The River Review
Maybe it’s because his oeuvre is littered with so many oddities (an historical biopic starring Ginger Rogers, the conventional-but-unlikely pirate flick The Spanish Main), yet Frank Borzage remains criminally under-represented on DVD. The BFI have his three silent masterpieces - 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star - penned in for future release and there are numerous inferior discs of A Farewell to Arms. But what of Man’s Castle or Moonrise? Oddly enough we have to turn to Munich and the ever impressive Edition Filmmuseum label for this two-disc set compiling one reconstructed silent feature and three two-reeler Westerns. I say oddly as these aren’t the Borzages you’d expect to provide arguably the director’s first key DVD edition; The River (1929) was once ranked alongside Murnau’s 4 Devils as one of the great lost silents, whilst the trio of Westerns – The Pitch O’Chance (1915), The Pilgrim and Nugget Jim’s Pardner (both 1916) – are of the type which you’d only ever expect to see at specialist film festivals. Of course, it is this very unexpectedness which also serves to make them all the more covetable.
The River, as presented here, runs 55 minutes. It has been reconstructed using the shooting script held at UCLA, surviving stills from Borzage’s personal collection and, most importantly, 43-minutes of surviving 16mm footage plus a brief 35mm snippet originally cut by Swedish censors. This reconstruction was pieced together by Borzage’s biographer Herve Dumont and currently represents the fullest version available.
Unfortunately, all is not perfect: the missing footage consists primarily of the opening and closing acts, and as such these parts must be conveyed via intertitles (bilingual in French and English) and the aforementioned stills. The result is that we miss much of the melodrama which bookends The River, or at least in its intended form. Murder, mothers and mistresses don’t hold quite the same effect when conveyed as matter-of-fact printed text – and likewise the finale.
What we do get, however, is really quite fascinating. By having a diminished expository passage and final showdown, The River is effectively reconfigured as a two-hander. The scenes we do get in their entirety – and the film’s very centrepiece, it should be said – focus on the developing relationship between Charles Farrell’s and Mary Duncan’s characters. He plays Allen, a naive and motherless lad who’s built a barge in which to travel upriver and become a man, as it were; she’s the local vamp in the small town he’s laid up. The narrative conspires, courtesy of the construction of a dam and a train which he repeatedly fails to catch, to bring these two together. An odd clash of personalities, of course, but as they say: opposites attract.
What’s striking about this coupling, and indeed The River as a whole, is the unbridled eroticism on display. Implicit, but certainly pre-Code in its approach, it’s this match of his childlike qualities and her undoubtedly adult demeanour which grabs the attention – almost as though we’re watching two films of differing attitudes collide. She’s a proto-femme fatale who knows and gets exactly as she wishes. He, by contrast, harks back to simpler times; just a boy, bashful and prone to immediate “marry me” propositions.
Frustratingly, it is only elements such as these that we are able to take away wholesale. We can similarly admire the grand studio sets (constructed at Fox mere metres away from those put together for Murnau’s Sunrise), for example, or catch glimpses of Borzage’s mastery of the silent movie form. But we can never quite watch this as a film per se – and hence it is difficult to adjudge it precisely or make constructive comparisons, say, with the director’s other outings for Fox from the same period: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star. That which is on offer, however, more than justifies the effort and certainly represents a major DVD release in silent movie terms, with or without the attendant Westerns discussed below.
In terms of presentation, the mostly 16mm footage doesn’t, of course, provide the best results. The image is understandably soft and hazy, but then it wouldn’t be any other way. However, what does strike the viewer is the fact that both the newly created intertitles (ie, those which fill in the narrative gaps - otherwise the titles are as intended) and the intermittent production stills both demonstrate a similar lack of definition, especially when compared to those included on this particular disc’s photo gallery. Whether or not this means the picture quality has been affected is difficult to ascertain. What is clear is that The River nonetheless remains watchable throughout – and, of course, we’re always going to lean towards a more forgiving side given the nature of this reconstruction.
For the soundtrack, the restoration opts for the original Movietone score. Movietone was Fox’s in-house sound process during the early ‘talkie’ era and would oftentimes provide dialogue versions of their silents, albeit with this dialogue relegated to the final act or reel. The River was one such title to earn this treatment, although the version used here is for the silent release with Maurice Baron’s original pre-recorded score. A re-recorded version would have provided much better quality in terms of fidelity and the rest. Yet it’s authenticity which is key here, and for all its flaws and signs of age, the Movietone original certainly provides on this count.
Complementing the film itself, disc one also houses Janet Bergstrom’s 2007 doc Murnau and Borzage at Fox: The Expressionist Heritage. 37-minutes in length, this is more illustrated essay than documentary, but nonetheless a fascinating glimpse at the parallel careers of these two great directors during the end of the silent era. Tracing a line from Sunrise through to City Girl (on which Murnau never had editorial control) and the films each made in-between, including a discussion of 4 Devils, it details how the two complemented and begat each other during arguably the most fruitful periods in both their professional careers. (The Expressionist Heritage was a US production and is thus in the English language.)
The three Westerns which make up disc two – The Pitch O’Chance, The Pilgrim and Nugget Jim’s Pardner – deserve as much attention as the main feature. For starters we get to see Borzage act. He plays the lead in each of these two-reelers and it’s fascinating to see the director of 7th Heaven and History is Made at Night in action. In Pitch O’Chance he’s Rocky, an effervescent, free-spirited gamblin’ man who’ll put money on anything, even which coin an ant will wander onto first; not the way you’d envisage the man behind Moonrise under any circumstances. Likewise, Nugget Jim’s Pardner shows him pulling off a drunk scene with aplomb – again not exactly the way you’d expect Borzage to be, but there you go.
Moreover, as well as directing and acting, Borzage earned a screenwriting credit on each of these brief ventures. In other words we’re dealing with genuine auterist works and as such the quest to find Borzage tropes, even in prototype form, is hard to avoid. Stylistically it would be a mistake to expect forerunners to the remarkable work done on Street Angel, say, and so it is; the photography and general syntax is merely functional and assured. However, elsewhere we do find the director approaching the material in a manner not to be generally associated the Western, especially during the genre’s formative years.
For these are not simple programmers forced upon the public by the studios. Borzage’s interests take pride in the characters and not the situations. Gunfire, revenge and cattle runs are not the main event. Indeed, whilst each undoubtedly exists within the realms of Western iconography, they could easily be transposed to other milieus. Essentially, Borzage is bringing some of his melodramatic imagination to the genre, The Pilgrim being a case in point. Seven years later, Chaplin would use the title for one of his own shorts, and there are clear comparisons to be made. Our director plays the eponymous figure, a loner and a man of few words, happier sleeping with his horse than mixing it up with the general populace at large. But when a girl comes into the picture (loves and loyalties figure large in all three works), albeit one destined to stay outside of society, as the distinctly Chaplinesque final shot makes abundantly clear.
Unfortunately, unlike The River these three shorts lack their own contextualising documentary, their only extra being a series of stills of Borzage from around this period. However, presentations are mostly sound. Picture quality is pretty much as you’d expect from films of this vintage and each remains perfectly watchable throughout despite clear evidence of their age. (It’s worth noting, though, that a brief snippet from The Pilgrim included in disc one’s doc presents it in tinted form, whereas here we get black and white.) Each also comes with a new soundtrack recorded especially for this edition by Gunter A Bruchwald. Played by the composer himself they prove to be diverting enough without distracting from the main event. Indeed, it’s Borzage himself who offers the obvious pleasures to this trio of intriguing ventures.
The set is rounded off with a brief bilingual booklet by Herve Dumont, in which he offers notes on all the films present in German, French and English.
This disc is available direct via the Edition Filmmuseum website.