Frank Borzage: 1922 Silents

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Undercrank Productions;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.

Back Pay (1922)
Cosmopolitan Productions/Paramount;
Drama;
Stars Seena Owen, Matt Moore, J. Barney Sherry, Ethel Duray.

Fannie Hurst’s tale of a small town career girl who moved to New York to collect “back pay” for years spent working a low-end job in a low-class town was brought to the screen by a young Frank Borzage. Borzage was a poet, a dextrous romanticist who sanctified every frame with an eye toward beauty and engaging audience sympathy. His compassionate interest in humanity allowed for an occasional trickle of schmaltz without letting the floodgates burst. For Borzage, the redemptive power of love conquered all. He spent a career illustrating his belief. 

A deserted railroad station with a young woman standing on the platform watching a locomotive pull out opens the show. The history of establishing shots is lousy with this type of generic greeting. In the hands of Borzage and his revered scenarist, Frances Marion adapting Hurst’s short story, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. This wasn’t the first time the trio worked together, having previously collaborated on bringing Hurst’s Humoresque to the movies in 1920. Before an image hits the screen, the opening intertitle cops to heralding a story “as old as sin.” The intertitle describes the train’s departure as “a caravan of freedom.” Hester Bevins (Seena Owen) has outgrown the “changeless” town of Demopolis, Ohio. Everything about Mrs. Simmons’ boarding house sickens Hester. Even something as tranquil as a town picnic is enough to throw Hester off her game. One can only imagine how majestic the play of light essential to cinematographer Chester Lyon’s deep focus coverage of the picnic looked in 35mm, because even on a small television screen it’s pretty damn spectacular.

The more her boyfriend Jerry Newcombe (Matt Moore) pushes for marriage, the further Hester is driven to distraction. The young couple is too poor to even think about, let alone discuss wedlock, but that doesn’t stop Jerry from pushing the point. For Hester, a self-professed woman with a “crepe-de-chine soul” — Google it, I had to — happily-ever-after-hood means a lifetime of everything she deplors, right down to flannel nightgowns and cotton lisle socks. Rather than dwelling on textiles, Hester longs to be draped in chinchilla. When our “green as an emerald” lass, engulfed and devoured by her cosmopolitan desire to core the Big Apple departs for New York, it’s Jerry standing alone at the station bidding her farewell. So eager to get out of town is Hester she fails to return his farewell wave as the train pulls out. The train depot that opens the film, the lyrics to “In the Gloaming,” Hester’s last week’s pay, dining room manners, and more all come back into play, mirrored as the film progresses. 

It had been five years since Hester crash landed in the Big City, every day of which began as a struggle. That changs the day she met Charles G. Wheeler (J. Barney Sherry), a Wall Street billionaire who made his fortune manufacturing the same type of munitions that would eventually rob soldier Jerry of his eyesight. The title refers to the quote, “If sin has any wages, some of us are going to collect a lot of back pay!” By her own admission, Hester has everything a woman can ask for, but is she happy? Wheeler has already sprung for a Rolls Royce and with a little more conniving, Hester would be tooling around in a fur that would have taken Jerry a lifetime’s worth of saving to afford. The couple takes a trip to Crystal Springs which is just a hop skip and a jump from where Hester and Jerry lived. Self-absorbed Hester is forlorn over the way the town has forgotten her. Jerry fools himself into thinking he was the reason she returned to Demopolis. She points out that her fur wrap cost more than he makes in a month.

Hester continues on the road to hedonism while Jerry cries out her name on the front line of battle. No matter how hard Borzage tries to cushion the fall, the film remains a supreme downer. Hester’s time spent nursing Jerry is more than enough to cover for years devoted to the pursuit of sybaritic constraint. If nothing else, it’s enough to earn a smile from Jerry’s ghostly dismembered head.

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The Valley of Silent Men (1922)
Cosmopolitan Productions/Paramount;
Drama;
Stars Lew Cody, Alma Rubens, Joe King, Mario Majeroni.

The location work’s the show in this tale of the Canadian Mounties. With a title like this, a predominantly male cast, and a heroine who doesn’t appear until halfway through the picture, don’t expect much in the way of the director’s trademark treatment of requited love. To make matters worse, the print, struck from the best surviving elements, is shorn of 15 minutes. Trying to decipher the narrative becomes as big a mystery as who killed whom. Much of the exposition — what is the significance of the character known as “The Prophet” and why does he only speak in scriptures? — is relegated to homemade climactic intertitles. Cinematographer Chester Lyon is once again behind the camera and his crystal clear coverage of the frozen tundra is such that one half-expects to see condensation when exhaling. The missing footage does its best to kneecap the pace. And one has to laugh when rather than a bearskin rug, there’s a dead trapper spread across the cabin floor. I’m usually never one to champion achronolical viewing order, but seeing how far superior “Back Pay” is, I suggest that you start the evening with this.

Special features include an academic variation on VH1’s pop-up video subtitles and an 11-minute video essay titled A Turning Point: Frank Borzage at Cosmopolitan.

Moonrise

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
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.

Mike’s Picks: ‘No Down Payment’ and ‘Moonrise’

Mike’s Picks: ‘No Down Payment’ and ‘Moonrise’

No Down Payment

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barbara Rush, Cameron Mitchell, Pat Hingle, Patricia Owens.
1957. A time-capsule movie that also captures the members of its large cast at interesting career junctures, No Down Payment, based on a John McPartland novel, is rather undiscovered on a lesser but respectable level and holds up remarkably well.
Extras: Thanks to the kind of nugget that Julie Kirgo always seems to come up with in her Twilight Time liner notes, we learn that David Bowie was apparently a fan of this movie.
Read the Full Review

Moonrise

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Rex Ingram, Lloyd Bridges.
1948. 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. The ending is too rose-colored for my taste, but I’m still with most of the rest, thanks primarily to Gail Russell, the photographic mood and resonant individual shots.
Extras: Includes interviews with Borzage biographer Herve Dumont and film historian Peter Cowie.
Read the Full Review