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FRANK BORZAGE: SILENT FILMS (1915-1929)

by Robert Regan
FRANK BORZAGE: SILENT FILMS (1915-1929)
What I admire most in Frank Borzage, a quality shared by most of my favorite filmmakers, is his absolute mastery of mise-en-scene: each shot, each camera movement, each cut, fade, or dissolve is the perfect choice, his decisions as a director all seem inevitable. And there is his incomparable ability with actors: almost all of them did their very best work with him, even Dietrich in his Desire possessed a richer humanity than she had working with the equally masterful Sternberg. But my feelings about Borzage and his films obviously involve something more than admiration, so what is it that I love in his work? In a word, his sensibility… Read more

What I admire most in Frank Borzage, a quality shared by most of my favorite filmmakers, is his absolute mastery of mise-en-scene: each shot, each camera movement, each cut, fade, or dissolve is the perfect choice, his decisions as a director all seem inevitable. And there is his incomparable ability with actors: almost all of them did their very best work with him, even Dietrich in his Desire possessed a richer humanity than she had working with the equally masterful Sternberg.

But my feelings about Borzage and his films obviously involve something more than admiration, so what is it that I love in his work? In a word, his sensibility as an artist and a man. Although he had reasons in his private life to be cynical about relations between men and women, he remained throughout his career in a business that always made much of (some might say exploited) the human concern for love and sex, totally sincere in his depiction of the carnal and spiritual connections between people. There is no tongue-in-cheek in Borzage, no Brechtian distanciation; he is always close to his characters and close to us.

On melodramas: “Critics are inclined to belittle them and call them cheap. But they don’t seem to sense the idea that life is made up largely of melodrama. The most grotesque situations rise every day in life…. And yet when these true to life situations are transferred to the screen, they are sometimes laughed down because they are ‘melodrama.’ If this is true then all life is a joke and while some humorists hold to this idea, I am not one of those who believe it so.”
Frank Borzage, quoted in Peter Milne, _ Motion Picture Directing_, 1922.

Frank Borzage had three years experience on the stage when he arrived in Los Angeles at the age of eighteen. Handsome, personable, ambitious, and hard-working, it was not long before he began working for Thomas H. Ince, at first as gofer and prop boy, but by the end of the year he was appearing on film. Between 1912 and 1917, he played increasingly more important roles in about a hundred films, mostly two-reelers and mostly westerns, with a handful of major productions such as Ince’s The Wrath of the Gods from 1914, part of Hollywood’s then-current cycle of Oriental tales, usually variations on David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly. Borzage was the white man in the cast that starred Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki. In the middle of 1915, he was signed by the American Film Co. to play leading roles. They gave him the opportunity to direct.

“Frank Borzage has the reputation of having better control of facial expressions than any other screen artist before the public today.”
Motion Pictures, October 1915.

After he began directing, he continued acting in most of his own films and a few others until well into 1918. As an actor, he was extremely charming and had a very modern, natural style that tended, especially in the films he directed, to avoid the large gestures still common at the time. For about a year he made seventeen two and three-reelers, mostly westerns, graduating to feature films before the end of 1916. From this period, the only titles known to exist are The Pitch o’ Chance, Life’s Harmony, The Pilgrim, Nugget Jim’s Pardner, and an incomplete print of his first feature, Land of Lizards. All of Frank Borzage’s extant films will be discussed here; I will indicate the ones that I have not yet seen.

AMERICAN FILM CO.

The Pitch o’ Chance 1915

Borzage’s first film is a western in name only, but very much a Frank Borzage film. Though the leading character is a cowboy, and everyone rides horses and carries guns, the emphasis throughout is on the relationship between Rocky (Borzage) and Nan (Helene Rosson), the growth of trust and mutual respect and the awakening of love. Each brings out the sometimes hidden positive qualities in the other, and each learns from the other. This is a pattern seen regularly in his forty-four year career in, for example, Seventh Heaven, The River, A Farewell to Arms, Man’s Castle, Desire, Three Comrades, and Moonrise.

In a scant twenty-five minutes he covers all this and still has time for a cut-throat poker game and a gunfight. He opens by introducing his central characters in a series of iris shots: Rocky, “who bets on everything, anything or nothing at all”, Kentuck (Jack Richardson), “The gambler”, Nan, “who sort of belongs to Kentuck”, and Kate (Lizette Thorne), “of the Dance Hall, who persists in the hope of winning Kentuck’s favor”. Back at the ranch, Rocky tosses a coin, “Heads I ride to town for a snort—Tails I stay and ride range”. Rocky’s luck is hot tonight; he does not ride the range.

At the saloon, we see Nan’s ambivalent feelings toward Kentuck. She watches him morosely, and when she walks away, Kate comes over to insinuate herself on him. At this, Nan comes back to establish her territory, but when Kate says to her, “You’re only afraid of him—I love him”, she
replies, “I know it—I…”, and cries on Kate’s shoulder. Rocky comes in, notices Nan and comes on to her, only to be brushed off. He then joins Kentuck’s poker game which soon becomes so intense that Nan takes away Rocky’s and Kentuck’s guns. Rocky cleans Kentuck out. Both women are watching intently as Rocky next offers, “One hand of poker for the pile—against that girl of your’n!” Kate likes this idea, but Nan does not and, while she is beating at Kentuck’s chest for accepting the bet, Kate surreptitiously fixes the deck. Of course, Rocky wins, and he and Nan ride off after he unexpectedly helps her with her jacket. Kentuck drinks until he passes out, and Kate caresses him.

At a campfire, Rocky touches Nan’s arm, and she pulls away, crossing to the opposite side of the fire. In a closer shot, he says to her. “They call me ‘Rocky’, an’ I reckon they call me right”, and he hands her his guns. She looks straight at him, then moves away to bed down for the night. In the morning Nan sits off to the side looking away while Rocky cooks breakfast offering joking bets, till, “Betcha ten bucks my hoss can beat your’n back to town”, at which she turns towards Rocky, rises, and touches him. “I’d almost quit gamblin’ if I could take back that play I made last night”. Nan returns his guns, and he touches her arm without protest. They ride off a bit, then Rocky doffs his hat saying, “I reckon I’ve done ye enough harm, and can’t do no more good. I’ll be leavin’ ye here—good by”. Nan takes his hand and holds it till she rides off. He watches her, still holding his hand out.

Back in town, Kentuck has discovered the switched cards and, assuming that it was Rocky, prepares to gun him down. Nan learns of this and rushes off to warn Rocky who resents being accused of cheating, even though he now knows it was Kate, and is ready to meet the challenge. Nan touches his chest, and they clasp hands for a moment. Now, for the first time in the film, we see panoramic western vistas as Rocky and Kentuck ride toward each other. They meet and shoot each other, Rocky’s wound slight, Kentuck’s more serious. Rocky takes Kentuck to his house where Kate is waiting to tend to him. Rocky hands the last night’s winnings to a cowhand, “Give that to Kate. They’ll need it. I can’t never use that pile after the way it was played.”

Nan, ready to leave town, is nearby. Rocky approaches her and removes his hat. She reaches for his wounded arm. He takes her hand, and holds it in a close-up. “I’d admire to put a ring there—all proper”. Nan looks down, then away, and we see her imagined future, continuing to live the “saloon” life. She looks back up to Rocky and imagines an alternate life with him and a family. In a closer shot, they look at each other, he puts his good arm around her shoulder, and she leans her head against his chest. Fade out.

I have devoted more space to Borzage’s first film than I will to most of the later, better-known works, because I want to show how even at this earliest of stages, the essence of Borzagian filmmaking is in place. His sensitivity to the nuances of human relations and the small gestures with which people tell of themselves are all here.

“Although one of the youngest directors in the motion picture field, Frank Borzage has already won a high place for himself in the rapidly growing industry. He is a keen student of character and his productions show unusual artistic finish and individuality.”
Photoplay Art, August 1916.

Life’s Harmony 1916

Borzage’s first three reel film was written and begun by another director. This may explain its involved plot, much “busier” than those of the other surviving films he directed during the two years he worked for the American Film Co. in Santa Barbara. However, the understated acting and a number of particularly effective and imaginatively lit shots show the touch of the young Master.

The Pilgrim 1916

Another western with few intertitles, an emphasis on looks and gestures, and even less plot than The Pitch o’ Chance. Here Borzage plays a nameless itinerant cowhand. Somewhat misanthropic, he prefers bedding down outdoors with his mule to sleeping in the bunkhouse. When the ranch owner’s daughter comes to visit from the East, they become friends, he cleans up his act, and eventually proposes to her, only to be told that she has a fiance back home. He packs up his mule and heads off once again in a shot that echoes his arrival at the beginning.

By the time of The Pilgrim, his ninth film, Frank Borzage had established a regular team. All of his films at American (familiarly called Flying A, after its winged logo) were shot by L. Guy Wilky who had debuted along with the director on The Pitch o’ Chance. He was busy throughout the rest of the silent era and was one of the aerial cinematographers on both Wings and Hell’s Angels. The scripts, during this period synopses of a few pages, were mostly by the director himself or Kenneth B. Clarke who would rejoin the Borzage team in the mid-twenties at MGM and Fox. The casts regularly included Borzage, Anna Little, Jack Richardson, Dick La Reno, and Queenie Rosson, sister of Helene who, alas, only worked with Borzage once. Of Anna Little, Borzage scholar Marcel Pereira wonders, “Did she play a part in guiding him in his spiritual journey, as she was allegedly religious and supposedly left Hollywood because of it?”, and biographer Herve Dumont says that “she got along extremely well with Frank, she had a lot of humor and was fun to work with (so I was told from Frank’s sisters, who were still alive in California twenty years ago).”

Nugget Jim’s Pardner 1916

In this one, also called The Caliber of Man, Borzage plays Hal, a dissolute Eastern youth who is banished from his home by his disappointed father. In a drunken stupor, he climbs into a boxcar to sleep it off and wakes up in Arizona. He finds an empty cabin and prepares a meal for himself. We meet the owner of the cabin, Nugget Jim, in town drinking heavily at the saloon/“dance hall” where he requires his unhappy daughter Madge to work and provide him with money for drink. When he goes home, Jim finds Hal and forces him to work panning for gold. Though blistered and aching, Hal takes to the work. “You know, I like this mining business. Guess I’ll take you as a pardner.” After a few weeks, Hal learns about Madge, takes her out of the “dance hall” and brings her home. Jim objects, and Hal knocks him out, gives Madge his bed, and sleeps out on the porch. Over the next weeks, the three become a family, usually seen at the dinner table. They are all saddened when Hal gets a letter from his father begging him to come home. After a teary farewell at the station, Hal gets on the train and is seen from behind as he looks out the back of the last car at the disappearing Madge and Jim. After a moment, he jumps off the train and heads down the tracks towards his “family.” Borzage tells his story with even fewer titles and more close-ups than in the earlier films.

Land o’ Lizards 1916

This was Borzage’s first five-reel feature after seventeen 2 or 3 reel shorts in less than a year. There’s a lot more plot here than in the shorter films. The director plays The Stranger, the only man in town fearless enough to oppose a terrorizing gang of bandits. There’s a miner whose son turns out to be his daughter in disguise, and there is an unscrupulous mining mogul from the East who uses his sophisticated citified daughter to seduce The Stranger into helping him secure the area for his exploitation. Land o’ Lizards was lost until 1993 when twenty minutes of about fifty was found by the Filmoteca de la Generalitat Valenciana in Spain. I have not yet seen it. Some sources say that it was later reissued as Silent Shelby, but they are confusing it with another Flying A film with similar credits.

“There are all sorts of juicy details like this bag of beans—in the foreground—riddled by revolvers’ shots and collapsing bit by bit, like the thermometer of the battle.”
Louis Delluc, Le Film, August 1918.

Just before shooting his first feature, the 24-year old Borzage was married to Rena Rogers on June 7, 1916, said to be the bride’s sixteenth birthday. She had appeared in 39 films, mostly comedy shorts and mostly for Universal. Her most notable role was in Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? in which she plays a victim of seduction and abortion. The marriage began well, but soon deteriorated, though it lasted legally for 24 years.

TRIANGLE FILM CORP.

Flying Colors 1917

This is Borzage’s first film for the Triangle Film Corp., although some sources claim that he co-directed his last starring vehicle for American Wee Lady Betty, released a month earlier. Similarly, he is sometimes said to appear uncredited in Flying Colors, a detective story built around aging matinee idol William Desmond. An incomplete print exists which I have not yet seen.

Reasons for Borzage leaving American are not clear, though it was probably because of a major budget cut-back in 1916 which may have involved releasing him along with some of their actors, such as Helene Rosson who also moved on about the same time. Triangle offered a technical team and facilities far superior to the relatively makeshift operation at American, but its tighter structure seriously curtailed the directors’ choice of scripts and required a greater adherence to house style. It is difficult to assess Borzage’s work from the two years at Triangle since, of his fifteen features made there, only three survive. Both extant films after Flying Colors are westerns as are three of the four survivors from American. While it would be valuable to observe his development in other genres, these two are both “real” Frank Borzage films.

Until They Get Me 1917

After the terse, near abstraction of the two-reelers, this film with perhaps the greatest title this side of History is Made at Night gives the Borzagian world a larger physical context. There is more riding here than in the earlier films, though only one shooting. There are two tightly connected plot threads, held together by the central woman played by the admirable Pauline Starke. Kirby, fleeing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after a justified homicide, meets up with Margy, a not-grown girl disguised as a boy who is escaping from a cruel foster family. He tells her of his resolve to return to his ranch each year on his son’s birthday, and swears her to secrecy. He leaves her close to the Mountie post where she is taken in by the commander and his wife, cared for, and educated. She becomes close to Selwyn, the Mountie who had earlier let Kirby escape. Since the Mounties “always get their man”, his hunt verges on the obsessive. When Margy appears at a Christmas Eve dinner in a very womanly gown, everyone at the post, especially Selwyn, notices that she is no longer their little girl. Later, Margy inadvertently reveals to Selwyn Kirby’s annual pilgrimage. Ashamed by her betrayal of her duty, she pleads with Selwyn to ignore his new intelligence, but he cannot betray his duty. Believe it or not, all works out well.

“It was a mounted police picture and I was the only girl in it, but Mr. Borzage was so kind that I didn’t realize I was doing my first lead, so I wasn’t nervous.”
Pauline Starke, Motion Picture Classic, February 1926.

This was the first of four films Borzage made with Pauline Starke, the first of many girl-woman heroines in his work. She was very popular at Metro in the twenties, shining particularly in John S. Robertson’s Captain Salvation with Lars Hanson, Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise, and a handful of films by Maurice Tourneur. One of her last and less effective roles was in Roy William Neill’s two-color Technicolor The Viking which clearly established for the record that Viking women shaved their armpits!

The Gun Woman 1918

Another Western with a woman at its center, this time played by Texas Guinan, planned by Triangle to be the female William S. Hart. She was fairly popular during the few years that she made close to fifty mostly low-budget short Westerns, but her greatest fame came from the popular speakeasy that she ran in Manhattan for most of Prohibition. She also emceed, greeting her patrons with “Hello, suckers!” She was portrayed in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass by Phyllis Diller. The few of her other films that I have seen are, not surprisingly, more conventional than The Gun Woman. Here, she plays The Tigress, owner of the ubiquitous saloon with the expected gambling and “dance hall” girls." She is placed between two men, The Bostonian and The Stranger, poles of morality. Through his brilliant use of light, darkness, and smoke, Borzage depicts the course by which “The Tigress becomes a Woman.”

“What makes this “Western” live for viewers today are the characters that people Borzage’s Western town and the relationships between them. Another director might have been satisfied with the basic idea of Texas Guinan as a “female Bill Hart,” yet Borzgae links the Hart-like elements (such as revenge motivated by a code of primal justice) to a more important romantic theme, based on the emotional makeup of characters we have grown to understand and identify with throughout the course of the film.
Richard Koszarski, The Rivals of D.W. Griffith, 1976.

FRED STONE PRODUCTIONS

Billy Jim 1919

When Triangle ceased production, Borzage was approached by Fred Stone, a popular stage comedian who had just formed his own film company, to direct him in two humorous Westerns. These were shot in the summer of 1919 though, for some reason, not released until 1922, by which time Stone had returned to the comfort of Broadway. Billy Jim, the second of these films has been preserved at the Cinemateque Royale de Belgique, though I have not yet seen it.

Stone was apparently pleased with the director’s work, because he and the highly regarded screenwriter Frances Marion both recommended him to the head of a new production company in New York. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had shown a serious interest in film since 1913, but now he had formed Cosmopolitan Film which would distribute through Paramount. Thus began the third stage of Frank Borzage’s career.

COSMOPOLITAN PRODUCTIONS

Humoresque 1920

Both the director and the writer later claimed to have initiated the project of adapting Fannie Hurst’s popular story of Jewish family life in New York, but no matter, it became a fine film and a credit to all involved. Frances Marion’s script, as usual throughout her admirable career that lasted from 1915 to 1940, was excellent, and Borzage was ready to take advantage of the remarkable facilities available at Cosmopolitan and create a film with greater “production values” than his earlier work. Humoresque, named after a violin piece by Antonin Dvorak and popularized by Fritz Kreisler, was Borzage’s first “major motion picture”, but Hearst and Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, both hated it and planned to shelve it. Frances Marion quoted Zukor saying, “If you want to show Jews, show Rothschilds, banks and beautiful things. It hurts us Jews—we don’t all live in poor houses”. When reluctantly released, it proved to be spectacularly popular, as well as appearing on most 10 best lists and winning Photoplay magazine’s first Gold Medal for Best Film of the Year.

“He had an intuitive sense of drama, a deep sympathetic understanding of human needs, and a warm, friendly attitude toward everyone with whom he came in contact.”
Frances Marion, Off with Their Heads!, 1972.

For the matriarch in his first surviving film centered on family relationships, Borzage recruited Vera Gordon from New York’s Yiddish theatre. She continued playing the archetypal, soon to be stereotypal, “Jewish Mother” through her last film in 1946, an adaptation of the long-running Broadway comedy, Abie’s Irish Rose. An unbilled bit in that film was played by young Shelley Winters who would eventually carry on the tradition established in film by Gordon.

The story, also to become a cinematic cliche, is that of the poor boy from the Ghetto who becomes a great violinist. The first half, with many scenes shot on the streets with hidden cameras, takes place on New York’s Lower East Side and amidst much humor and some pathos, introduces the Kantors and their family dynamics, coming to a climax when young Leon picks up his first violin. Since Borzage is more concerned here with the family than with a musician per se, the film then moves directly to Fifth Avenue where the successful Leon and the Kantors now live in relative opulence. Most notable in the second half is when Leon comes home from the First World War with a damaged left arm. The climax here is perhaps the first Borzagian “miracle” when the useless arm is healed through the power of his love for his childhood sweetheart played by Alma Rubens.

“It is a rare example of sensitivity and expertise, mainly in its directing and acting. Chaplin and Borzage, in their themes, their gentle lyricism and the femininity of their passive grief, tend to favor neurotic stimuli reminiscent of the dreamy suffering of Rousseau and Beardsley. Think of the little girl who limps, of the violinist who loses his arm in the war, of Max the kind fool, of the Jewish family’s suffering and persecution, of its passive role throughout all its struggles, of the ‘Muttercomplex’ greatly emphasized by Borzage’s direction.”
Sergei Eisenstein, 1923.

Between 1920 and 1923, Borzage made seven films for Cosmopolitan, only two of which are lost today, the increased survival rate being at least partially due to the the new stature of his work within the industry. He was able to bring his brother Lew Borzage onto his team as assistant director, and he connected with Chester A. Lyons, a sadly underrated cinematographer who shot seventeen of his films, including the pictorially exquisite Lucky Star and Lilliom. His biggest problem during this period was avoiding assignment to the films of Cosmopolitan’s most important star, Marion Davies, not because of any lack of respect for her ability, but because her pictures tended to be rather too closely supervised by Hearst personally. He did direct her in 1936, by which time she was tired and would probably have been retired had not Hearst insisted she continue making films.

Back Pay 1922

“Here’s to the wages of sin!” “If sin has any wages, some of us are going to collect a lot of back pay!”

This was the second of Borzage’s four adaptations of Fannie Hurst, an extremely popular writer of the era who is still, perhaps unjustly, neglected by the literary establishment as a purveyor of “women’s fiction”. Hollywood was less neglectful, having filmed her work twenty-eight times during her life, including Back Street and Imitation of Life multiple times. It was also his second of seven films written by Frances Marion, a highly valued collaborator during this period. Characteristically, if there is any moralizing in his source, there is none in Borzage.

Herve Dumont describes Back Pay‘s protagonist as “an American Emma Bovary”, and the film, according to biographer David Robinson, was a major influence on Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris. She is played with subtlety and admirable restraint by Seena Owen whose career never quite took off, despite her performances in Intolerance (the Princess Beloved in Babylon, wearing, it is said, the world’s first false eyelashes), in Queen Kelly as the whip-wielding Queen Regina, in Maurice Torneur’s Victory, and of course Back Pay.

The Good Provider 1922

This Hurst adaptation, a variation on Humoresque, centered on the father, played again by Dore Davidson, with Vera Gordon and Miriam Battista also back from the previoius film. It exists only in a seven minute fragment held by the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, and I have not yet seen it. Though not nearly as popular as its predecessor, The Good Provider had an even better critical reception.

“Borzage has come back with his direction of this. He is not a Griffith who plays upon your emotions until they shriek for mercy; he has a quieter touch.”
Photoplay, July 1922.

“Those who see film as a means of expressing emotions, of depicting states of soul, as a painter reveals the secrets of nature with his brush, would do well to go see Papa (The Good Provider).”
_Cinemonde, November 1923.

The Valley of Silent Men 1922

It looks as though Borzage needed a change of pace and wanted to get outdoors again for a while. He was on location in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, where he had shot Until They Get Me, from March to July , accompanied by his wife as still photographer. It appears to have been a pleasant shoot for all, until one of the stuntmen drowned during a scene in the rapids. The director was deeply disturbed by this accident and afterwards avoided distant locations and situations that would put his cast and crew in danger. The film, based on a novel by James Oliver Curwood, sometimes called the poor man’s Jack London, is a North-Western whodunit with Alma Rubens as a mysterious woman from the North and Lew Cody as a Mountie loyal to his friend. Some missing scenes, particularly in the last half, cause some frustration, but there is more than enough here to keep us engaged and to remind us who directed. There is a sequence with the lovers crossing an enormous glacier that will put many viewers in mind of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan skiing away from the Nazis in The Mortal Storm. Borzage has more long shots than we expect from him; the Canadian landscapes were surely irresistible.

“Without the authenticity of backgrounds the melodrama would be stagy, but impressive vistas of awesome mountain peaks in series upon series give a commanding atmosphere that overshadows the drama and compels a sense of reality. It is a curious case of mere settings creating a real illusion for a set of theatrical situations. The romance is in the environment rather than in the occurrence or the characters who never let you forget that it is all a story.”
Variety, January 1922.

The Pride of Palomar 1922

Herve Dumont, whose love for the director’s work inclines him to be indulgent, calls this film, which I have not yet seen, a potboiler. “This strange semi-western,” he goes on, “is a barely disguised anti-Japanese propaganda film Hearst sponsored in his political campaign against Japanese immigration in California. The fantasy of the ‘yellow peril’ had haunted America since the defeat of Russia in 1905.” Dumont adds, “There were a few typical touches in this routine work.”

The Nth Commandment 1923

Dumont calls this final film made for Cosmopolitan, “the first truly Borzagian work”. Although based on another Hurst story scripted by Marion, it is in no sense a look backward to past achievements. Rather its story of a young couple facing adversity looks forward to some of Borzage’s best films of the thirties, such as Bad Girl, After Tomorrow, Man’s Castle, and Little Man, What Now. Though he dealt with this topic comically in 1926 in The First Year, the Depression create an audience eager for such stories. The Nth Commandment involves a husband in poor health and a child, not unlike Sternberg’s later Blonde Venus, but Borzage’s heroine, beautifully played by Colleen Moore on the very brink of superstardom, just retains her “honor”, unlike Dietrich’s character. Hurst is quoted in a title following the credits: “It is the Nth Commandment you follow then, the unwritten commandment to serve, to suffer, to sacrifice for what you love and cherish”. Borzage’s morality is more complex: towards the end, the young husband says, “It just don’t seem fair for you to have to do it all for us”, and Moore replies, “Everythin’s fair, darlin’, in love. All the rules for the game o’ livin’ ain’t written down in the ten commandments.” There are three reels missing from the only known, badly deteriorated, print held by the Library of Congress, but the power of the acting, enhanced by the director’s strongly face-centered mise-en-scene, puts The Nth Commandment among Borzage’s most moving films.

After fulfilling his commitment to Cosmopolitan, Borzage made two films, both lost, for the Arthur H. Jacobs Corp. These two, Children of the Dust and The Age of Desire, were credited, “A Frank Borzage Production, Directed by Frank Borzage”, as would be all his future films, with the exception of History is Made at Night and The Big Fisherman, produced by Walter Wanger and Rowland V. Lee, respectively. The first of his films for Jacobs was based on a story by Tristram Tupper who would also provide the source for two of his best films, The River and Lucky Star.

NORMA TALMADGE PRODUCTIONS

Norma Talmadge, at this time second in popularity only to Mary Pickford, formed her own company in 1916. Run by her husband Joseph M. Schenck, it also distributed films made by Norma’s sister Constance and her sister Natalie’s husband, Buster Keaton. Borzage prepared and began shooting his first Talmadge picture, The Song of Love, now lost, when he fell ill and was replaced by Chester M. Franklin who also fell ill, and the direction was completed by the screenwriter Frances Marion.

Secrets 1924

Based on a play that was highly successful in London and New York, Secrets provides a tour de force role for a leading lady and, with Borzage’s help, Talmadge was up to it, playing the heroine from youth to old age in “three acts, a prologue, and an epilogue”, each act being a flashback from “the present day” that depicts a different time in Mary’s marriage to John. The film has the effect of three films. First a romantic comedy about elopement with much made of the numerous crinolines and hoops of 1865 dresses. Five years later, there is a tragic Western drama, then a domestic melodrama of adultery, forgiveness, and renewal. Borzage does not disguise the story’s theatrical origins, retaining its narrative strength by confining himself to minimal “opening up”, a method Hitchcock favored when adapting a play. The focus here is more on Mary than John, something that the director balanced more evenly in his 1933 remake. The “other woman” in the third act is played by Gertrude Astor who, in a fifty-year career, appeared in at least 280 movies including, it is said, every John Ford film from Cheyenne’s Pal in 1917 to _The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance _ in 1962.

The Lady 1925

The third of Borzage’s Talmadge films features quite a bit more “emoting” on the part of the leading lady, more than in Secrets and more than we expect in his work. It is, in fairness to director and star, that kind of story: mother love, sacrifice, and suffering. Visually, especially in the scenes set in waterfront Marseilles, The Lady gives a hint of the poetry that Borzage would soon create in the Paris of Seventh Heaven and the Naples of Street Angel. He takes full advantage of Tony Gaudio’s sensitive photography and the imaginative sets by Wiliiam Cameron Menzies.

METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting 1925

Borzage began his first stay at MGM with the adaptation of a popular play by prize-winning Zoe Akins with Alice Joyce in the lead. It appears to be an interesting variation on one of his characteristic situations, a young family is shown, but here in its disintegration. Describing the death of the child, Dumont says, “Borzage chooses frames and gestures strangely identical to those at the end of A Farewell to Arms: Janet caresses her father’s face; Julian takes her hand and lifts it to his mouth, kisses the little fingers—when he suddenly realizes, incredulous at first, that the fingers are no longer moving. He holds the inert child against himself, lifts her from the bed and carries her in her long nightgown across the hospital room as, eight years later, Gary Cooper will carry Helen Hayes. Death comes always as a surprise in Borzage’s image of reality.” I have not yet seen the prints held by the Narodni Filmarchiv in Prague or the Filmoteca Espanola in Madrid.

“Frank Borzage is an ideal director. He is so sensitive. He watches his players all the time, studies their mannerisms and uses them in scenes whenever possible. It makes everything you do seem natural,”
Alice Joyce, Picture-Play, April 1925.

“Mr. Borzage is a ridiculously young person with curly, red-brown hair and an ingratiating smile. There is a splendid harmony between Percy Marmont and Mr. Borzage. They both have the idealistic touch and between the two, concoct little scenes that are gems of artistry and detail. I imagine that Frank Borzage is one of the youngest directors in the business, but even at that he is far from overwhelmed by his own importance. Quite the most unassuming man I have ever worked for—and one of the easiest. He explains in detail the requirements of the scene, but if something should go wrong he does not chew the scenery as some of them do. He just looks so sorrowful and hurt that whoever is to blame feels as if he were taking advantage of a child. With hair like his there is, of course, an appropriate temper, but I have never, even in moments of greatest stress, seen him let anyone but himself suffer from it.”
Margaret Reid, “Looking on with an Extra Girl”, Picture-Play, March 1925.

The Circle 1925

It’s difficult to understand why MGM bought The Circle in the first place, let alone assigned it to Frank Borzage. Somerset Maugham’s cynical play about marital infidelity among the English upper classes would seem to have been antithetical to their generally middle class vision of life and morality. It’s total lack of seriousness certainly held no promise to fit into the Borzagian universe, but he did his best. The picture is well acted, especially by Eleanor Boardman, and the director softened Maugham’s ending, but except for a few well-designed shots, there is little here that can readily be identified as Borzage. When researching his 1974 book on Joan Crawford, the late and lamented Stephen Harvey discovered that it was she playing the runaway wife in the film’s Victorian prologue.

Borzage never liked to be tied down to any company by a long-term contract, but his sojourn at MGM was his briefest studio connection to date. After less than a year and two films, he walked out of the gate on April 14, 1925, the same day as Erich Von Stroheim. Both directors were to return to Metro some years later after the death of the tyrannical and bourgeois Irving K. Thalberg. Their returns, however, were under very different circumstances. The exodus was joined in a matter of weeks by Josef Von Sternberg and William Wellman.

“Borzage is said to have been mainly dissatisfied by the assignments allotted to him, the director wanting to make a better grade of picture than those which had been placed in his charge.”Variety_, April 1925.

FOX FILM CORP.

The director was barely off the MGM lot, when he was approached by Fox which made him an amenable and lucrative offer that instituted the longest and, perhaps, most fruitful professional association of his career: seven years, eighteen films including four masterpieces and two Best Director Academy Awards.

The Hungarian-born William Fox had brought his company to a solid economic position in the ten years of its existence. The studio got off the ground with a series of films starring the archetypal vamp Theda Bara, many directed by J. Gordon Edwards, grandfather of Blake. Their Westerns, starring Tom Mix and later Buck Jones, often directed by John Ford, were steady money-makers, but Fox’s studio was still not on a level with the “majors”, and he was ambitious. In 1925, he increased his company’s capital, established a nation-wide chain of theatres, and began investing in research into optical sound which he presciently believed would be more practical than the sound on disc systems that others were investigating at the time. More important to his directors, who now or soon included in addition to Borzage and Ford, Raoul Walsh, W.S. Van Dyke, Howard Hawks, Rowland V. Lee, Allan Dwan, and F.W. Murnau, William Fox was emboldened by the spectacular success of Ford’s The Iron Horse, the first Fox film to open on Broadway, and he wanted prestige in the industry and in the art.

So, “Frank Borzage Productions” moved to the rapidly growing Fox Film Corp, where there was considerably more creative freedom than that of employees of the oddly revered Irving Thalberg. Fox’s head of production, college educated Winfield Sheehan, liked directors almost as much as he liked young actresses, notably Madge Bellamy who would be Borzage’s next leading woman. Once the script, budget, and casting were approved, he left them alone, only supervising the final edit.

Lazybones 1925

Although the average shooting schedule at Fox was 25 days, Borzage was on location in Kernsville, California from July to September in 1925. He had a script freely adapted by Frances Marion from a popular Broadway play, and he had top cinematographer George Schneiderman who shot many of John Ford’s best films, including the 1920 Just Pals which also starred cowboy hero Buck Jones as an intrinsically noble small town ne’er-do-well who becomes attached to a child.

Both films were a change of pace from Jones’ Westerns, but Borzage departed further from the actor’s routine than Ford and Lazybones, as good as it is, was not as popular at the time as Just Pals had been. Although it is tempting to compare the two films as an exercise in observing directorial style, the two filmmakers were at different stages in their careers and in the development of their art. Though they started directing about the same time, Ford took longer to find his voice than Borzage. As Andrew Sarris pointed out in his indispensable 1975 study, The John Ford Movie Mystery, “If Ford’s career had ended in 1929, he would deserve at most a footnote in film history, and it is doubtful that scholars would even bother excavating too many of his Twenties works from the Fox vault.” Just Pals at the beginning of the decade had been an early effort to escape from the limitations of the Sagebrush Ghetto. That same year, Borzage, having put his albeit admirable Westerns behind him, made Humoresque, in all senses a “major motion picture”. At mid-decade, with The Iron Horse, Ford had banished the more casual Jack from his credit and become John, and was getting a greater variety of material to work with. Borzage had made at least a half-dozen memorable films and was about to embark on an amazing series of four late silent masterpieces one after another that insured for him the place in film history that Ford did not clinch until after the advent of sound. The closest connection between the two films, besides studio and star, is their mutual disdain towards bourgeois standards and those who uphold them, a frequent theme in the work of both artists.

Not surprisingly, Borzage’s cast is particularly fine, especially the incomparable Zasu Pitts, as powerful as in her Stroheim films and more beautiful than ever. Madge Bellamy is more effective than in her best-known film, The Iron Horse, and Virginia Marshall is one of the best child actors of the era.

Lazybones carries the mark not of sadness, but of a kind of melancholy to which we are not accustomed in American films. Buck Jones reveals excellent dramatic talent; he is very serious, subtle and some of his smiles are sad, sadder than tears or sobs would be.”
Cinemagazine, December 1925.

“In a 1925 film, unknown to all film historians, Lazybones, a man lets himself slide imperceptibly on the side of love with tenderness and sharp pain that have only their equivalent in Mizoguchi. They air they breathe in the important silent films of Borzage is extraordinarily pure, with freedom, with poetry.”
Dominique Rabourdin, Cinema 87, October 1987.

“Frank and I did not get along. This was to prove a great disaster for me as he refused to have me for the role played by Janet Gaynor in 7th Heaven, even though William Fox himself said that he had chosen me. Borzage and I quarreled over the little matter of my fingernails. In the picture, I played a poor white-trash girl. Every morning, he would inspect my nails to see if they were dirty enough. They never were, so he had mud rubbed in them. I did not think the camera was close enough to catch this detail and took it as an insult. Of course, in retrospect, I wonder how I could have been so uncooperative.”
Madge Bellamy, A Darling of the Twenties, 1989.

The First Year 1926

Borzage’s first film after _Lazybones_appears to be lost. He replaced Harry Beaumont on Wages for Wives, a marital comedy with a Lysistrata twist and Zasu Pitts.

The next film that Borzage initiated was another Frances Marion adaptation of a popular Broadway hit. Though well-done and amusing, it is likely to disappoint after seeing some of his other tales of newly-weds, like Bad Girl, The Nth Commandment, or After Tomorrow. The centerpiece is an impromptu dinner for a business associate and his wife. Most of this is pretty funny in a sit-com way, but the sequence presents the only embarrassing moment I can recall in Borzage’s work, a temporary maid who is Black, and who is not very bright. On the plus side, the character is wittily played by Carolynne Snowden who had bit parts in Stroheim’s The Merry Widow and The Wedding March and a dozen other films, but got more professional exposure as a dancer at New York’s legendary Cotton Club. Furthermore, an African-American woman was getting some work. In William K. Howard’s 1932 remake with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the maid was plkayed by Leila Bennett, a white women in blackface! There was also an early television production in 1947. The only person of note in this cast was 22 year old Ruby Dee.

The young couple are played by Matt Moore from a large acting family and Kathryn Perry who was married to Moore’s brother Owen who had been dumped and divorced by Mary Pickford when she met Douglas Fairbanks. The cast member best remembered today is Margaret Livingston. She has gone down in film history as the woman from the city in Sunrise, and as the player who doubled for and dubbed Louise Brooks when The Canary Murder Case was turned into a talkie. A lesser-known but interesting credit is John Ford’s 1926 Blue Eagle in which she appeared along with her future Sunrise co-stars, George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor. Oddly, most sources do not list The First Year among Livingston’s credits, notably the American Film Institute Catalog whence Imdb and the others probably got their information.

“Frank Borzage seems to be a demon on rain. It is raining in almost every chapter.”
Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, March 1926.

Marriage License? 1926

Borzage worked on five films during 1926. A project that sounds promising from our perspective was an adaptation of a “controversial” best-seller, One Increasing Purpose, by Englishman A.S.M. Hutchinson. Described by Herve Dumont as a “mystical drama of a survivor of World War I who despairs at the lack of love among those close to him”, the completed script was passed on to Harry Beaumont to free Borzage for a more important project.

While waiting for the Big One to get off the ground, he took over from Victor Schertzinger the direction of the now lost The Dixie Merchant, a comedy involving a ne’er-do-well father and a race horse. One wonders if it connects to the director’s 1947 That’s My Man which also had a racing background. The cast included J. Farrell MacDonald, Madge Bellamy and, in bit parts, Borzage’s parents.

Another lost film was Early to Wed, a marital comedy along the lines of The First Year reuniting its stars, Matt Moore and Kathryn Perry, and adding Zasu Pitts to the mix. This film marks the graduation of brother Lew Borzage from second to first assistant director, a position he would hold on all Borzage pictures, as stipulated in Frank’s contracts.

There is a print, which I have not yet seen, of Marriage License? in Prague. The plot, with echoes of The Lady and Lazybones, involves a young woman, a “commoner”, married to a feckless English lord whose family has the marriage annulled, in spite of her pregnancy. In her last of four films with Borzage, Alma Rubens is the lead. “Here”, says Dumont, “her femininity appears disturbingly fragile (a morphine addict, she would die four years later).” The source, a play by F. Tennyson Jesse, apparently centered on mothers’ sacrifices. Dumont continues, “But whether due to the absence of Frances Marion or the magnetism of Alma Rubens, scriptwriter Bradley King’s adaptation focuses more on passion than sacrifice”.

The fifth Borzage project of 1926 was, of course, 7th Heaven.

7th Heaven 1927

There are films in every great director’s life that mark, or perhaps create, major career-changing moments. For Frank Borzage, there was Land o’ Lizards in 1916, his first feature; two years later, there was Humoresque, a critical success, a box-office record breaker, and a prize winner. In 1927, 7th Heaven surpassed those achievements of the latter film and, furthermore, represented the first full flowering of his artistic sensibility. Though this was present in many of his earlier films (indeed, it is there in his first film in 1915, The Pitch o’ Chance), this is the first Borzage masterpiece, by which all his later work would be measured.

There are also films for which a director has the right material that brings out his best, and for which all of his collaborators, the writers, cinematographer, designers, and cast are all perfectly chosen and perform at their best; in short, films in which everything works! 7th Heaven is a prime example of one of these.

William Fox paid a small fortune for for the screen rights to the long-running Broadway play by the otherwise forgotten Austin Strong, a great nephew of Robert Louis Stevenson. The original star was Helen Menken, soon to become Humphrey Bogart’s first wife. As one can see from the more faithful adaptation in 1937 by Henry King, Strong’s work is marked by sentimentality rather than sentiment and religiosity rather than spirituality.

Early in the film’s pre-production, direction was assigned to Emmett J. Flynn who had recently had some success with East Lynne, another popular stage play that had already been filmed at least eleven times, but studio boss Winfield Sheehan, leery of Flynn’s alcoholism, fired him and wisely offered the job to Borzage. The original screenwriter was Frances Marion, but she dropped out for reasons that are not clear, shortly after the new director took over. Benjamin Glazer, an Irish playwright who had just adapted Flesh and the Devil at MGM, was hired and received sole credit for the script, as well as an Academy Award. Glazer and Borzage later worked together on A Farewell to Arms.

The cinematographer was to be Ernest Palmer who shot 165 films between 1918 and 1960, including Street Angel, The River, and three earlier pictures for Borzage, 4 Devils and City Girl for Murnau, and Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand which won him the 1941 Oscar for Color Cinematography. The art director was Harry Oliver who designed all of Borzage’s films through Lilliom in 1930, as well as City Girl.

Among the women who tested for Diane, 7th Heaven‘s lead, were Mary Pickford, Bessie Love, Dolores Costello, Blanche Sweet, Joan Crawford, and Helen Menken. Both William Fox and Winfield Sheehan favored Madge Bellamy, but Borzage was inflexible on the matter and had enough clout at the studio to resist pressure from management. He had spent an hour on the set of Victor Schertzinger’s The Return of Peter Grimm observing five foot tall Janet Gaynor. Departing without a word, he went directly to Sheehan and told him that she was Diane; there was no need for a test. Although she had been in a couple dozen uncredited bits and a handful of featured roles, including John Ford’s The Shamrock Handicap and Blue Eagle, Gaynor, at twenty, was still essentially an unknown in the business and to fans.

The studio had earmarked Chico, the male lead, for John Gilbert whom they had planned to lure back to Fox from MGM, but this did not work out. Besides, as is certainly clear in retrospect, the director was set upon unknowns for both leads. His first choice was one Bernard Nedell whom he had seen play the part on stage in Albany. There is no information available as to why Borzage was in Albany, but the story is that Nedell did not want to work in Hollywood. This is questionable, as he had already made a few films and would appear in character and bit parts in about fifty more, including Strange Cargo with Borzage in 1940. Joel McCrea was tested. and George O’Brien was considered, but then assigned to Sunrise. Another story is that Charles Farrell went to Borzage’s office to intercede for his friend Richard Arlen for Chico. A few minutes with the 6’ 2" actor was enough for Borzage. Farrell was hired on the spot. The twenty-one year old had been playing bit parts since 1923 and had just played his first lead in James Cruze’s Old Ironsides but, like Gaynor, was still relatively unknown. The two would subsequently appear together in twelve more pictures.

Production was delayed, as Murnau was using virtually the entire lot, as well as Gaynor, for Sunrise. At Fox that year, what Murnau wanted, Murnau got. A lot of mileage was gotten from his huge expensive city set; it was redressed for Seventh Heaven and Ford’s Four Sons, among other fortunate productions.

“Seventh Heaven represents the most dramatic instance in Borzage’s work of the collapse of time outside of the space created by love. Within Chico’s apartment “near the stars,” time is elongated and becalmed, allowing for the smallest reverberation in Diane’s Heart to register as her joyful certainty and the space around her unite. Outside, the war and life in the factory are quickly summarized, perfunctory activities in broad, indifferent spaces."
Kent Jones, The Sanctum Sanctorum of Love, 1997.

Yes, the focus here is on the intimacy of Chico and Diane and their private place at the top of the stairs, but this is placed in the context of a city, a neighborhood, and a dozen friends and neighbors. It should be noted here that, while Borzage exacted exceptional restraint from his leading players, even at the moments of most intense emotion, he sometimes let his character actors run a bit wild. Among the large cast of 7th Heaven are former director Emile Chautard, valued mentor of Josef Von Sternberg, and future director David Butler. a competent craftsman who directed some of the most popular films with Shirley Temple, Bob Hope, and Doris Day.

Although Borzage made many exceptional films before this (I would single out The Pitch o’ Chance, Until They Get Me, Back Pay, The Nth Commandment, and Lazybones), it was here, in the midst of a troubled marriage, that he created an ideal couple in a less than ideal world around them.

Street Angel 1928

Borzage worked on three different projects that were scrapped as soon as the spectacular success of 7th Heaven required a quick follow-up reteaming Fox’s new stars, Gaynor and Farrell. The choice was The Lady Cristilinda, a 1922 play by Monckton Hoffe who later wrote dozens of screenplays, but didn’t brush against film history again until Preston Sturges used one of his stories as the basis for The Lady Eve. Cristilinda, described by Herve Dumont as a comedy, starred Fay Bainter and Leslie Howard on Broadway. The title was not the only thing changed by Borzage and his team of seven scenarists and title-writers. With cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Paul Ivano on board, along with art director Harry Oliver, the result was the director’s most Germanic film, arguably Hollywood’s most Germanicly styled film. The catalyst of Murnau’s presence and the recent development of a highly efficient dollie were major influences on late silent films in America, but most especially on Frank Borzage and Street Angel. Though the effect of Sunrise on his work is evident, it should be pointed out that Borzage’s style had been moving in this direction for some time: his films had already been noted for their expressive camera movements and significant use of shadow and light. But this film, lost until quite recently, turned out to be the second of four masterpieces in a row.

“Everywhere … in every town, in every street … we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity.”

The director’s focus on his leading characters, Angela and Gino, is even tighter than in 7th Heaven. Although there is a traveling circus and and a beautifully executed and photgraphed Naples neighborhood, both peopled with interesting characters, after a passage of time one is likely to remember Street Angel as essentially a two character story.

“I had moved the camera so many mysterious ways in 7th Heaven that they encouraged me and in Street Angel I built a round set and had the whole floor moveable and a track up it and we got to everybody, moving close-ups and everything, but it wasn’t easy.”
Harry Oliver, 1968.

The River 1928

While Janet Gaynor and Ernest Palmer were working with Murnau on the lost 4 Devils, Borzage prepared this film based on a novel by Tristram Tupper, a popular writer who also provided the stories for the director’s earlier Children of Dust, another lost film, as well as the subsequent Lucky Star and John Ford’s early talkie, Salute. The River, also lost until recently, is something of an anomaly: though about a third of its footage is still missing, it is probably a better film than it would be in its complete form. What we no longer have is the beginning and the end. This may sound like a recipe for frustration, but what the missing footage contained is the “Macguffin”, the melodramatic plot elements that lead up to and follow the essence of Borzage’s story. A man and a woman meet, become acquainted, explore each other more deeply, and come together in what may be the most intense erotic pas de deux ever filmed. The couple are played by Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan who is a more sophisticated and experienced partner to his character than Janet Gaynor had been in the two previous films. The latter is still one of the great actresses in the history of film, but Duncan’s expression of a mature, womanly sexuality was unprecedented, even in Borzage, and hard to match to this day. The River, like Borzage’s subsequent Lucky Star and Murnau’s masterful City Girl, also with Duncan and Farrell, suffered from being released at a time when audiences and reviewers had put aside their interest in film for the novelty of sound.

“Thanks to Mary Duncan, Frank Borzage was able to make The River, undoubtedly the most lyrical love film ever made. Don’t take your eyes off her: she glows, burns, trembles, her teeth are dangerous, she undulates, leaps up, escapes—passion has taken hold in Mary Duncan and drives her to madness; fear curls her lips for an instant, slides along her flesh, flames in her eyes which shed pearls, she fears that this formidable, ravishing passion she adores and that will sink her.”
Jean George Auriol, La Revue du cinema, 1930.

One might not entirely agree with Auriol’s interpretation, but he clearly and emphatically demonstrates the impression made by The River in France.

On September 6, 1928, the day after shooting was completed on The River, F.W Murnau took Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, Ernest Palmer, and Harry Oliver to Pendleton, Oregon to begin City Girl, then called Our Daily Bread. The Murnau-Borzage influence and admiration was quite mutual. Filmos Selectos in Madrid reported that after a screening of 7the Heaven, Murnau exclaimed, “I would much rather have made a film like this one.”

Lucky Star 1929

“I had Gaynor and Farrell again, we did the first half in silent, and then of course talkies came in, the sound, and everybody was frightened…. Anyway, we convinced ourselves we should do the last half in sound…. These guys with the white gloves came out and put on their microphones, there was one fellow who was going to give Gaynor diction and so forth. ‘What is this?’ I said, ’you’re a nice guy, but you’ve been a stage director, so have I when I was a kid, but I said you just move over around the side, will you? You’re not gonna destroy the naturalness of these kids’ So we finished the picture like that.”
Frank Borzage to George Pratt, 1958.

After about a month, shooting was suspended on the silent version of Lucky Star while sound possibilities were discussed. It was decided to keep the first third as already shot and continue the rest with sound. A completely silent version, with some differences, was made for the foreign markets not yet wired for sound.

The film had been lost for some time when George Pratt recorded his interview with Borzage at the George Eastman House, but in 1990 a print of the silent version was discovered at the Nederlands Filmmuseum. It was projected for the first time in sixty years at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone to great acclaim. A few months later, it was the opening program of the 20th Rotterdam Film Festival. After the screening of 186 films by, among others, Kaurismaki, Muratova, Nicholas Ray, Losey, Godard, Kazan, Aldrich, Fuller, and Rossellini, a poll to designate the festival’s best film gave first place to Lucky Star.

“This story takes place in the poetic setting that belongs only to Borzage, in the landscapes reconstructed as if in a dream: the fog, the snow, the twists in the road and the fences dotted with unreal sources of light.”
Action francaise, 1930.

Much has been written about the spiritual element of love in Borzage, but the carnal element is also significant. His lovers are always touching each other, and he makes much of their hands and feet in many films.

“What’s the matter with your feet?” “Nothing – just saving my legs.” “What you savin’ ’em for?” “For a special occasion.” “What’s a special occasion?” “A special occasion – is – when something happens like – well – like a wedding or a funeral.”

“Tim—this was the special occasion?”

“I admit that I’m partial to Borzage’s films. They don’t always have the necessary framework, but they are masterpieces of simplicity, imbued with purity and exquisite sensitivity. The photography is at all times so smooth and pleasing to the eye, that the viewer experiences inexpressible pleasure.”
Marcel Carne, Cinemagazine, 1930.

The best of Frank Borzage’s surviving silent films are listed below, to which I would add The Pitch o’ Chance, Back Pay, The Valley of Silent Men, and The Nth Commandment which are not in the data base.

See FRANK BORZAGE: SOUND FILMS (1929-1959), in the works.

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