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Forgotten By Fox: Heaven, Hell, and Way Down East

Henry King's sound remakes of Griffith's "Way Down East" and Borzage's "7th Heaven" don't disgrace the originals.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
The coming of sound cost the American film industry plenty: it forced them to soundproof their stages, refit their theaters, and it rendered a fair few actors unemployable (Emil Jannings, Lars Hanson), by reason of heavy accents or lack of facility with the English language. In fact, one of the founders of 20th Century Fox was the comedy star Raymond Griffith, whose damaged vocal cords prevented him speaking above a croak, and who made the transition to writing and producing when he saw the writing on the wall.
But on the other hand, talkies opened up a whole new revenue stream: remakes of silent successes. The silent Dante's Inferno, for instance, is a terrible film—you can watch it in low, low quality on YouTube. Despite the fact that a partial print survives, it's not listed for restoration, it's so lousy. A shame: I think the splendidly designed vision of Hell sequence deserves to be rescued. Harry Lachman's remake, produced by Twentieth Century Pictures, boasts an inferno so much huger than the surrounding film that it's long been rumored that it was a case of thrifty recycling from the silent, but in fact, no: they really did shoot an entirely new Nine Circles, and here they are:
The rest of the movie, which stars Spencer Tracy, bears no relation to the original, but is only a bit better. Mostly, Fox concentrated on remaking films of somewhat higher quality, and their reliable workhorse Henry King, who is finally getting more attention as an auteur in his own right, was the man the liked to turn to. In the '30s he turned out revised, all-talking versions of D.W. Griffith's Way Down East (1920) and, almost blasphemously, Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927).
Lottie Blair Parker's 1897 play Way Down East (rural romance; a girl betrayed; cast out into the storm) was considered hopelessly dated when Griffith filmed it twenty-three years later, but his dramatic instinct, formed by years of barnstorming, did not lead him astray, and his film was a huge success, helped by the talent and dedication of his leads, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, and the action climax, elaborating on the play's big dramatic showstopper, where the heroine is cast out into the storm.
By the time Henry King directed his talkie version in 1935, Hollywood had mostly moved indoors, for convenience. And the industry had changed, and become more industrial, so that a director was less likely to risk drowning or freezing his actors on a real ice floe (on the original, Lillian Gish suffered permanent nerve damage from frostbite to her fingers. Cinematographer Billy Bitzer declared he'd film her snow-caked face if the film didn't freeze in the camera.)
King had a feeling for Americana: though he could, and did, direct hit movies in a multitude of genres, some special feeling suffuses his tales of small-time life. This one begins with a lot of bucolic comedy: characters called Abner and Seth, old-timers who'd make Chic Sale look like Tyrone Power, and Margaret Hamilton, pre-Wicked Witch, going full spinster. It's hard to imagine recorded time being long-running enough at this point for some of these geezers to have reached their apparent decrepitude: even Andy Devine is a mere spring chicken, though closer to an egg in shape.
There's a change coming, though, and we feel it as soon as Henry Fonda appears, in only his second role. All his first roles were rustic, before Hollywood got a feel for his range. And while King didn't discover him, the director was always a great believer in new talent and helped him find his footing.
Somehow, Fonda's mere appearance seems to make things more cinematic. King shoots the exteriors with a fairly wide lens, giving simple scenes a bit of a sweeping, Andrew Wyeth quality. And his character is a restless, slightly melancholic, father-dominated young man, an ideal role for him.
Fox favorite Rochelle Hudson has to step into Lillian Gish's shoes, and she hasn't a chance of succeeding, but her performance is adequate to the role. There's a beautiful scene in a luminous wheat field and other felicities of staging by King (and it's shot by Ernest Palmer, who did Murnau's City Girl).
Attempts at reviving Griffith mostly foundered: Griffith himself couldn't manage it. He re-released The Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms with sound introductions and recorded scores. My grandmother saw the latter and, as a little girl in the 1930s, she found its sentiment ludicrous. Griffith tried to remake it in the U.K., but was fired when he tried to cast his girlfriend in the lead.
But, in King's hands, the old material seems quite fresh. The down-home drama anticipates Ford (Frank Borzage's brother Bill appears as a musician, as he would for Ford), and there's a real thrill of precognition when Margaret Hamilton comes marching down the lane, via rear projection and treadmill, intent on delivering toxic gossip, with a propulsive score driving her along: and it's Oz's Miss Gulch to a tee.
And, as this old warhorse of a plot builds to its rip-roaring climax, the tension is incredible.
Of course, King isn't going to risk Fonda and Hudson's lives on real ice. But he engineers quite a sequence, rapidly cutting between location, studio, and process shots which combine the two, and there are enough shots of Fonda gamely leaping across precarious patches of floating ice. The long-legged thesp has a physical advantage over Richard Barthelmess, his predecessor.
It's pretty gripping, and King even complicates things by giving his villain a change of heart and throwing him into the scene too.
King's Seventh Heaven (1937) is extremely faithful to the original, and to Austin Strong's source play, and it's done with King's usual conviction, sentiment, and technical panache so that if you have a strong preference for original or remake it might seem that'd it have to be on account of originality, or else casting. Janet Gaynor was perhaps a more solid emotional foundation for the Borzage, with Charles Farrell a good lunk of a hero. In King's film, Simone Simon brings her pertness, her reliably strange line readings, and is the subject of an absolutely breathtaking close-up approximately every five minutes. Jimmy Stewart takes over from Farrell and brings more range, a lot more music, as it were, and he gets some valuable practice in dragging a woman up many flights of stairs. He's totally not credible as a Parisian sewer worker, but this kind of thing is mostly make-believe and you can't tell me you want to hear him attempt a French accent, and then keep it up for 98 minutes.
In a sense, then, comparing the films lets you see the difference between an apt embodiment of a role (Farrell, Simon) and a nimble, thinking actor (Gaynor, Stewart). There are a few other differences, too.
Gone is the original's lengthy, spectacular, and rather irrelevant battle sequence, the only bit I get bored by, replaced by a brisk montage of library shots, including recognizable snippets of Fox's Oscar-winner Wings and Raymond Bernard's Wooden Crosses, which had been bought up by Zanuck, not to distribute but to cannibalize for stock footage. There's a lot more talking, and you could argue that Strong's dialogue was custom-made for chopping down to make intertitles, and the strange, allegorical characters might seem better-suited to silent cinema's iconic quality. But I kind of liked the strangeness, J. Edward Bromberg pronouncing prophecies from behind Coke-bottle glasses.
Where it falls short of its source is the ending: nobody could touch Borzage's frenzy of emotion, and King doesn't dare try. But without it, the excess of romanticism we've already experienced has no way to climax, and so the catharsis isn't Borzage's hysterical romanticism, but something definitely less.
Still, it's a remarkably handsome film, and it's fidelity to its more distinguished predecessor (even the key set is near-identical) allows us to see more or less exactly what Borzage's film would feel like as a talkie.
King is underrated and these two films show him in a far better light that more readily available works like The Razor's Edge or Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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