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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: “Desire” (Borzage, 1936)

This post is for the Self-Styled Siren.
Although even the most ardent of auteurists understands that it's finally impossible to pinpoint just which revered collaborator is responsible for just what in just about any given film of the various canons—auteurism being a most imprecise but rewarding, erm, science—it's pretty safe to say that 1936's Desire, a "Frank Borzage Production"... that was directed by Frank Borzage, and executive produced by Ernst Lubitsch, represents a remarkable meeting of two distinctive and heart-stoppingly great filmmaking sensibilities. In this Faberge egg of a film, of which indeed every single frame is beautiful—even those frames which contain the distinctly un-lovely face and figure of future I Love Lucy co-star William Frawley—the insouciant Lubitsch touch brushes up against Borzage's ultra-sincere romanticism—and then becomes one with it. Sort of.
Is the result severely bifurcated? We'll see.
In his biography of Borzage, Herve Dumont observes, "[t]he film may be divided into two parts: the first funny, cynical, and airy, extremely 'Lubitsch-like;' the second tenderer, more cheerful, almost a little serious, unmistakable carrying Borzage's mark. On one side style and irreverence, on the other, playful acting and delicacy." And so, indeed. The picture begins with automobile middle-manager Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper) planning his vacation to Spain, bantering with the boss (William Frawley) who wants to loan him a car for his forays in the countryside, with a condition. We then shift to the fraudulent "Countess" Madeleine (Marlene Dietrich), being chauffeured through Paris, absconding a near-priceless pearl necklace in a heist scheme that makes the thieves in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise look like a bunch of pikers. Tom and Bradley's paths cross in Spain, she takes advantage of his near-Candide-like good nature, he winds up in possession of those pearls...and then; the tenderness and seriousness Dumont alludes to begins. But Tom isn't a bumpkin out of, say, a future farce such as Sturges' The Lady Eve; he may be an embodiment of American Innocence, but he's no dupe. And the all-American (if you will) honesty he strongly insists on proves to be Madeleine's salvation, and the salvation of their nascent love.
After sketching out the seeming division between Desire's two halves, Dumont demurs: "[T]his polarization is too schematic...[Borzage] is no stranger to irony." What Borzage finally pulls out from his hat is not a repudiation of the Lubitsch ethos, and its devil-may-care quasi-amorality, but, arguably, a transcendence of it. In other words, it isn't so much that Tom makes an "honest woman" out of Madeleine as he enables her to realize the good within herself.
But these reflections on ethics are best made at a certain temporal distance from a film that needs to be experienced, and delighted in, for every second of its frame-by-frame beauty. The U.K. Universal Region 2 DVD is a pretty impressive rendition of the picture, photographed by Charles Lang...and praised by Dietrich herself as, of her films not directed by Sternberg, "the only [one] I need not be ashamed of." A harsh judgment on several of her worthy non-Sternberg films, perhaps—but it's surely the case that Desire is a picture that not just its creators, but everyone who values the cinema, has every reason to be very proud of. One cannot fathom just what is holding up a United States DVD release of this picture.
cannot fathom… man. this sounds wonderful. and it looks dazzling. gotta get me some more of both of these dudes…
I know and love this film. The collaborators have achieved a perfect blend and they place their jewel, Dietrich, in the most splendid of settings.
I saw this movie years back on PBS, if memory serves, and have yearned to see it again ever since. It was all you say, and so funny, too. With Borzage and Lubitsch, Dietrich hits a perfect balance between the self send-up she’d do in later films like Destry, and the self-deification of the Sternberg movies. And when she’s on screen with Cooper, oh my. The movies would not have such a one-two punch of male-female beauty again until A Place in the Sun. It’s a charming and accessible picture and I agree, I can’t imagine what the holdup is.
I, too, saw this on a PBS Dietrich festival back in the 1970s. I could have sworn I’ve seen it since, but if the Siren hasn’t I can’t see how I could have. It is delicious and sweet, and the Cooper-Dietrich magic is very, very real. It’s stunning to me that this isn’t available on DVD…
I believe the last scene, a rather witty sop to the censors, was directed by Lubitsch himself, and its a testimony to the success of the collaboration that it blends in beautifully.
Karen, I saw Desire later than the 1970s. I am positive I saw it on TV with my Dietrich-mad rommates in the 1980s, so you probably have seen it since, too. I just can’t remember if it was PBS but it probably was. The only other option at the time was AMC and I don’t think this was in their library.

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