caught in compromising situations, or at least ones that look that way. Gail Russell plays her, and the tragic actress’s haunted demeanor makes the movie for me. As one of the disc’s two bonus interviewees notes (longtime film historian Peter Cowie is the other one, appearing with Dumont), you can’t watch melancholy Moonrise without thinking of Russell’s fate: severe alcoholism brought on by grinding it out in a profession that she basically didn’t like on her way to death at 36).
Borzage is great at emotional milieu, and this is quite the mood piece — despite, or possibly because, the entire film was shot on a set. Per his preference, this helped the director control the light — note that Charles Lang had gotten the cinematography Oscar for A Farewell to Arms —and I have to say that it’s a thrill seeing what a 1948 Republic can look like when its bountiful shadows rate 4K Criterion treatment. The cinematographer was John D. Russell, not to be confused with actor John Russell (later of TV’s “Lawman”), who appeared in a slew of Republics. John D. is best known for his work on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and for having shot the only Hitchcock feature from Strangers on a Train through Marnie not photographed by Robert Burks (Psycho) because Hitch wanted that much more twisted variation on The Accidental Tourist to have a rawer and less studied look. Or, to put it another way — given that Psycho’s cosmetics suggest the sickest ’50s TV show ever — Russell could turn in quality work on a speedy schedule and modest budgets, which was the Republic way.
Allyn Joslyn plays what must be the kindliest Southern sheriff ever seen on screen, a nice turn by an actor who never got his due (think of his role here, as the prig in Lubitsch’s magnificent Heaven Can Wait and in the amusing ‘B’ “Thin Man” knockoffs at Columbia with Evelyn Keyes). Rex Ingram, long sprung from the genie’s bottle in The Thief of Bagdad, has one of the meatiest roles for a black actor from the era — a shack-dweller who offers the burg’s wisest sage advice, though I have to say that the screenplay pours it on here, and you half-fear that Ingram will suddenly break into “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” (And if I read it right, he also seems to be excusing sexual aggression or worse against an unwilling party). Even Ethel Barrymore has a scene late in the picture, as Clark kin.
The ending is too rose-colored for my taste — like it or not, this was the Borzage way — but I’m still with most of the rest, thanks primarily to Russell (Gail), the photographic mood and resonant individual shots. I first saw Moonrise in either ’70 or ’71 when I was in NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema — courtesy of William K. Everson’s personal print (he was an admirer of the film, as was Andrew Sarris, if you read The American Cinema). Whatever else one can say, there’s a hallucinatory image here during a rainy auto trip after a group outing at a (dirt) roadhouse — one that has remained vividly with me for five decades and one that still delivers the creepy goods. Real Carnival of Souls stuff, I’d say, just speaking off the top of my head — but in any event, it’s not one you get everyday.