Silent Light

Frank Borzage at Fox, in the shadow of Sunrise and on the brink of sound
by Michael Atkinson  posted December 16, 2008
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One must first come to the new Fox DVD parure entitled "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" and genuflect. It might be the most lavish, cinema-worshipful video package ever assembled, situating 12 features, two lost-film "reconstructions," and a dissertation's worth of scholarship in the kind of expansive gift case you expect for a champagne cognac. Whose brainchild was this, and from which alternate universe did he or she emigrate? How did this much capital and attention get lavished on forgotten and semi-forgotten silent films, in this epoch of 24—Seasons 1-6 box sets, Jawbone Bluetooths, and FurReal robot dogs? What’s more, the set puts forth an informed aesthetic-historical case—itself extraordinary for a studio library DVD release—and the case, articulated by Janet Bergstrom’s thoroughly researched book-essay, is a cogent one. Essentially, the proposition revolves around F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), how it has come to be regarded as a singular, ravishing, almost freakish anomaly amid late-silent Hollywood films, and how that common perspective is altogether wrong.

The strict auteurist model takes on still more shading; it was smitten mogul William Fox who enabled Murnau’s flights of visual beauty, and thereafter, running from 1927 into the early sound years, it was Fox who encouraged all his directors to adopt Murnau’s mise-en-scène, stylistic feats, and camera eloquence, a fact that resulted in a raft of late '20s masterpieces, and forever informed the visual choices of stable mates John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Frank Borzage. Sunrise was not simply Murnau's private poetic emission, but the impetus for a cataract of innovative narrative image-making, and together the films in this set not only comprise an unparalleled proof for the effectiveness of the studio system but also represent the clearest argument for the legendary idea that, had synchronized sound come just a few years later, silent film would have attained otherwise impossible heights of purely cinematic expressiveness and formal grace. Fox could be said to have passionately conceived, through Murnau, a new American Expressionism, romantic and natural where the German version had been so grim and architectural. For a few years, he succeeded.

Murnau may be seen as the presiding seminal force in this scenario, but clearly the hero of the era was Borzage, who took the dreamy, multilayered Sunrise palette and infused it with human complexity and romantic seriousness. Surely it matters less that one film came first than that a welter of subsequent wonderments were made at all. I have a sense Borzage has become over the last few decades one of the auteur theory's more beloved salvations (though his name is still often mispronounced). As the retrospective testaments to, say, Cukor, Von Sternberg, Vidor, and Preminger dissipate, relative to their rediscovery heydays, the figures of Minnelli, Sirk, Boetticher, and Borzage have only grown more embraceable and formidable with time. Not long ago, Little Man, What Now? (1934), History Is Made at Night (1937), Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Moonrise (1945) were altogether bygone, but lately Borzage’s oeuvre, especially his work from the '30s and '40s, has only been gathering steam, thanks in part to a 2006 traveling retrospective (which visited the Museum of the Moving Image, among other venues) and attentive showcasing on Turner Classic Movies. The silent films, though often acknowledged historically, are still only the pet objects of rarefied cinephiles; no canons have been reevaluated to accommodate them, and despite their Oscars they hold no pride of place on the Hollywood history shelf.

Borzage began directing during World War I, mostly dramatic two-reelers, and by the time he arrived at a place of elegant efficiency as one of Fox’s leading helmsmen, his famed sensibility—realistic sensitivity, cosmic romanticism, naturalistic textures—was already in place. The earliest Borzage work in the Fox megaset is 1925's Lazybones, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fluidly crafted and character-attentive American film from the mid '20s. The rural countryside and dirt roads are photographed in Fox’s then-house style, all dreamy haze and silvery nimbi, and Borzage's distinctive patience and care with actors, and his hunger for unpredictable gestures, can sting your eyes. But this earnest, almost Griffith-like melodrama—self-sacrificing country boy, unrequited love, orphanhood—is merely lovely in its orthodox compositions. The distance between it and the post-Murnau films to come is the distance between, for instance, Murnau's own Phantom (1922), which is sometimes audacious but mostly only accomplished, and The Last Laugh (1924), the camera calisthenics and elaborately constructed universe of which prompted Fox to offer the German a contract in the first place.

It needs to be said again that Borzage's debt to Murnau, and to Fox's mandates, in no way diminishes his achievement in the three films he made with Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929). In some ways, they are superior to Sunrise—for one thing, they lack that Karl May-penned fable’s pretentiousness. While his films could sag, relatively, under the subcutaneous fat of abundant intertitles, Borzage was far too much of a humanist, with too much deep respect for the reality of the human heartbeat, to suffer "a song of two humans," named only "the man" and "the wife," and an overwhelmingly allegorical tale that would have the tortured hero attempt to strangle the two women he loved inside of a single day. Borzage's characters are always closer to home, richer in idiosyncrasies, more awake to each other’s feelings in the moment.

More significantly, only Lubitsch rivaled Borzage as a director of actors; Murnau's abbreviated filmography reveals Emil Jannings's broad-brush stereotype portraits, and Max Schreck’s singular physicality, and that's about it for notable performances. The carryover of Gaynor and Farrell from Sunrise to Borzage's films (a transition that Gaynor said happened literally in a single day in '27, from one set to the other) makes the comparison easy, and vivid: in Murnau’s film, the actors are encouraged to express only their characters' iconic meaning. Gaynor’s meek and essentially reactive "wife" is especially pallid—a fact that has never seemed vital to the film because Murnau’s epiphanic mise-en-scène (as in the trolley scene) is doing all of the emoting, and rendering the actors' need for expressiveness all but moot. Watching the Borzage films today, after decades of Sunrise's ubiquity, can be a revelation: Gaynor and Farrell might have been, on Borzage’s watch, the most articulate and convincing actors in silent films. Viewers were right to be astonished by Seventh Heaven and Street Angel in their day, and not only for the lambent, fogged-chrome images. Playing only to the attentive viewer, and therefore like all great movie acting forcing us to target our attention on them, the stars are stunningly unobserved, natural and thoughtful, their stock characters (generally variations on penniless mongrels finding each other and then getting separated by fate) always deepened and enlivened from within. Gaynor's huge eyes are the obvious trump card here, enabling her to register a Streepian cascade of visible reactions and ideas almost without moving a muscle. (Gaynor's women—teenage girls, really—are active agents in the stories too, making moral decisions and changing the course of personal history, which is more than could be said for her wife in Sunrise.)

Farrell is just as much a surprise, however, and may be the most underrated, and under-remembered, leading man in Hollywood history. He's as physically at ease as any movie star has ever been—watch him adeptly climb up a telephone pole in Lucky Star, or offhandedly catch a thrown onion on the tip of a pocketknife blade in Seventh Heaven. Responding to Gaynor’s naturalism like a bloom turning to the sun, Farrell manages to make his buoyant, starry-eyed losers convincing in real time. Together, the two were as dynamic as Dunne and Grant or Tracy and Hepburn, and without spoken dialogue as fuel. Because they are so vibrant and guileless as genuine people, Gaynor and Farrell dwarf the memory of, say, Garbo and Gilbert, who always existed as idealized demigods, too poised and gorgeous to be anything but movie stars.

Seventh Heaven is set, Lower Depths-style, in and around the sewers and garrets of Paris; using probably the same spectacular old-city set, Street Angel unrolls in Naples. Both stories hinge on love overcoming tragedy, and on the problem of virginity; Gaynor’s hymen remains the films' implicit crucible, as the stories twist and thrust to place it in question. In each case, sex is a matter of commerce, and chastity a commodity to either be squandered for cash or saved, come hell or high water, for an equitable marriage. Lucky Star, rediscovered and restored in 1991 and probably the pearl of the trilogy, is set in the South, and takes a different tack. Gaynor is a wild-child country girl, Farrell a linesman gone to war and returned in a wheelchair, and the struggle is centered not on her appearance of sexual activity—this is America—but on who she should choose for a husband: her greedy mother's choice of Guinn "Big Boy" Williams’s lying pig or Farrell's no-sun-also-rising cripple. But of course, in the Sunrise paradigm, the films’ humanist textures are what catch your breath, as well as the dream-borne visual passages that could rival Murnau's: the extraordinary reverse tracking shot in Seventh Heaven as a deranged whore chases her younger sister (Gaynor) down the Parisian cobblestone side streets with a whip; the patiently held shot of Gaynor’s desperate urchin lying with her dead mother’s cold corpse (after having escaped from prison, after having tried prostitution to buy medicine) in Street Angel; the expansive opening of Lucky Star, which evokes miles of countryside in the manner of the Hudson River School of painting, romanticist and chaotic, all on a studio set. Another astonishment: among the three films and Sunrise, six different cinematographers were employed, with almost no overlap. Perhaps it was a zeitgeist, so lovely and too short-lived, after all.

The "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set has much more history to plumb, of course—including a large-format book invoking the ghost of Murnau’s lost 4 Devils, and six Borzage early talkies, starring the likes of Will Rogers and John McCormack, and each resonating with the industrial struggle between Borzage’s lust for movement, depth, and detail, and the exigencies of sound recording and of the public’s hankering for pure sound-and-image spectacle, nuance be damned. (Both Lucky Star and 1929's The River, reconstructed here out of fragments and stills, had talking sequences, but they’re gone now.) There remains the nagging notion, fortified by Borzage’s '27-'29 films, and by Murnau’s, and by the films made in the same period by Gance, Lang, Dreyer, Vidor, Leni, Pabst, Asquith, Clair, Renoir, Sjöström, and scores of others, that there was a revolution afoot, as William Fox had envisioned. Technology could not be resisted, and we’ll never know. 

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Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Janet Gaynor (right) in Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven
Photo Gallery: Silent Light

KEYWORDS

silent film  |  F.W. Murnau  |  Frank Borzage  |  DVD  |  studio system  |  Hollywood  |  Charles Farrell  |  Janet Gaynor

THE AUTHOR

Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct