Posted by moirafinnie
on February 3, 2010
Moonrise (1948), which has its TCM premiere this evening, Feb. 3rd, at 10pm EST, is a film that is as hard to categorize neatly as the rest of the movies in director Frank Borzage’s long career. Despite the fact that many movie buffs might associate Borzage with a gauzy, passé sentimentality in classic silent films such as Street Angel (1928), this movie begins with a dramatic sequence that tells the tragic background of the leading character Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) in one of the most powerful opening sequences I’ve seen. I don’t normally tell people to watch something only from the beginning, but with this movie, you would be missing a dynamic part of the movie as well as an introduction to the compelling dreamlike atmosphere of this most modern of Frank Borzage’s movies.If spoilers are not something you want to know before seeing a movie, you may want to stop reading now.
This shadowplay montage, part of which can be seen here, seamlessly introduces the emotional history of the central character using the masterful Borzage‘s nearly wordless visual storytelling skill. Using the low key dramatic lighting and ominous shadows in the expressionistic style associated with film noir, it blends silent era techniques with the forties noir style revealing the psychology of characters while enabling a viewer to experience their subjective perception of the world around them. Showing only the legs of a group of men leading another to the gallows, the shadows of the action on the gibbet melts into a scene where an infant wails alone in his cradle, with the shadow of a dangling doll across his blanket, echoing the fate of the man who was the baby’s father.
A dissolve takes the viewer to high wide shot of a shadowy schoolyard where a small, isolated boy is taunted by his classmates for his father’s crime, and another blond boy follows after him, imitating a man being strangled by a noose. When a fight breaks out between the two children, the earlier image of the men walking to the gallows appears again, while others gather around chanting “Danny Hawkins’ Dad was hanged” and, as the children go older, further humiliations and beatings are administered to the boy, until we see another man’s legs, those of the adult Danny, walking through a forest toward his blond, lifelong tormentor, an adult Jerry (Lloyd Bridges, wearing a sense of entitlement as sharply tailored as his white dinner jacket), the spoiled son of the town’s banker, who objects to Danny Hawkins dancing with a young schoolteacher, Gilly Johnson (played by the seraphic Gail Russell).
Below are some of the flowing, nightmarish images from the opening montage:
As the two men struggle drunkenly in the brush, their fight becomes increasingly more violent and desperate. Trying to prevent Jerry from hitting him with a large rock, Danny struggles it away from him and delivers a blow to the other man that proves to be unintentionally fatal. Presuming that his fatal crime would not be understood by others, he hides the body in the swamp, losing his pocket knife in the process. There, in a brief seven minutes is the underpinning of the story of Moonrise, which was based on former New York Times writer Theodore Strauss’ gritty 1946 novella, Moonrise. The remaining 85 minutes detail Hawkins flight from his own fear of being arrested, as well as from himself, a flight that has been going on for all of his life.After a complex pre-production phase, which TCM’s Jeff Stafford outlines here in some detail, the project went before the cameras with leading man Dane Clark, an actor who specialized in working class second leads for most of his career, took the role that had earlier been offered to the actor’s friend and mentor, John Garfield, along with James Stewart.
The choice of Dane Clark for the part of Danny Hawkins may have been surprising, since the Brooklyn-born actor was asked to play a rural Virginia youth struggling with his violent as well as his loving impulses. While Clark‘s unconventional looks and non-Southern speech was occasionally jarring during the film when an occasional “I reckon” was interjected into his lines, the actor, often dismissed as “the poor man’s John Garfield” was able to express rage and anguish as well as tenderness in this part, which may have been the best of his career. After seeing him for years as an angry working class second lead in the Warner Brothers mold, seeing him give a sensitive portrayal of a conflicted runaway prisoner opposite Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947-Jean Negulesco) a few years ago made me reassess this journeyman actor. As Danny Hawkins, we see the world through his expressive eyes, registering every slight with his tight body language and the pained set of his mouth, as he expressed the character’s realization of his own capacity for violence and love throughout this film. I was particularly impressed with the scenes between Dane Clark and “Billy Scripture”, a retarded deaf mute who is protected by Danny from the casual cruelty of their contemporaries near the dance hall. In private, Danny is brusque and guilt ridden with the man as he struggles to communicate with him, fearful that Billy, who may be seen as representative of Hawkins’ own half-formed self image, will betray him. Brutalizing him because he may know what he has just done, Hawkins’ sees in Billy his own vulnerable, child-like self.
Danny, a laid-off railroad worker, finds himself with too much time on his hands in a suffocatingly small town. Raised by his straitlaced aunt , played by Selena Royle in a tight-lipped performance of a woman overwhelmed by her Victorian decor and her inadequacies as a life guide for her troubled nephew. Though he has friends, such as the band leader who asks him to join a card game, and the couple (played by a barely glimpsed Dobie Carey and Lida Leeds) he drives home with Gilly, after roughly insisting on driving her home after Jerry’s disappearance, Danny’s impuslive rage pours out of him behind the wheel. Recklessly speeding despite the rain and the pleas of his passengers, he is only aware of his own inner turmoil. Seeing the image of the now dead Jerry coming toward him in the windshield, he wrecks the car and nearly kills all four of them. Struggling to pull Gail Russell from the wreck, he is only repentant after this further brush with death and his own longing for self-destruction as he drowns slowly in his own guilt.
Clark is very effective in his love scenes with Gail Russell, particularly in one where the pair meet secretly in a ruined Southern mansion. The couple tentatively begin to express their love for one another, acknowledging their mutual physical attraction. Russell shies away from acting on their shared feelings, even in private, playing a somewhat prim schoolteacher who was initially reluctant to become involved with a man who has already led her to be scrutinized in a negative light publicly, involving her in one incident after another that endangers her own tentative status in this community. Perhaps hoping to gain some control over their burgeoning emotions, and avoiding feelings that neither is able to put it into words without some pain and fear, Russell initiates a playful dance, imagining they are attending a Civil War era ball in the house. Acting out this game together as Gilly speaks to the painting of the former owner as they waltz, they soon turn from flirtatiousness to a graceful movement together. Inexplicably moved and falling more deeply in love, Danny says, “I’ve never seen you like this before. Gilly” to which she replies, as perplexed and enchanted as he is, “I’ve never been like this before.” Aware that they have created something between them that could easily disappear, they hold one another closely. While few directors other than Borzage could get away with making an audience believe that two characters’ love could blossom under these circumstances, the casting of the luminous Gail Russell was especially felicitous for Borzage. Just as she did in one of her first films, The Uninvited (1944-Lewis Allen) and in the memorable first scene of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948-John Farrow), this exceptionally sensitive actress, with her dark wave of hair, lustrous eyes, and gentle voice had a quality that could make an audience believe in unseen, half-understood emotions informing her characters’ actions on screen. Sadly, in part due to the winding down of Borzage’s career, and the sad actress’ own personal problems, Russell never worked for this director again. I suspect that she might have joined Janet Gaynor, Margaret Sullavan and Loretta Young as a Borzage heroine who could be convey the humanity of a Madonna, a lover and a waif on screen. Here, her unfathomable love for the man who has murdered her fiancee becomes an example of Borzage’s belief in the transformative power of grace. After this communion with Russell, the Clark character has reached a turning point, though it takes further humanizing trials before he can turn away from the brutal impulses within him and find a way to be at peace within himself, despite his dim future.
Other actors lend the moody film a greater depth and texture with their supporting performances. Allyn Joslyn, an actor who was often relegated to comedic supporting parts, plays a languid, gentle sheriff whose philosophical nature leads him to muse about the murder of young Jerry Sykes with the medical examiner, played by Clem Bevans in a delightful bit part. “If you went into all the reasons why that rock struck Jerry’s head”, he says, “you might end up writing the history of the world.” When the M.E. scoffs at his insight, Joslyn says “All I know is that a human being and what made him is a lot more than what you cut out of him on the autopsy table, Jake.” The loftiness of this comment is brought neatly down to earth by Bevans‘ riposte that “Not when they’re dead!”
Rex Ingram plays Mose, an African-American who lives, by choice, in the swamps, raising dogs, leading hunts for local white lodge members while, according to town gossip, reading more books than are good for a man. In one of the few light scenes during the film, Danny visits Mose and his dogs, relishing a new set of puppies born to one of the dogs. Asking who the father was, Mose explains that he can tell it was one in particular by his guilty look, reminding Danny of his own nagging guilt. While petting the dogs, Mose calls one of them “Mr. Dog”, a name that, he explains to Hawkins is one that he uses “because there isn’t enough dignity in the world.” Ingram was a superb actor who transcended the limitations of race at a time when most Black actors were lucky that they were asked to play pullman porters. In this characterization, he plays a father figure for Danny Hawkins, who finds solace in lingering at Mose’s shack, where the man shares his love of dogs, nature and his understanding of Danny’s loneliness, especially since he knows it as well. The compassionate Mose, whose race is never actually mentioned or a factor in the film (at a time when Hollywood was making films such as Intruder in the Dust and Pinky, self-consciously taking baby steps toward addressing racial issues), mentions that he had moved to the swamp to avoid “being pushed around”, but he has learned that is one of the worst things “a man can do…it is turning his back on the human race”, a “crime” that Mose believes he is guilty of, but which hits home with the increasingly haunted Danny. Leading a group of men on a coon hunt the following night near the pond where Jerry’s body lies hidden, Danny’s frantic state of mind as the dog’s baying and the yelling make him feel that things are closing in on him is conveyed by the dissolve from the cowering raccoon face to Dane Clark‘s worried mug. After Clark has shaken the raccoon from his branch, allowing the dogs to tear it to pieces, the animals continue baying until they finally find Jerry’s body as well. When the lead dog runs directly back to Danny, who kicks the animal away from him, Mose is shocked, and by the expression on his face, knows Danny’s guilt at that moment, when he calmly chides the younger man by pointing out that “She didn’t kill Jerry Sykes.”
Ethel Barrymore, who appears in two scenes near the end of the film, lends her considerable gravitas to her brief scenes, when she explains to her grandson that his father was not just a murderer, but was also a happy man whose uncharacteristic act of murder was against a town doctor who refused to come to their mountain cabin to treat Danny’s mother when she “took sick” after his birth. After Barrymore‘s Grandma hears the dogs who are now hunting for Danny Hawkins after the sheriff concludes his belief in his guilt, she mentions a way that his father might have escaped, but expresses the faint hope that facing something head on might prove that there is no “bad blood” in her grandson, redeeming his name, but, more importantly, his soul. Pausing as he leaves, in a brighter scene set on a hill with a distant horizon in the background, Clark stands at his father’s grave, hoping that his life can become something his father might have taken pride in. Turning himself in to the sheriff, who says that handcuffs won’t be needed, letting him “come in like a man”, Gilly reappears at the edge of the field, having followed the sheriff’s posse there. “It’s good to see your face…to really see your face for the first time.” The couple, knowing what is likely ahead for Danny, walk arm in arm toward that future.
This movie is often pigeon-holed as the romantic director’s take on film noir, Southern-style. Despite this label, like two of the far better known “different” film noirs set largely in the boondocks, On Dangerous Ground (1952-Nicholas Ray) and Night of the Hunter (1955-Charles Laughton), the Borzage movie resists being overwhelmed by the darkness in the world it explores. Made on a budget at a time of general cost-cutting among the studios in post-war Hollywood, Moonrise was actually an up-market gamble for little Republic Pictures, one of the smallest of the studios, which usually stuck to small scale Westerns to keep the lights on with a reliable cash flow.
In speaking to the Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas at the time of Moonrise‘s production, Frank Borzage emphasized how he and his eager crew had planned each shot beforehand, keeping in mind the quality of production values that audiences were increasingly demanding while maintaining an economical approach to the material. The director and his crew wound up using only two sound stages for 30 different scenes, with 85% of the scenes set outdoors, though the artificiality of the sets merely reinforces the stilted worldview of Danny Hawkins. Thanks to the impressive production design of Lionel Banks, who for years made some great looking films at Columbia on a relative shoestring, and the imaginative cinematography of John L. Russell, who would also photograph Orson Welles’ MacBeth (1948) as well as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the film became an exceptional visual as well as engaging emotional experience. If I have one quibble with the film, I found the swooning and overly melodramatic William Lava score quite jarring and too loud at moments in the film.
Overall, however, the dark lighting, the characteristic fluid camera movement alternating with crowded, tight compositions of the scenes set in each of the lovingly detailed, highly artificial sets, and a luxurious pace to many of the later scenes, help to create a detailed subjective reality of the leading character as he interacted with others, allowing Borzage to create an emotional reality in this low budget film. Still, the stress of making this production look and feel like this director’s better financed work may have been on Borzage’s mind when he asked by Bob Thomas if, with all his planning and professionalism, if he was 15 minutes ahead of schedule. “No”, the director replied, “I’m two camera sprockets behind.”
Random moments reflecting large effects achieved with economical action are present throughout the film. Watch carefully, for instance, the scene when Danny Hawkins is asked some questions about his knowledge of what transpired on the night when Jerry was murdered by the sheriff in the malt shop. Watching a fly on the marble top table, the pair are each intent on avoiding direct questions, but they each find themselves equally intent on trapping the fly. Using the fly as a sign of the tension underlying their interaction has the feel of an improvised dramatic moment that is nonetheless memorable.
Later the tension that is evident in the scene with the fly deepens when Hawkins, on a ferris wheel with Gilly at the county fair, feels the sheriff’s eyes penetrating Danny’s facade of a light spirit, driving him to hurl himself from the seat on the ride, in a scene that replicates the subjective POV that has been subtly reinforced throughout the film and showing the increasingly tattered state of Danny’s psyche.
In another scene, the townspeople, led by the sheriff and Houseley Stevenson as a resolutely deaf (but hardly dumb) Civil War veteran, are gathered on a park bench watching the comings and goings of the train. In a scene that implies that Danny’s feelings of isolation are a reflection of his mind, and not necessarily the town’s attitude toward him. While the low budget movie imaginatively used sound and steam to imply that an unseen train has pulled up, Danny is asked to join the others on the bench to speculate on the meaning of the arrival of a stranger in a dark business suit. “Preacher, undertaker, detective?” the old man speculates. No need for “anymore preachers or undertakers”, they say, but “peculiar creature” is the remark that signals the entry of character icon Charles Lane into the scene, as he is helped into a car by Jerry Sykes’ father, the bank president. Moonrise (1948), which was a financial disaster when it premiered to dismal reviews outside of trade papers, was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Sound Recording. Sadly, in some of the advertisements of the time that I perused while researching this piece, I learned that several theaters in the Midwest felt compelled to offer “Free Pastel Dinnerware Ladies” to entice audiences into the seats for this show.
Moonrise, which was made in about thirty days in early 1948, came near the end of Borzage‘s productive years, which began when he became an actor in movies in 1912. His remarkable career of some 80+ movies, bridged the silent era with the height of the studio era. His movies might seem melodramatic, but, unlike most other directors, he was concerned with people whose experiences helped them to transcend the external world, and find some internal peace while still living on earth. After catching up with about twenty of his movies in the last year, I realized that–like so many great directors–he is exploring themes and connections repeatedly, making the same movie over and over, with varying degrees of success, but almost always defined by belief that “Everywhere…in every street, and town…we pass unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity.” This film noir version of a Borzage love story may not be entirely different, but it is an intriguing take on a man’s development of a conscience as he takes responsibility for his own free will.
Dumont, Herve, Frank Borzage, The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, McFarland & Co., 1993.
Jacobs, Lea, The Decline of Sentiment: American film in the 1920s, University of California Press, 2008.
Thomas, Bob, Economy is Movie Keynote as Industry Faces Future, January 8, 1948, Lewistown Evening Journal.