Posted by Moira Finnie on May 19, 2010
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.
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)
On Screen Interviews:
Original Music by Ali Helnwein
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.
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