Frank Borzage: Volume Two (Lucky Star and Liliom) Review
A triumphant companion to the BFI's first volume focusing on Frank Borzage, this Volume Two release also pairs up two of the director's films made at William Fox's studio and additionally includes a reconstruction of the partially lost The River. The 1929 silent feature Lucky Star, itself thought to be lost prior to a 1990 discovery at the Nederlands Filmmuseum, is joined on this disc by Borzage's version of Liliom. The former was the third and final pairing of lead actors Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor for Borzage, with the earlier 7th Heaven and Street Angel occupying the BFI's Volume One. Liliom retains Farrell but instead has Rose Hobart as the female lead.
The key inclusion here is Lucky Star, a film that repeats many of the same themes and ideas of 7th Heaven and Street Angel but one that still manages to feel vital. This is partially due to the continued presence of Farrell and Gaynor, silent actors who were able to convey levels of emotion that denied the need for words. Their performances in all three pictures are nothing short of poignant and beautiful. The character growth in each is clearly visible in the acting. For instance, when Gaynor's unassuming backwoods girl tells the crippled war veteran played by Farrell that she's almost eighteen just as he's about to give her a bath, the total change in attitude and perception he has toward her is made obvious on his face without overemphasizing how large of a shift is happening. Essentially, this is the first time he's realizing that his feelings for her extend beyond playful friendship. He's thinking about Gaynor in an entirely new light and you see this on Farrell's face clearly.
The relationship between the two leads in Lucky Star is teased out far longer than in the other Farrell-Gaynor pairings Borzage directed, though the end result is similar. Here the two first meet prior to the outbreak of World War I. He's a lineman while she sells various food items to support her mother and younger siblings. Even in these early scenes, a third wheel - Wrenn, played by Guinn Williams - has a menacing quality. The men go off to war, where Farrell's character is involved in an accident and gets confined to a wheelchair. As he and Gaynor develop a platonic bond upon his return, the character of Wrenn eventually steps in to promise marriage. This very much pleases her mother, who wants Gaynor to be a proper lady and is so prejudiced against the "cripple" Farrell that she can't see how good of an influence he's been on her daughter. Farrell has silently fallen in love with Gaynor, as she seems to be his only escape from the loneliness and despair of a broken body stuck in the middle of nowhere. Again, Borzage presents his would-be lovers as situational romantics who fall into the arms of each other when no one else much cares. The main contrast in Lucky Star is that Farrell and Gaynor hide their feelings, or at least don't act on them, until the end.
What does continue from Borzage's other films is the adversity the couple meet with that keeps them apart. Borzage is consistently labeled as a director of romantic dramas but he tends to portray the world away from his central lovers as a cruel, harsh place. He focuses on the romantic necessities of life as a way to combat the outside. His films may be ultimately optimistic but they are nonetheless lined with so much pessimism as to bring into question the entire notion of what romance in film means. Some force often rises up to challenge the love between the couple, be it other characters or war or circumstance. In short, it's exterior life away from the protective shell of love the characters share that seems to be conspiring against their romance and happiness. The resulting feeling the viewer gets because of this is one of renewed determination. Borzage's lovers must find a way to come together. The tribulations that threaten to split them apart only make our will as a collective audience stronger in rooting for them. The eventual ending, too, proves all the more satisfying as a result. And with Lucky Star, Borzage once again shows that love, on film at least, trumps reality.
Shifting gears a bit, Borzage's 1930 version of Liliom strays from the Farrell-Gaynor teamings both in that it's a talking picture and also for the film's more vicious take on the central romance. The Budapest-set story, based on a play by Franz Molnar that would also be filmed just a few years later by Fritz Lang in between his stints in Germany and Hollywood and later turned into the basis for the popular musical Carousel, has Charles Farrell as the titular character. He begins the movie as a carnival barker who takes pride in his ability to lure people onto the carousel. When Rose Hobart's Julie finally speaks to Liliom one day it leads to his jealous boss firing him (resulting in Guinn Williams again serving as a replacement or foil to Farrell). Borzage cuts ahead a few months with Julie and Liliom now living together, though unmarried. He hasn't found another job, to the chagrin of her aunt, and seems dangerously close to getting involved in some illicit activity masterminded by a shifty sort played by Lee Tracy. Liliom has also been physically abusive to Julie.
At this point in the picture, Liliom's romantic entanglement resembles Borzage's 1933 Columbia film Man's Castle, where Spencer Tracy plays a similarly insolent though at times charming character who aligns himself with Loretta Young at his convenience. Both films also feature the male character turning to crime after he learns that his live-in girlfriend is pregnant with his child. But whereas Man's Castle somehow finds a way for its roguish protagonist to be, at least temporarily, redeemed in typical Borzage fashion, Liliom has a fascinating third act that ponders, among other things, the necessity of physical presence in the multiple forms of love and the viability of a second chance. The latter is particularly of interest considering how much of a believer Borzage's narratives tend to be in second chances and the usual resolutions that follow. The suggestion here seems to be that men like Liliom are fundamentally incapable of changing certain parts of their personality, though Borzage defangs the consequences to a typically improbable, almost offensive degree.
Part of why Liliom doesn't have the resonance, emotionally and even from a cinematic standpoint, of Borzage's greatest work is that the main character is a poor fit for the director's universe. He isn't the active if directionless type like Tracy in Man's Castle and he certainly shows none of the decency of Farrell's other roles for Borzage. The character disrupts the viewer's sympathy each time an effort is made to try and understand or even accept his actions. That Liliom isn't a silent picture also possibly hurts its impact, as some of the acting is awkward and it can be disconcerting to finally hear Farrell's voice. His looks might have been that of a leading man's but he sounded much more like a weaselly character actor. The Julie character is so thinly drawn and weak as to not help matters. It probably wasn't ideal to have the plain-looking Rose Hobart, who's probably best known now due to Joseph Cornell's seminal avant-garde short featuring re-edited scenes of the actress from a movie called East of Borneo, make her screen debut opposite an actor so closely associated with another actress as Farrell was with Janet Gaynor.
Visually, Borzage deepened his commitment to the dark, chiaroscuro look popularized by German Expressionism and Murnau's Sunrise. The cinematography credited to Chester Lyons and frequent Borzage collaborator Harry Oliver's art direction emphasize the lower class bleakness of the characters' lives in the first two acts. This was apparently the milieu that most interested Borzage on film as he so often chose to explore very ordinary people. The third act has a much different appearance in comparison. It consists primarily of a celestial train running through a track located in the clouds. In all respects this is the most interesting portion of the film, and it reinvigorates the plot by subtly removing the focus away from Liliom individually and putting it into more objective terms. As usual, Borzage finesses the result into one of his bittersweet endings rather than coming down too strongly on a single emotion.
Like the BFI's Volume One release, this dual-layered disc is R2 and in the PAL format. Again, also, the masters used were provided by 20th Century Fox and transferred in high definition, with the included booklet mentioning additional picture restoration having been done as well. There were really no problems at all with the R1 transfers of these films, found in the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set, and the BFI's versions look much the same.
Lucky Star, which, as I mentioned above, had been presumed lost until a silent print was found in the Netherlands Film Museum in 1990, has considerably superior video quality over 7th Heaven and Street Angel. Scratches, damage, and some wobbling of the frame are all still present, but manageable. Detail, while modest, is also stronger. Both Lucky Star and Liliom are presented in the 1.20:1 aspect ratio, pillarboxed at the sides, and transferred progressively. The comparative sharpness of Liliom is nice surprise, especially remarkable given that it's now 80 years old. The lighting can seem dependent on dark greys and this transfer certainly hasn't boosted the brightness by any discernible degree. Damage isn't a factor either. Overall, both films, with Liliom's source materials obviously being in better shape, require no caveats as to their video quality and possibly exceed expectations. There's little cause for complaint, though it's worth mentioning that there is four hours' worth of film, including The River, on just one disc. That might be an imperfect, if necessarily practical, way of presenting this material.
Despite having been a partial talkie, meaning it had sequences with a dedicated soundtrack and spoken dialogue, Lucky Star was also produced and released as a silent film to accommodate those cinemas without the necessary equipment for showing talking pictures. It's this version which was located in the Netherlands. Thus, a new score had to be recorded and what we have here was composed and conducted by Christopher Caliendo in 2008 for the R1 Fox release. It can be overly literal at times but the lack of, I guess, bombast serves the music well. A two-channel Dolby Digital mono track reproduces the score without a hitch. Liliom, Borzage's first true talkie, also sounds dramatically good considering the circumstances. I noticed no significant problems in the film's original mono audio. It has a slight hiss, but this is probably just about as clean as an early sound picture can be. Optional English for the hearing impaired subtitles, white in color, can be accessed for Liliom and also for Tom Gunning's Lucky Star commentary track.
One of the unavoidable results of the only print of Lucky Star known to exist having been discovered in the Netherlands is that the intertitles weren't in English. New intertitles had to be created, a process made especially difficult by the apparently nondescript and dull Dutch intertitles and the lack of availability of the original English language texts. The film's shot list ended up being used as a starting point and gaps were carefully filled in along the way. This recreation of the intertitles also resulted in more staid-looking text screens than what you'd see in a silent like 7th Heaven or Street Angel.
The bonus material feels much more generous than it may initially seem. Tom Gunning provides an insightful audio commentary on Lucky Star that is very much recommended to anyone who'd like a deeper understanding of that film. The BFI's release also includes an excellent and substantial booklet as well as the reconstructed version of Borzage's partially lost 1929 feature The River. The latter pairs Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan prior to F.W. Murnau's City Girl but it has much more of an erotic charge than the Murnau picture and seems to amplify the natural onscreen tendencies of its lead actors to a surprisingly primal result. Nothing in the other silent Borzage films currently available prepares us for the sensuality on display here. Especially in its shortened form, this is an entire film built around developing sexual tension.
The River as presented here, with text screens and photographs used to augment the surviving footage, has already been released by Edition Filmmuseum in Germany (reviewed previously by Anthony Nield) as well as being available on a dual-sided disc with 7th Heaven in the R1 "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set. The video quality is not perfect, worse off than any of the other Borzage features put out by the BFI, but it's all very watchable and the main consideration here must be that a once presumed lost film now exists at all, even in a truncated version.
The 36-page booklet nestled inside the case follows a similar pattern as the Volume One booklet. It begins with a lengthy essay mostly about Borzage's early silent films prior to the ones put out by the BFI. The "Essays in Mad Love" piece is by Tom Gunning and is reprinted from a 1993 issue of Sight and Sound magazine. Separate, shorter writings on Lucky Star and Liliom, by Janet Bergstrom and Paul Willemen respectively, follow. Bergstrom also writes on The River and her brief biography of the director is repeated from the other booklet. Photographs and film credits help make the booklet an attractive, carefully put together supplement to an already brilliant package.
Even if I have some reservations about Liliom, the presence here of Lucky Star and The River make this just as essential a purchase as the BFI's Volume One release. These films of Frank Borzage deserve to be heralded as among the absolute greatest of American silent cinema and it's refreshing to now be able to have them on the shelf.