Frank Borzage: Volume One (7th Heaven and Street Angel) Review
The work of American director Frank Borzage is finally making its way to DVD after years of being difficult to see. Admirers seem to often find his romantic melodramas as neglected as they are masterful, and even with the slow trickle of Borzage releases over the past year or two, several of his films that have been made available haven't necessarily been marketed to the unfamiliar masses. Warner Bros. has thrown some of what are considered to be his key works like Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm into its burn-on-demand Warner Archive service instead of providing proper retail releases. And while Fox's late 2007 R1 offering of the exceptional "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set is probably one of the landmarks in classic DVD editions, its high price tag doesn't really encourage impulse buys. Enter the BFI's pair of Borzage releases containing two films each. Volume One includes 7th Heaven and Street Angel while Volume Two has Lucky Star and Liliom as well as a reconstruction of the partially lost The River. These are all R2 PAL editions of films also available in the R1 Fox set, but the commitment for the casual buyer is clearly more reasonable. That said, it wouldn't be unthinkable for burgeoning Borzage admirers to, on the strength of the films released by the BFI, seek out the bigger set which also contains a handful of the director's other films.
While those with access to the R1 box can (and probably should) start chronologically with Lazybones in order to witness Borzage prior to the massively influential production of Murnau's Sunrise, the BFI begins its little retrospective with 7th Heaven, which is perhaps Borzage's best film and certainly his breakthrough. The much-discussed influence of Sunrise isn't quite so prominent here. Something less visually Expressionistic emerges. The Murnau film had been a major prestige picture for William Fox's studio, with few expenses spared and a very lengthy production schedule. It would be released in November of 1927, months after 7th Heaven had already hit cinemas even though Borzage's film was actually made afterward. Shared lead Janet Gaynor immediately transitioned from one to the other, ultimately winning the first Best Actress Oscar for her performances in the two as well as for the following year's Street Angel. She also became a movie star on the shoulders of the 1927 pictures. Her performance in 7th Heaven is the superior feat, expressing sadness and destitution with utter believability and the resigned emotion of heartache. When the character shifts to more joyful moods Gaynor steps brilliantly into those shoes also.
Gaynor's romantic counterpart, beginning a cinematic relationship that would last for a dozen features, is played by Charles Farrell. He works in the Paris sewers and good-naturedly considers himself to be, in his words, "a remarkable fellow." When Gaynor's evil sister (Gladys Brockwell) chases her through the streets the camera swiftly moves with the pursued to the manhole where Farrell is working. He sees Gaynor being choked and steps in to help, but seemingly not out of any romantic interest. The two don't really forge an obvious bond in this scene beyond Gaynor resembling a mistreated animal who needs to be saved from harm and sheltered. And this is more or less what happens, with Farrell again rescuing Gaynor, now from the police, and then agreeing to house her until their fake marriage can be confirmed. For all of the deep-seated romanticism Borzage gets labeled as espousing, his scenes involving the cultivation of love between couples tend to be rather ordinary and borne more out of loneliness than mutual affection.
The performance Gaynor gives in 7th Heaven is perhaps the apotheosis of this. Viewer sympathy has to be strongly in her favor after seeing the honesty she displays when her aunt and uncle are ready to take her and her sister in to live the good life. A later flirtation with suicide, by way of self-stabbing no less, increases the concern. This is a young woman who needs someone to protect and take care of her. When Farrell, a strapping and handsome young man who makes an honest living, becomes connected to Gaynor the viewer fills in the blanks before the characters do. He may not initially want her, or he may not want what he thinks she is, but the film instructs us that he clearly needs something like her in terms of having a domestic partner. Borzage's romanticism thus blossoms by taking two people who are little more than ciphers and pairing them as a single force to wade through the joy and adversity of life. Both here and in Street Angel, the central couplings are of lower-class, almost poverty-level people who have few options but nonetheless find love to be their primary source of happiness.
Yet, inevitably, the plot strives to tear these relatively decent people apart. Borzage inserts heartbreak into the occasion in any number of ways. For 7th Heaven, once Farrell and Gaynor are fully committed to one another and perfectly in love, war hits Paris. Farrell must go to the front while Gaynor passes the time working at a munitions factory. The two lovers make a pact to meet each other every day at 11:00 AM despite the physical impossibility of such a promise. In Borzage's films, reality is no obstacle to love and commitment. No better manifestation of that idea can be found than in the final scene of 7th Heaven, which deserves fresh eyes from everyone yet to see the film.
The role of spirituality and religion necessarily comes into play here as well. Throughout the picture the seeming absence of God's presence in daily life is emphasized by having Farrell proudly proclaim his Atheism. Farrell also declares that his rooftop apartment is the equivalent of heaven for him and Gaynor, a statement that furthers his independence from God, or "Bon Dieu." Borzage returned to the theme of religion or God as a form of salvation in other films, including Street Angel, but here he maintains a paradox of sorts where the characters shift between rejecting and embracing God to somewhat ambiguous effect. The implication seen in the film's ending is at once miraculous and otherworldly.
Street Angel is more obviously indebted to Sunrise, both in the look of the film and in some of the actions of the characters. It is thematically darker than 7th Heaven and less reassuring. Farrell and Gaynor are used to similar effect as in the previous picture, but neither is quite so innocent. Borzage again returns to characters of modest means in a European city, Naples here. The woman Gaynor plays is seen caring for her sick mother but unable to afford the medicine she needs. Gaynor is reduced to offering herself for money. The film doesn't make clear whether this is her first time, with her awkwardness seeming to imply it is but events later in the film suggesting something else. Either way, it doesn't take and she instead grabs the money on a vendor's cart which immediately gets her arrested. A fleeing Gaynor later manages to hide in a large drum used by the traveling circus. Now a tightrope performer, she soon catches the eye of a painter played by Farrell.
As in their other pairings for Borzage, the two leads are not mutually attracted to each other at first. He's interested in her, begging Gaynor to pose for a portrait, but she dismisses him. When she does reluctantly allow Farrell to paint her, the resulting image becomes transformative. Just as he sees her much differently than she sees herself, the portrait he's painted changes the way she looks at him. "You wear a mask...to hide the soul that is in you," Farrell declares via an intertitle. This painting plays a crucial role in their relationship at multiple points in the film. When he's in desperate need of money to provide for Gaynor, Farrell sells the painting. It ultimately attains a spiritual significance for the two lovers, again calling attention to Borzage's repeated dangling of a divine intervention to allow his characters to overcome their given fates. The climactic scene in a church recalls Sunrise and that film's inspirations, but also attains a uniquely haunting quality of its own.
This dual-layered disc released by the BFI is encoded for Region 2 and PAL. The masters used were provided by 20th Century Fox and largely duplicate the quality of the R1 "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set. The major improvement is in presenting Street Angel in roughly the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (actually a bit closer to 1.30:1) rather than the compressed image that resulted from Fox opting for 1.20:1 in R1. 7th Heaven looks fine in 1.20:1. Another possible advantage is that despite Fox seemingly going all out in its box set, 7th Heaven was issued on a double-sided disc with The River (found on the BFI's Volume Two release) rather than having its own disc. That's a nearly two-hour feature, Borzage's masterpiece, relegated to a flipper disc. The BFI have wisely opted for another route, putting both 7th Heaven and Street Angel on a dual-layered, single-sided disc.
Regardless of how beat up these films look - and Street Angel is in slightly better shape than 7th Heaven I think - it's important to recognize that the best existing materials available have been used for the transfers. Thus the alternative to scratchy, damaged prints with soft video quality would be a complete lack of availability, which was the situation prior to Fox's release. The films are clearly in rough shape, but it would be inaccurate to classify them as in any way difficult to watch or enjoy. My own experience left me so enamored while watching the movies that it was surprising to later go back and look at the quality for the purpose of this review because I'd remembered them looking much better than they actually did. That's how caught up in Borzage's films I became. My advice would be to resist any hesitancy about the condition of the source materials. There's little reason that I'm aware of to expect any improvements in the foreseeable future, and if you're interested in Borzage even the least bit, these films are simply too good to miss. Certainly the BFI did the best with what they had, using high definition transfers and, according to the booklet, also adding further restoration.
Both 7th Heaven and Street Angel are silent features but they were shown in cinemas with synchronized Movietone music and effects tracks, presented here in two-channel Dolby Digital mono. The Movietone score for 7th Heaven was actually added on that film's re-release, following the success of Sunrise, which was the first instance of Fox using the Movietone method. The two tracks are similar in that a hiss is somewhat prominent while listening. Neither is particularly impressive. It might be worth mentioning that the Fox R1 edition of 7th Heaven also has a stereo option which hasn't been included by the BFI.
While there are no extra features on the disc, a 36-page booklet proves more than satisfying on its own. (The Fox dual-sided disc of 7th Heaven in R1 does have a commentary but it's a disappointing listen and not much of a loss for this release.) An essay entitled "Frank Borzage: Architect of Ineffable Desires" by Joe McElhaney, occupying fourteen pages of text, is well worth reading as it gives an informative and interesting overview of some of the recurring themes in Borzage's films. It does, however, focus quite a bit on works not included in this or the other BFI release. In addition to film credits and numerous stills, the booklet also contains write-ups on both 7th Heaven and Street Angel, as well as a quick biography of Borzage, written by Janet Bergstrom. The BFI have done a typically fantastic job of putting together this booklet and beyond simply contributing some overall heft to the package it makes for a substantial (not to mention portable) extra. Ideally, maybe the feature-length documentary on F.W. Murnau and Borzage's time at Fox would have sneaked in somewhere, as it is included on both the German Edition Filmmuseum release of The River, which also contains a few Borzage short films, and the large R1 set. This is nonetheless a fantastic entry point to Borzage, complemented by Volume Two, and an affordable, in some ways improved upon, alternative to what Fox did in R1.
I don't think I've ever seen a director so adept at pulling off transcendent moments in his films like Borzage. In viewing the four features released by the BFI plus The River and various other pictures of his I had at my disposal, the recurring feeling was one of extreme power and vitality, to a degree I'd not experienced with virtually any other director's body of work. Borzage was a master at making the unbelievable seem not only possible but inevitable, and doing so with a minimum of forced emotion. His films are far less sentimental than they're sometimes accused of being. An underlying cynicism is often acknowledged but almost never triumphant. This gives the films a modern yet refreshingly idealized spin where Borzage's plots show little to no acknowledgement of accepted story structure because of his guiding of the lead characters' destinies to conform to his own radically idiosyncratic endings. It's remarkable how Borzage was able to establish a unique set of boundaries on film while the vast majority of other filmmakers in the world before and since have followed a certain and set path. Here was Borzage, over eighty years ago, expanding cinema to a place hardly anyone else has ever dared to tread and all while in the employ of a major Hollywood studio. And very few people beyond the most dedicated of film lovers have bothered to remember him!