I was recently alerted to the fact that Frank Borzage's 1937 masterpiece Big City is finally available on DVD in the US, thanks to Warner Archive's Luis Rainer Collection. As such, I've pulled from Notebook's Archive of the Unpublished an unfinished piece I worked on some time ago on this terrific film, gleaned, as you will see from the images, from Turner Classic Movies in France (ignore the subtitles—the images were chosen for the images, not the words on them). It's not particularly finished or even unified and it's more description than anything else, but I hope it inspires you to see this film.
A fan of director Frank Borzage has to be a bit of a patient crate-digger, finding his films as they pop up in rare retrospectives (7th Heaven, not-so-rare on the Old Film Circuit, but the rest are sporadic) or unexpectedly on Turner Classic Movies, which is certainly where I’ve filled out much of the guy’s talkie filmography. Big City, from 1937 and released after one of the director’s few relatively known masterpieces, the romance on the Titanic, History Is Made at Night, caught me off-guard despite being not just an MGM production, but one starring Spencer Tracy (who is in one of Borzage’s best films, Man’s Castle). The MGM pedigree is a bit misleading though, as this film is as scrappy as any of Borzage’s usually relatively spare post-silent era productions. With a story by producer Norman Krasner about a married couple (Tracy and German actress Luise Rainer) put through the ringer when caught in the middle of a violent New York city taxi cab rivalry, romance collides full on with Social Messages in capital letters, and Big City ends up as a heady brew of the strangest kind.
While Borzage has a nicely delineated “fascist trilogy” in Little Man, What Now?, Three Comrades, and The Mortal Storm—all structured, as many of the director’s love stories are, with a couple having to insulate themselves against an outside threat, be it topical poverty (the Depression) or topical politics and society (the rise of Nazism)—Big City, like many American Fritz Lang films, transposes threats of fascism to quintessentially American settings. The corporate warfare in Big City is a là the Nazi Brownshirts across the Atlantic. The gall of conjuring fascism inside nominally American society always seems to give such films more than a little verve, be it lynch mobs in a small town (Lang’s Fury), or, here, the cutthroat world of 1930s cabbie gang warfare.
A typically snide William Demarest, his bespectacled, Nazi-looking partner, and their mobile gang of union busters stage a bombing and murder at the city’s big taxi monopoly to profit from the ensuing war between the big guy and the independents to whom the blame falls. Specifically, in this tragedy, the evidence points solely to poor Luise Rainer. Like the rest of the indie cab drivers—her husband, played by Spencer Tracy, is also an indie driver—Rainer is an immigrant of vague ethnic and national background. This colludes with the evidence, and the poor girl is forced into hiding in a deliciously convoluted story twist where the cabbie Nazis want to arrest her because arresting her will allow them to imprison the entire rival cab force, and the Mayor, who’s suspicious of Demarest and his thugs, want to deport her to avoid all the trouble.
It's every bit as odd as Lang's own late-30s mishmash, You and Me (1938). What it all comes to is a story one tends to find from post-HUAC films in the 1950s: the in-trouble individual is forced to rely on a potentialy fickle community in the face of unfair oppression. But whereas most of those films—most notably High Noon—were made in an atmosphere where the community is too yellow to back the individual, in peachy-keen 1937 the immigrant community that makes up the indie cabbies chooses to hide Luise, moving her from apartment to apartment covertly, rather than sacrifice her to false justice and save their own skins. In other words, we have a radical flipping of the typically Hollywood "social" film attuned to the fears and bitterness of the post-war blacklist. Big City channels fears of fascism not as foreign fascism (Borzage’s aforementioned trilogy actually takes place in Germany with actual Nazis), but fascism as a confluence of localized capitalism and gangsterism that was a common popular impression in the late 1930s.
So there’s that. And there is also—how could there not be?—the romance. And the two are far from separate. Luise Rainer is a Borzage heroine in the Margaret Sullivan vein: thin and small, short hair, long bangs, and eyes that can water up and swallow the world with their effusive love. A trembly female full of love in a Borzage film necessitates the possibility—or the threat—of a deathbed and martyrdom, the heroine’s transcendental self-sacrifice that will fix the world.
Pregnant and fabulously in love with Spencer Tracy, Rainer, after being sequestered and protected enough by her friends and family to hammer in Krasner’s America-as-supportive-community theme, the plot shifts to romantic Borzage mode. Luise’s compassion for the world (her friends, family, and community) overcomes her personal pleasure and comfort in her love for Tracy, and she decides to turn herself in to save the community from the burden of their kindness.
Gangsterism and transcendental romance: the shift in tone is incredible. Big City’s first reel is some of the most coy and playful of any of Borzage’s films, playing the pig-headedness of Tracy against the charming guile of Rainer, who has a great dash of silliness that the ur-earnest Margaret Sullivan could never touch. They laugh and joke, pretending to not be married, pretending to be weak, to be strong, to be unfaithful, to be bad husbands and silly wives—in all, pretending to be everything but what they so clearly are in all their play: completely in love, completely at ease with one another, completely self-sufficient
So of course, it is this last completeness that must be tested, whether or not the couple will leave the real world behind, or whether they can set aside their own love for the sake of the real world. So like the many car crashes that make up the cabbie rivalry in the film, or the final reel's wrestling and boxing brawl (!) between many real life sports celebs (including Jack Dempsey) and the evil, conniving taxi thugs, Big City forcefully punches the air out of their romance through the intrusion of greater social needs than their own secluded happiness.