Frank Borzage: 1922 Silents


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

Back Pay (1922)
Cosmopolitan Productions/Paramount;
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;
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.