Why is Twentieth Century-Foxs deluxe box-set presentation of Frank Borzage films titled Murnau, Borzage and Fox? Because not even film scholarship escapes celebrity worship. Murnaus more famous name and scandalous death are linked to sell Borzages more obscure reputation. That the sets two Murnau features (Sunrise and City Girl) do not overshadow its 10 Borzage films is a testament to Borzages importance. Borzage remains Hollywoods last great forgotten filmmaker.
Borzage won two Best Director Academy Awards (for 1927s Seventh Heaven, 1931s Bad Girl) at a time when the industry was less confused about the connection between art and popular entertainment. Each film demonstrates that Borzage could accomplish both. Seventh Heavens effusive spirituality (crucial to the directors sensibility) overlapped Bad Girls working-class naturalism. The connection to Murnaus visionary high art was obvious when Sunrise and Seventh Heaven both competed for the Best Picture Oscar in 1927, but Borzage was not a poor mans Murnau; he articulated individual struggle and spiritual desire using American, rather than European, vernacular. Borzage embarrasses the ìverisimilitudeî in Eastwoods Gran Torino.
In Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, Borzage inscribed how the move from rural to urban experience changed the nations early 20th-century popular identity. Like D.W. Griffith, Borzage was a pioneering folklorist, using popular songs, legends, common background and familiar incidents to fashion recognizable narratives. It is a gift Hollywood went on to squander, just as the industry gradually lost its bearings for populist entertainment. In Borzages work ìpopulistî isnt a pejorative; its what artists hold in common with the public. In common-person tales like The River (1929), They Had to See Paris (1929) and After Tomorrow (1932), Borzage ratified moviegoers everyday concerns. His expressive simplicity elevated mundane life to universal, spiritual significanceheightening our human bonds. Borzage did not master sentimentality (as critics today misunderstand emotional abundance) but possessed great appreciation for how life is felt. In other words, Borzages films surpassed what could be put in words.
Comparing Lazybones (1925) to its contemporary literary landmarks The Great Gatsby, Manhattan Transfer and An American Tragedy helps define how movies transmit deep insight through visual power. Steve (Buck Jones), a feckless young man at the dawn of the automobile age, anticipates the existential protagonists who wait for life to happen. Letting romance pass him by, Steve helps an unwed mother raise her child and then slowly awakens to passion. Borzage shows Jones and Madge Bellamys sensuality with startling erotic attentionthroughout his career he was certainly a master of the romantic dual close-upand this conveys a profound sense of lost opportunity, of everyday tragedy. And this insight compares well to 1925s other cinematic landmarks: The Gold Rush, Greed, Seven Chances, The Last Laugh, Master of the Houseless ostentatious but no less deep.
Lazybones doubtlessly influenced the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael song that celebrated Southern ease; more proof that Borzages films once touched the core of pop mythology. (Just as Bad Girl and After Tomorrow are quintessential Depression-era films, containing emotional values the recovering nation still hurries to forget.) In its sublimely simple way, Lazybones epitomizes the potency of American pop art at its most morally sophisticatedthe same greatness that is underrated in Spielberg.
This Fox box is a superb introduction to Borzage, whose artistry continued to flourish with later, better-known films No Greater Glory, A Mans Castle, Three Comrades, Mannequin, Stranded and China Doll. But Foxs box preserves the first phase of a unique artist.