DVD: Murnau, Borzage and Fox

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Why is Twentieth Century-Fox’s deluxe box-set presentation of Frank Borzage films titled Murnau, Borzage and Fox? Because not even film scholarship escapes celebrity worship. Murnau’s more famous name and scandalous death are linked to sell Borzage’s more obscure reputation. That the set’s two Murnau features (Sunrise and City Girl) do not overshadow its 10 Borzage films is a testament to Borzage’s importance. Borzage remains Hollywood’s last great forgotten filmmaker.

    Borzage won two Best Director Academy Awards (for 1927’s Seventh Heaven, 1931’s 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 Heaven’s effusive spirituality (crucial to the director’s sensibility) overlapped Bad Girl’s working-class naturalism. The connection to Murnau’s 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 man’s Murnau; he articulated individual struggle and spiritual desire using American, rather than European, vernacular. Borzage embarrasses the ìverisimilitudeî in Eastwood’s Gran Torino.

    In Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, Borzage inscribed how the move from rural to urban experience changed the nation’s 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 Borzage’s work ìpopulistî isn’t a pejorative; it’s 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 significance—heightening 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, Borzage’s 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 Bellamy’s sensuality with startling erotic attention—throughout his career he was certainly a master of the romantic dual close-up—and this conveys a profound sense of lost opportunity, of everyday tragedy. And this insight compares well to 1925’s other cinematic landmarks: The Gold Rush, Greed, Seven Chances, The Last  Laugh, Master of the House—less ostentatious but no less deep.

    Lazybones doubtlessly influenced the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael song that celebrated Southern ease; more proof that Borzage’s 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 sophisticated—the 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 Man’s Castle, Three Comrades, Mannequin, Stranded and China Doll. But Fox’s box preserves the first phase of a unique artist.