Borzage Through Fresh Eyes

Color me green with envy after reading all those positive reports from all over about the recent TCM Classic Film Festival. While giving friends who attended the third degree to extract every droplet of vicarious enjoyment from their accounts of that long, delirious weekend in LA, one of the things that stands out in their reporting is the mention of the large number of young people in the audience, as well as the “lifers,” (aka those of us who have been movie-mad since childhood).  Recently, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a youthful filmmaker who could be representative of this fresh wave of classic film lovers on the horizon.

From the viewpoint of most of us, Rebecca Bozzo, a twenty-something graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, is already a working film professional, but her ebullient enthusiasm for what she describes as  the  “collaborative energy” of movie making has an infectious quality that blends real knowledge and a joyous passion, even as she describes the sometimes arduous but invigorating process of collaboration with diverse people. Growing up in a household where her supportive parents exposed her to great films from Hitchcock, Cukor, Stevens, and Minnelli, her father was particularly involved in the National Film Society efforts to preserve films. With this cinematically aware family background, a growing desire to be a part of the film industry as a director and producer almost seems inevitable.

For the last five years, while still an undergraduate in Film and Media Studies,  Ms. Bozzo, usually called Becca by her friends, has been a production assistant to writer-director Cass Warner, whose book about her family history was translated into a compelling documentary that recently appeared on TCM. The Brothers Warner (2008) told the remarkable story of the four founders of Warner Brothers studio, one of whom, the visionary Harry Warner, was Ms.Warner’s grandfather.  During this same period, Becca has also been involved in making an environmental film that has been aired on California television to support the UCIRA, the Santa Barbara Coastal Fund and NASA. As she acquired experience learning the nuts and bolts of the technical and aesthetic sides of films from the ground up, and began to appreciate the rich world of classic film more deeply throughout her education, Becca developed a particular affinity for the shimmering, if somewhat neglected legacy of Frank Borzage, an outstanding peer of the legendary D. W. Griffith, John Ford and King Vidor.

Encouraged by her film professors, the fledgling producer Rebecca Bozzo and her undergraduate colleagues pooled their own funds, learned the fine art of grant writing and pitching ideas, researched their material and ultimately created a documentary on this Hollywood pioneer’s work which became Frank Borzage, Director (2009).  Since its debut last year, the 39 minute documentary has received worldwide attention on the film festival circuit for the last year, being shown at the Women’s International Film Festival, venues as far away as Australia and Ireland,  and been awarded the Corwin Award for Short Film.

The doc that emerged from Becca’s fledgling production company gives a kaleidoscopic view of the first director to win an Academy Award (for the 1927 film, Seventh Heaven).  The film begins with a striking sequence asking casual movie goers at a film festival if they have heard of Frank Borzage. Amusing and sad, in this segment, most people respond that they have never heard of him or struggle to pronounce his last name, (Boar-zā-gēē is quite close). The heartbreaking realization that, as Becca explained  that, while “a Hitchcock and a Welles are familiar figures and remembered because they told great stories,”, yet there are “fewer and fewer people in our time [who] know about the incredible movies  made by Borzage and others who made a life in film possible,” by creating and expanding the powerful grammar of film that they explored.  “Their movies were all about crafting a well-told tale and their films–with few special effects–were truly an art.” As she explains with an idealistic fervor that I found inspiring, she is “committed to preserve these films that have inspired us, so they can continue to inspire us.”

With the help of a series of archival images of the places and people who meant the most to Frank Borzage, this documentarian and her teammates tell this “typical American story” of a man who was born in Salt Lake City in 1894 into a large and loyal immigrant family with roots in Italy, Switzerland and Austria. The fourth of fourteen children,  Borzage went to work early, helping his father with construction and even working as a coal miner when he was only 12. He left home in his early teens, after the theater and acting became more appealing to him.

Working in traveling stock companies, he was soon drawn to California as an actor, where an apprenticeship on film sets in front of and behind the camera began in earnest as he literally grew up with the American film industry. This stage of his early career became particularly important after he was mentored by the pioneering Thomas Ince and during his later stint at the influential American Film Company in Santa Barbara, California. Between 1912 and 1918, Borzage appeared in over 115 known movies, though it is probable that he participated in even more lost in time. Between 1915 and 1961 he was responsible for the direction (and often the production) of over 100 films.

Only a fraction of these movies are readily available on DVD–though some have been trickling back into wider availability in recent years and many of his best known–including his sound era work in nearly every genre, such as Mannequin (1937), Three Comrades (1938), Strange Cargo (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940), Billy the Kid (1941), and  The Spanish Main (1945) show up regularly on the TCM schedule.  One reason for his relative obscurity, despite his achievements, may be recent generations’ preference for “violent flash” over “vibrant feeling”  as Andrew Sarris put it. Often labeled as sentimental, Borzage‘s sincerely and deeply felt movies are not, unlike most American movies, driven by an expansive vision or even necessarily a strong narrative plot, but they do explore the brutal realities of intolerance, poverty, war, fascism, and everyday cruelties that human nature is prone to now and then.  His unique gift may be his refusal to accept these truths as the whole of life, while recognizing that they are a part of it. Borzage sees the conflicts within us and the divisions between us, but his films capture the fleeting moments of release from these limitations,  in a powerfully romantic, often erotic and yet spiritual way. The films are with this quality underlying all the action may be understood best as frissons, when moments of surprising vulnerability and intimacy clarify and intensify the life of their characters. The most memorable of his movies tend to depict ordinary people whose lives, which rarely have unqualified happy endings, but are elevated by an unforgettable, powerful lyricism that is expressed in a montage of glances,  gestures and a celebration of the earthy sensuality and the spirituality that informs it.  “No”, as Becca explained her reaction to his movies, “Borzage movies [do not always follow] expected formula plots, and it may take time for modern viewers to grasp the subtlety of his work.” Once a person becomes in tune to Borzage’s approach, however, he can become a favorite filmmaker, “telling stories filled with soul…a quality often lacking in today’s  CGI enhanced movies.”

Frank Borzage, Director illustrates the development of the director’s gifts through the use of rare early clips from diverse sources. These include myriad stills and the first film he acted, wrote and directed at the age of 21, called Pitch o’ Chance (1915), along with clips from other early two reel movies and his breakthrough feature film for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, Humoresque (1920). This first version of the Fanny Hurst novel (remade in a glossy Jean Negulesco version in 1946) told the then novel story of the life of immigrant strivers among the Jewish immigrants in New York’s lower East Side, where much of the filming was completed on location.

Seeing a few of these films, Borzage‘s naturalism as both an actor and director, his sense of composition and a still fresh-faced charm jumps off the screen, often seemingly far more modern than in other movies of the period. Behind the scenes moments are also captured in the documentary, along with interviews with appreciative 21st century filmmakers such as Perry Lang and Allison Anders, as well as film scholars, among them, Jonathan Kuntz, Maria Elena De Las Carreras, and Janet Bergstrom. The latter group of commentators spoke eloquently about Borzage‘s developing skill as a transcendent storyteller whose game approach as an actor and as a director conveyed an empathy and understanding of the nuances of human relations, marking his work as exceptional from the beginning, (as well as making it an early target of censor boards from around the country).

One key to his ability was his gentle manner and the intimate, non-threatening atmosphere he is said to have created on his sets. This may be a primary reason why he eventually drew amazing performances from actors–many of whom, such as Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927),  Lucky Star (1929) and several other films together and apart, an effectively sympathetic Douglass Montgomery in Little Man, What Now? (1934), an animated and haunted George Brent in Living on Velvet (1935), a humanized but still potent erotic icon Marlene Dietrich in Desire (1936), and an eloquent performance by  Dane Clark in Moonrise (1948)–never quite duplicated the qualities that he drew from them on film when these disparate players worked with other directors.

In the process of researching her film, Becca Bozzo was also fortunate to meet and interview on camera the director’s widow, Juanita Borzage Moss.  A lively woman who speaks fondly of her husband’s ability to create a bond with his actors and crew through his lovable, soft-spoken manner; Ms. Moss also points out proudly that her late husband’s films still stand up to scrutiny today, adding that “the thing about his films is they can be shown today [and] they are often better than what’s on the market today.”

Finding his own voice, Borzage, no matter where he worked, was at his best when examining the themes of love that would reappear in his work in the decades that followed. The director eventually found what Bozzo describes as his  “hand-crafted, earlier work” to be in opposition to the needs of the Big Five studios where he worked as Hollywood blossomed into the studio era. 
While films of enormous quality continued to emerge throughout this most stylish and prolific period of American film, the requirements of the assembly line production mentality sometimes led to the director’s  involvement with some rather unfortunate musicals and one misbegotten biopic about Dolley Madison, The Magnificent Doll (1946) with Ginger Rogers in the lead that I found a particularly discouraging sight.  The fact that this was soon followed by the somber beauty of Moonrise (1948) indicates that the director’s skills and vision were still intact, even though the world that made him was undergoing a sea change in the postwar period.  With his death in 1962, Borzage, as the documentary makes clear, just missed the period when such filmmakers  as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, received much more of their due near the end of their lives as “the film generation” and influential critics such as Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael anointed them as for their greatness and their films were repeatedly revived in repertory theaters and on television. 

Borzage was not so lucky, since so few of his movies were shown on television and his suffusion of melodrama and romance fell out of fashion among many cinephiles in this often increasingly cynical country.  If you cannot give yourself over to the underlying metaphysical aura of Borzage’s cinema, that is understandable, but it is possible that you just need to steep your calloused modern heart in more of his movies.  With some important revivals here and abroad, and Europeans much more appreciative of the director’s legacy, the director finally seems to be receiving more recognition, as DVD releases such as the Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set in 2008 and recent new, no frills DVDs on Demand now being released, the director may finally be seen in his proper perspective.

As for Rebecca Bozzo, her many goals for the future include more explorations of “those who preceded us,” while making feature films, documentaries and histories on film that will continue “to educate, entertain and help us to understand” ourselves and our past. Her wish list of projects includes a longing to make a Western, working with Tom Hanks, and to followup with cinematic examinations of Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, Jean Arthur, and Irene Dunne, all of whom, like the subject of her first historical documentary, deserve fuller appreciation of their life work. As Becca said at one point in our conversation, life doesn’t always work out exactly as we plan, but the way it unfolds can be the stuff of classic cinema. I suspect that we will be hearing from her again.

Below is the complete list of cast and crew for Frank Borzage, Director (2009). Each of the individuals involved in this project deserve a nod for their contributions to this creative effort:

Frank Borzage, Director (2009)
Produced by Rebecca Bozzo
Directed & Written by Valerie Urso

On Screen Interviews:
Allison Anders, Janet Bergstrom, Frank Borzage (in archival footage), Maria Elena de las Carreras, Dana Driskel, Jonathan Kuntz,     Perry Lang, Jeffrey Mills (Narrator), Juanita Borzage Moss, and Chuck Wolfe

Original Music by Ali Helnwein
Film Editing by Zach Ames, with co-editors Josh Bloom and Amy Willoughby

_______________

Sources:

Dumont, Hervé, Frank Borzage: the Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic,  McFarland, 2006.

Sarris, Andrew, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” The American Talking Film History and Memory 1927-1949, Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.

11 Responses Borzage Through Fresh Eyes
Posted By Jeff H. : May 21, 2010 2:57 am

Borzage has been one of my favorite directors for many years. I discovered him when I bought-only on reading about it and never having seen it, even paying $150-a Super 8 sound print from Blackhawk Films of 7TH HEAVEN. When the carton arrived I immediately raced down to the basement of my parent’s home and eagerly threaded my two projectors and started watching what to me was a revelation in romantic films. I had been a film maven for many years but this being before cable and home video broke out and not living in LA or New York, you had to scratch for whatever archival screenings you could see. I had only heard of this film by reading Joe Franklin’s book and talking with a couple of friends who had seen it, so to spend a big chunk of money on a film just on recommendations was quite a risk.
Man, was it worth it! While Farrell’s performance as Chico ranges from tender to doofus, I just fell in love with Janet Gaynor’s Diane, who goes through so much turmoil in this film that you wonder why she does not go mad (although she comes close at the end). There is not a false note in her performance, nor in any of her work with Borzage, and it is easy to see why, along with her Angela in STREET ANGEL (my favorite Borzage silent) and The Wife in Murnau’s masterpiece (and my all-time favorite film) SUNRISE, she won the first Oscar for Best Actress.
Seeing other films by Borzage, such as THE MORTAL STORM, THREE COMRADES, MOONRISE, CHINA GIRL and, IMHO his greatest sound film HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (one of the best titles for a love story, don’t you think?), one comes away having seen a master of sentiment at work. Sure there is melodrama and sometimes the situation can seem a bit much-the ending of 7TH HEAVEN is a true test for classic film lovers; you laugh if you cannot get the context, you sigh if the film has totally pulled you in. But there is an honesty in his work that vanquishes the straining of credulity and lets you feel for the characters and how they overcome their struggles like no other director has been able to match, as far as I am concerned.
That he is finally getting his due is both a cause for celebration and also bittersweet. The DVD box set from Fox is one of the treasures of my collection-that Super 8 print of 7TH HEAVEN went away long ago, so it is nice to be able to watch it whenever I wish and in a print that is probably the best we will ever see. LUCKY STAR is just astounding; THE RIVER, even incomplete is still a beautiful film to watch (and contains, along with Murnau’s CITY GIRL Farrell’s best performance); SONG O’ MY HEART is not perfect, but to hear John McCormick’s incredible voice is worth it; and the rest of the titles make you wish that more was still in existence (how I would love to see the Grandeur print of SONG O’ MY HEART). Now if we could just see Borzage’s last film-THE BIG FISHERMAN-in it’s proper aspect ratio. . .

Posted By Jeff H. : May 21, 2010 2:57 am

Borzage has been one of my favorite directors for many years. I discovered him when I bought-only on reading about it and never having seen it, even paying $150-a Super 8 sound print from Blackhawk Films of 7TH HEAVEN. When the carton arrived I immediately raced down to the basement of my parent’s home and eagerly threaded my two projectors and started watching what to me was a revelation in romantic films. I had been a film maven for many years but this being before cable and home video broke out and not living in LA or New York, you had to scratch for whatever archival screenings you could see. I had only heard of this film by reading Joe Franklin’s book and talking with a couple of friends who had seen it, so to spend a big chunk of money on a film just on recommendations was quite a risk.
Man, was it worth it! While Farrell’s performance as Chico ranges from tender to doofus, I just fell in love with Janet Gaynor’s Diane, who goes through so much turmoil in this film that you wonder why she does not go mad (although she comes close at the end). There is not a false note in her performance, nor in any of her work with Borzage, and it is easy to see why, along with her Angela in STREET ANGEL (my favorite Borzage silent) and The Wife in Murnau’s masterpiece (and my all-time favorite film) SUNRISE, she won the first Oscar for Best Actress.
Seeing other films by Borzage, such as THE MORTAL STORM, THREE COMRADES, MOONRISE, CHINA GIRL and, IMHO his greatest sound film HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (one of the best titles for a love story, don’t you think?), one comes away having seen a master of sentiment at work. Sure there is melodrama and sometimes the situation can seem a bit much-the ending of 7TH HEAVEN is a true test for classic film lovers; you laugh if you cannot get the context, you sigh if the film has totally pulled you in. But there is an honesty in his work that vanquishes the straining of credulity and lets you feel for the characters and how they overcome their struggles like no other director has been able to match, as far as I am concerned.
That he is finally getting his due is both a cause for celebration and also bittersweet. The DVD box set from Fox is one of the treasures of my collection-that Super 8 print of 7TH HEAVEN went away long ago, so it is nice to be able to watch it whenever I wish and in a print that is probably the best we will ever see. LUCKY STAR is just astounding; THE RIVER, even incomplete is still a beautiful film to watch (and contains, along with Murnau’s CITY GIRL Farrell’s best performance); SONG O’ MY HEART is not perfect, but to hear John McCormick’s incredible voice is worth it; and the rest of the titles make you wish that more was still in existence (how I would love to see the Grandeur print of SONG O’ MY HEART). Now if we could just see Borzage’s last film-THE BIG FISHERMAN-in it’s proper aspect ratio. . .

Posted By moirafinnie : May 21, 2010 7:42 am

Thanks so much for your enthusiast response, Jeff.

Like you, I found 7th Heaven (1927) a revelation in how emotions could be expressed on film and was particularly taken with the fragment that is currently available from The River (1929), which I believe is currently only available in an R2 DVD from the treasured archive at Edition Filmmuseum, found here.

Some fragmentary but tantalizing clips from the late silent, (part-talkie in its original release) The River (1929) can be viewed here on youtube as well.

History Is Made At Night (1937) is also an exceptional film, blending so many different elements of romance, tragedy and comedy, and containing some of the best work of Charles Boyer at the height of his leading man days, and Jean Arthur’s performance is one of her most endearing. I’ve always felt that Borzage must have been particularly drawn to the figure of the besotted, mad character, played by Colin Clive in his penultimate appearance on film. His unhinged, rejected husband always seemed more poignant than evil to me, and one character Borzage seemed to be particularly empathetic toward in that film.

I hope that more of Frank Borzage’s work is able to be seen much more in the future.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 21, 2010 7:42 am

Thanks so much for your enthusiast response, Jeff.

Like you, I found 7th Heaven (1927) a revelation in how emotions could be expressed on film and was particularly taken with the fragment that is currently available from The River (1929), which I believe is currently only available in an R2 DVD from the treasured archive at Edition Filmmuseum, found here.

Some fragmentary but tantalizing clips from the late silent, (part-talkie in its original release) The River (1929) can be viewed here on youtube as well.

History Is Made At Night (1937) is also an exceptional film, blending so many different elements of romance, tragedy and comedy, and containing some of the best work of Charles Boyer at the height of his leading man days, and Jean Arthur’s performance is one of her most endearing. I’ve always felt that Borzage must have been particularly drawn to the figure of the besotted, mad character, played by Colin Clive in his penultimate appearance on film. His unhinged, rejected husband always seemed more poignant than evil to me, and one character Borzage seemed to be particularly empathetic toward in that film.

I hope that more of Frank Borzage’s work is able to be seen much more in the future.

Posted By Kingrat : May 21, 2010 2:17 pm

Moira, thanks for another wonderful piece. I hope TCM will show Rebecca Bozzo’s documentary along with a Borzage tribute. My partner, who supposedly doesn’t like classic films, began watching THE MORTAL STORM and was completely drawn in by the story and characters.

Posted By Kingrat : May 21, 2010 2:17 pm

Moira, thanks for another wonderful piece. I hope TCM will show Rebecca Bozzo’s documentary along with a Borzage tribute. My partner, who supposedly doesn’t like classic films, began watching THE MORTAL STORM and was completely drawn in by the story and characters.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 21, 2010 5:49 pm

Hi King–
I think that one of the ways that people can be drawn to Borzage’s work is via the readily accessible and beautifully acted The Mortal Storm (1940). I’m so glad that your partner found himself enthralled by the film.

It’s so well crafted, and with what might be the most heartbreaking performance in actor Frank Morgan‘s generally sunny career, the film was one of the first of this director’s that completely caught me in its spell. As Borzage did in History Is Made at Night with Colin Clive’s character, (a movie that needs to be seen), The Mortal Storm refuses to ignore that the Robert Young character, a fervent Nazi but still a conflicted human being, is in real pain, despite his opportunistic moral emptiness.

I would love to see a day when TCM could showcase the films that Borzage made detailing the rise of Nazism in unforgettable human terms. His “premature anti-fascist” trilogy really should be seen together with the rarely screened Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1937) and The Mortal Storm (1940) among his best sound era films, at least for me. Unfortunately,Little Man, What Now?, made at Universal, seems doomed to languish in archives until its current corporate owner finds a way to share it with the world again.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 21, 2010 5:49 pm

Hi King–
I think that one of the ways that people can be drawn to Borzage’s work is via the readily accessible and beautifully acted The Mortal Storm (1940). I’m so glad that your partner found himself enthralled by the film.

It’s so well crafted, and with what might be the most heartbreaking performance in actor Frank Morgan‘s generally sunny career, the film was one of the first of this director’s that completely caught me in its spell. As Borzage did in History Is Made at Night with Colin Clive’s character, (a movie that needs to be seen), The Mortal Storm refuses to ignore that the Robert Young character, a fervent Nazi but still a conflicted human being, is in real pain, despite his opportunistic moral emptiness.

I would love to see a day when TCM could showcase the films that Borzage made detailing the rise of Nazism in unforgettable human terms. His “premature anti-fascist” trilogy really should be seen together with the rarely screened Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1937) and The Mortal Storm (1940) among his best sound era films, at least for me. Unfortunately,Little Man, What Now?, made at Universal, seems doomed to languish in archives until its current corporate owner finds a way to share it with the world again.

Posted By suzidoll : May 24, 2010 5:19 pm

I am sending this along to some of my friends in my movie meetup group. Some are major Borzage fans, and they will get a lot from your post. Terrific job.

Posted By suzidoll : May 24, 2010 5:19 pm

I am sending this along to some of my friends in my movie meetup group. Some are major Borzage fans, and they will get a lot from your post. Terrific job.

Posted By george : January 25, 2014 4:42 am

Borzage’s BAD GIRL (1931) is a film deserving rediscovery. It won him an Oscar for best director, for good reason. The naturalistic acting by Sally Eilers and the rest of the cast seems to anticipate the Method by a couple of decades. It’s a beautiful film about ordinary lives.

Too bad the film didn’t make Eilers a major star. Soon after BAD GIRL, she was appearing in B movies. The IMDB notes her last film was made in 1950, although she lived until 1978.

You can watch BAD GIRL on YouTube.

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