The greatest of Frank Borzage’s silent films, The River (1929) gave Hollywood’s foremost exponent of melodrama (I realize that I am slighting Griffith - I suspect that Borzage would not have approved of my disrespect) a hint of realism on which to hang his hat, as well as ample opportunity for abstraction and extremism. The material, adapted by several writers from Tristram Tupper’s novel, contains many elements of legend and fairy tale: a strange and paradisical setting, a man and woman to inhabit it in solitude, the courtship ritual of the often-missed train, an animal who is the eyes and ears of a sinister other. But the rather dark love affair between Allen John (Charles Farrell) and Rosalee (Mary Duncan) incorporates a few gestures toward psychology. Allen John is interested in Rosalee at first sight but reserves commitment for later, making several good-faith efforts to leave the river for the winter season; his humiliation at her refusal to take him seriously is an obstacle to his affection; his pure upbringing does not prevent him from yielding to her seduction (though a raven attack preserves his chastity). The hints of character plausibility combined with the story’s innate emotionality create an ideal fictional environment for Borzage. The heart of his art is expressions and reactions: his characters look at each other with curiosity and sincerity, seemingly unable to dissemble; and they hesitate on the verge of action, revealing their desire but not their plans. The mere appearance of psychological accountability invests these emotionally exposed expressions with meaning and context, while the extremity of the story gives Borzage a springboard to launch into melodrama.
The film also strikes an unusual balance between expressionist elements and Borzage’s more documentary impulses. Much of the distinctive feeling of the film can be attributed to Harry Oliver’s amazing set design, and to the way Borzage and cinematographer Ernest Palmer photograph the ravine that is the setting for most of the film’s exteriors. The impulse behind the set construction is basically expressionist, almost reminiscent of Metropolis: the river is surrounded by cliffs and rows of houses that extend vertically and make the narrow body of water seem enclosed; arrangements of extras and other set elements (like the railroad trestle that spans the river) enhance the verticality of the décor; we barely glimpse the sky in this predominantly natural setting.
And yet the expressionist effect does not express: the implicit claustrophobia of the concept is not the keynote emotion that the film draws from the setting. If anything, the enclosure gives the couple a magical, protected setting for their love affair, an imposing environment that extends upward to infinity but is easily mastered on the horizontal scale. Elsewhere in the film, Borzage shows himself capable of using expressionism in a more customary way, as when the threatening raven and its cage cast long ominous shadows over Allen John and Rosalee’s love scene.
Like Murnau (who was shooting at Fox at the same time with much of the same crew), Borzage emphasizes natural elements within the artifice of the ravine set, notably the water of the autumnal swimming scenes and the snowstorm that threatens Allen John’s life. Also like Murnau, Borzage uses composition to emphasize the extension of space in the artificial sets, and the motion of the actors often explores that space. The most famous example is the unexpected appearance of Allen John as Rosalee sits bemused by the river’s edge: Allen John drifts into the foreground of the frame from the space behind the camera, surprising us as much as Rosalee.
An equally beautiful, less conspicuous shot shows Allen John walking away from Rosalee’s shack in the dark, carrying the lantern she gave him, walking down a long passageway that appears as a hole in the image, illuminated as Allen John traverses it.
Murnau influenced a great many directors in the years following Sunrise, but Borzage seems to have a natural partiality for the spatial exploration with which Murnau is associated: even the two-reelers Borzage made more than a decade before The River show him selecting camera positions to make legible, three-dimensional maps of his locations. An example is the repeated high-angle shot of the saloon in the startlingly good 1916 The Pilgrim, which is included as an extra on the new Edition Filmmuseum PAL DVD of The River.
The egregious sexuality of The River strikes modern audiences as forcibly as it did contemporary ones. The film’s attitude toward sex is not simple. It would be a mistake to see Rosalee’s sexuality as a form of liberation or social progress: the scenario links her sexual acting out to a damned state of being. Immediately after her overt, essentially successful seduction of Allen John, she becomes so enraged at the raven’s intervention that she tries to kill it, and then sinks her knife into Allen John’s chest when he tries to stop her. However, her redemption via her love for Allen John is also expressed in sexual terms, as she uses the warmth of her body to bring him back from death’s door. Borzage and the scriptwriters probably intend that the new Rosalee will marry her lovers from now on, and remain faithful to them…but they also want to preserve and celebrate her sexuality.
Sincere melodramatist that he is, Borzage uses Allen John’s near-death as a springboard to lift the lovers’ emotionality to a new level of intensity, so that Rosalee’s unorthodox first-aid methods are absorbed naturally into the film’s ecstatic vision of love and spiritual healing. The end of the film, in which Allen John fights Rosalee’s sinister lover while Rosalee is sucked into a whirlpool, may have been another attempt to use danger to up the ante of the love story– only those who saw The River during its original run can say for sure, because the ending, along with many other scenes, has not survived. The Edition Filmmuseum DVD supplies intertitles and still photos to narrate the gaps – but the scenes that have survived fortunately have a structural integrity of their own.*** The River is available on Region 0 DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.