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In the September-October 1997 Film Comment:

The September-October
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the sanctum sanctorum of love:
frank borzage

By Kent Jones

Why should we bother with Frank Borzage in 1997? Many modern viewers claim to find even his greatest films moth-eaten, penny-ante affairs, the cinematic equivalents of long-forgotten Tin Pan Alley tunes or 1909 Christmas cards. What do they have to offer us beyond the illusory comfort of an imagined past? There's a director I know who's fond of saying that he's more interested in what current filmmakers are doing (even the mediocre ones) than in studying "classic cinema," older films touching him only to the degree that they illuminate modern experience. It's a brutal approach to film history, perhaps a bit too brutal for me, but it has a certain validity as an alternative to the ahistorical side of film culture. Perhaps Borzage really is nothing more than the cinema's Great Romantic --a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside of the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.

He was a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life --the world around Borzage's lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions. An arch-symbolist with a deep belief in the communion of souls, he woefully lacks any of the credentials necessary for worship by modern audiences (precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir). Nor can it be denied that Borzage's oeuvre sports a generous helping of mediocre-to-bad actors (Douglass Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Phillip Dorn, and John Howard --the only actor wooden enough to take the air out of Borzage's billowing romanticism, in Disputed Passage), as well as a high percentage of filler (endless Dick Powell musicals at Warners, topical melodramas for Fox, a biography of Dolly Madison). On top of that, his films don't even work as satisfyingly snotty postmodern experiences, probably due to the fact that they are almost all structurally identical.

A scene from
Seventh Heaven

A scene from
Seventh Heaven

A scene from
Man's Castle

A scene from
Man's Castle

From the "lyrical abstraction" (to borrow Gilles Deleuze's precise description) of the lovers' hideaways in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel to a city/country four-hander like The Shining Hour, from an intimist Depression romance like Man's Castle to a faintly ponderous lesson in leather-bound devotion like Green Light (Borzage holds the dubious distinction of having adapted three Lloyd C. Douglas novels), Borzage's eminently centrifugal films all feature domelike constructions: the lovers and believers occupy the enormous and exquisitely detailed center while everything around them is hazy and indistinct (war, the Depression, strikes, local color, parties, other people). The signature image for his entire cinema might be the mindbending tracking shot, in A Farewell to Arms (32), from the wounded Frederic's (Gary Cooper's) point of view as he's laid out on a stretcher. The camera nestles almost erotically into the gracefully curving dome of the hospital ceiling before traveling into Frederic's room, where the subjective POV is released only after Catherine (Helen Hayes) enters the frame and kisses Frederic, her face filling the screen in a glorious blur. One could also profitably compare Borzage's work to a medieval or early Renaissance illumination, as Michael Henry did in a groundbreaking Positif article called "Le Fra Angelico du mélodrame." But while illumination is certainly a worthy metaphor for Borzage's overpowering belief in love, the architectural metaphor gets closer to the living, physical immediacy of his films and their creation of paradisaical environments. But on a purely visual level, Borzage's work is a lush continuation of Renaissance painting. His camera is magnetized by full-cheeked and saucer-eyed faces that fill the frame, and his lovers calmly radiate from the center of the screen; the onlookers who either step aside or stew in frustration, like Adolphe Menjou's Rinaldi in A Farewell to Arms or Melvyn Douglas's passive husband in The Shining Hour, tend to have comparatively sharp, knifelike faces. When Charles Farrell looks at Janet Gaynor in her wedding dress in Lucky Star, or when Spencer Tracy patiently watches Joan Crawford modeling clothes in Mannequin, we could be looking at the humble Joseph placing a ring on Mary's finger in Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin.

In his lovingly researched Frank Borzage --Sarastro à Hollywood (an act of true literary devotion that provides all of the biographical information for this article), Hervé Dumont cites Borzage's development of intimate scenes "to the detriment of the action" as the basis of contemporary objections to The River, the director's fearsome 1929 masterpiece that was caught in the mad crossfire between silence and sound. It's the same kind of complaint that you hear about "foreign films" today. And the charge of artistry is more than justified. Besides Nick Ray, with whom he has often been compared, Borzage was one of Hollywood's only truly obsessive artists of the sound era (Welles, who made most of his films outside of Hollywood, doesn't count), which is what truly made him a favorite of the Surrealists. Borzage's artistic vision was not a loose conglomeration of tics, talents, and obsessions to be tallied up at the end of his career. He had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life that, at a certain point in his career, took precedence over the delivery of a satisfying piece of entertainment. It may have been a naïve one, nourished by Masonic teachings and quite possibly by his early exposure to the Mormons when he was growing up in Salt Lake City, but he believed it and sometimes bent plots inside out to accommodate it. It also informed his unique way of arranging space. When a character looks in a film by Hawks or Hitchcock, he or she is usually looking at something concrete. When a character looks in a film by Ford, it's often into the past. When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it's usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony, around which time tends to dilate and space tends to become elastic to the point of transparency.

Simply put, to find love is to find one's true self, and hence to create an invincible paradise on earth. It's not specifically Christian, and quite close to the carnal ecstasy of Olivier Messaien's one completely nonreligious work, the Turangalila symphony. If The Mortal Storm (40) and Till We Meet Again (44) are more structurally nuanced than Borzage's other films and more pointed in the way they deal with encroaching reality, it's because in Nazism Borzage finally recognized a formidable enemy of love (as Andrew Sarris put it so memorably in The American Cinema, "Borzage's objection to Hitler was a curious one"). More than poverty, more than war (in the abstract), more than physical separation or even death, the phenomenon of Nazism posed a real danger to love because it threatened to overshadow and replace it with a manmade, negative paternalism. But finally even Nazism succumbs to the power of love, blown into the snowdrifts that pile up by the family home in The Mortal Storm and stopped in its tracks by the martyrdom of Barbara Britton's Sister Clothilde in Till We Meet Again. (I would have to agree with Bertrand Tavernier's and Jean-Pierre Coursoudon's assertion that Borzage's "Weimar" pictures, the 1934 Little Man, What Now? and 1938 Three Comrades, are too vague and unspecific in their political references to qualify as the bold attacks on fascism they are sometimes credited with being. On the other hand, The Mortal Storm --which was one of the films that finally caused Goebbels to ban all American films in Germany --was, particularly for a studio like MGM, a bold frontal attack.)

For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage's is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation. The human evidence of Borzage's superhuman idea of existence --to be found in Charles Farrell's and Janet Gaynor's rapturous walk up the stairs and into paradise in Seventh Heaven (27), in the beautifully elongated flowering of their love in Lucky Star (29), in Dane Clark and Gail Russell's moonlit idyll in an abandoned mansion in Moonrise (48), in Margaret Sullavan sleeping in her shimmering evening dress on Robert Taylor's doorstep in Three Comrades, in James Dunne and Sally Eilers's touchingly naïve attempt at marriage in Bad Girl (32), in James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan taking the family marriage cup from Maria Ouspenskaya before their potentially fatal trek over the Austrian border in The Mortal Storm --is one of the great glories of the cinema.

Can a body of work consisting of a hundred films and three television shows, which begins in 1915 and ends in 1959 and passes through almost every major studio in Hollywood, be reduced to such a singleminded preoccupation? In one sense, no. It's an auteurist tradition to identify something singular in a director's work and then leave it at that, chucking the quirks, oddities, momentary fashions, and comminglings with commerce and studio style that make up a big part of any Hollywood oeuvre. Such selectivity has probably outlived its usefulness. In Borzage's case, one can see a whole panorama of momentary influences stretched across his career.

It's indisputable that Seventh Heaven and its more explicitly expressionist followup, Street Angel, are ravishing visual achievements, but as Dumont points out, it's pretty obvious that the recently arrived Murnau set the tone for both films, with their heavy use of poetic perspective and sculpted light, courtesy of set designer Harry Oliver and DP Ernest Palmer (for awhile, Janet Gaynor was shooting Sunrise with the imposing Murnau by day and Street Angel with the warm-hearted Borzage by night). It's never been lost on anyone that the 1936 Desire looks and feels a lot like a film directed by its producer and the man who helped prepare its script, Ernst Lubitsch (though contrary to popular belief, Lubitsch did not direct the film: that would be a little like Faulkner fronting for Hemingway). History Is Made at Night (37) may have a boldness that approaches sublimity, but what film wouldn't that was a) made simply because it had a great title, b) lacking a plot one month before the start of shooting, and c) given a sinking-ship climax by producer Walter Wanger because he was envious of the locust plague in The Good Earth and the earthquake in San Francisco? The films that Borzage made with Joseph L. Mankiewicz producing at MGM have a more brittle tone than usual, a more wayward dramatic trajectory, and, of course, the MGM look (even when there are no staircases present, you always feel there's one around the corner).

Moonrise, marking the end of Borzage's unhappy tenure at Republic, may be a throwback, but to what? That film's neo-primitive expressionism anticipates The Night of the Hunter in some ways, but it also seems designed to pay lip service to the paranoia that had crept into modern cinema (something that Borzage later professed to despise). Although Moonrise is finally just as romantic as the rest of his work, the disembodied visual scheme of its first half, designed as an illustration of psychological trauma, is a singular event in Borzage --an interesting choice of material that probably marked a sly compromise between the director's own concerns and the more fashionable notions of the day.

In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage's distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become "outmoded" and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art.

The first of many misconceptions about Borzage is that he was of Swedish ancestry.* In fact he was a mixture of Italian, Swiss, German, and Austrian roots. His Italian-speaking father was a mason who came to America with his German-speaking mother in the 1880s. They finally settled in Salt Lake City where Borzage was born in 1894, the fourth of eight children. A close-knit family, Borzage's parents, brothers, and sisters made frequent cameo appearances in his films, and brother Lew was his business partner throughout his career. (Another brother, Danny, is known for his association with John Ford: that's him playing "Red River Valley" on the accordion in The Grapes of Wrath.)

Borzage was entranced by acting at a young age and had a brief flirtation with a traveling theater company. He started in the film business as an extra in numerous Western shorts starring Wallace Reid and supervised by Allan Dwan. In 1913 he went to work at Thomas Ince's Santa Monica film factory. It was Ince who not only made the soulfully handsome Borzage into a minor star but who also served as his mentor as a filmmaker. The Wrath of the Gods, a 1914 film about a forbidden love between Borzage and Tsuru Aoki broken up by Sessue Hayakawa, was such a huge success that the trio of actors teamed up three more times. Interestingly for someone brought up in Salt Lake City, Borzage also starred in a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda called A Mormon Maid, made by future MGM house director Robert Z. Leonard. The Pitch o' Chance, Borzage's first film as a director-star, was made for American Film. In these early two-reelers you can see the interest in extending human interaction, giving it its proper weight and time; the exchanges between Borzage himself and Anna Little in the 1916 The Pilgrim are remarkably understated and unhurried. (Dumont claims that this is the influence of Ince, as is the concentration on mood and the aversion to anecdotal story material.)

Borzage went back to work for Ince at Triangle, but soon left for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures (he was replaced at Triangle by Henry King), where he was catapulted into fame by his 1920 version of Humoresque. It's a fascinating film, uncharacteristically realistic in its exteriors shot on New York's Lower East Side, and for just that reason it pleased neither Hearst nor Cosmopolitan's distributor Adolph Zukor. Zukor later fired off an angry memo to the film's writer Frances Marion that deserves to be remembered for all eternity: "If you and Fannie Hurst are so determined to make the Jews appear sympathetic, why don't you choose a story about the Rothschilds or men as distinguished as they?"

It's another Frances Marion adaptation of a Fannie Hurst story that Dumont cites as the first truly Borzagean film. The 1923 The Nth Commandment, now incomplete, is a milder realist melodrama than Humoresque, set in the lower-middle-class milieu of Manhattan department store workers. The sense of characters with their hearts and souls fixed on a happier ultimate reality as they walk down the street or skate in a roller rink or eat in a Chinese restaurant is already present in this film, completely free of the "business" and heavy character typage characteristic of much silent acting (Borzage detested the term "playing"), and Borzage hits a sublime wavelength with the great Colleen Moore. Coolly passionate yet circumspect, vulnerable yet self-propelled, entirely modern yet ravishingly beautiful in a classical way, Moore's character is something of a prototype for the women Joan Crawford would play for Borzage in the Thirties, particularly the heroine of Mannequin, for whom passion and pragmatism are interchangeable. (Borzage may have been Crawford's greatest director: in their three films together, specifically designed to build a more mature persona for the actress, she has a touching luminosity and generosity that she had never found before and would not find again.)

"I like to penetrate the hearts and souls of my actors and let them live their characters," Borzage once said. The director who once told a neurotic Margaret Sullavan -- who would in many ways become the ultimate Borzage actress -- "I'll direct you when you stop being natural, not before," would put his hands over his ears when watching his actors complete a take during the silent era, and turn his back on the scene so he could listen more carefully to their voices after the dawn of sound. The "most fleeting harmony of atmosphere" that Murnau sought via the movement of his camera through space Borzage sought through his actors. And it was in Seventh Heaven that this extreme sensitivity, which had formerly been an approach to drama, became a rousing, full-blown aesthetic of its own. The film version of Seventh Heaven was an eagerly awaited event, based as it was on a play by Austin Strong that had sold out on Broadway for three years. An endless procession of major stars tried out for the roles of Chico and Diane: John Gilbert, Joel McCrea, George O'Brien for the former, Blanche Sweet, Mary Pickford, Dolores Costello, and the rising star Joan Crawford for the latter. In Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Borzage chose physical prototypes for his entire oeuvre (and in Farrell he found someone who bore a striking physical resemblance to himself, as did his good friend Spencer Tracy). Interestingly, after traveling to Paris with his brother Lew to soak up the atmosphere, Borzage chose to make the film in the studio even though Fox was willing to shoot such a prestigious project on location in Paris.

A scene from
The Mortal Storm

A scene from
The Mortal Storm

A scene from
Three Comrades

Seventh Heaven represents the most dramatic instance in Borzage's work of the collapse of time outside of the space created by love. Within Chico's apartment "near the stars," time is elongated and becalmed, allowing for the smallest reverberation in Diane's heart to register as her joyful certainty and the space around her unite. Outside, the war and life in the factory are quickly summarized, perfunctory activities in broad, indifferent spaces (Seventh Heaven and A Farewell to Arms have got to be the craziest portraits of WWI ever put on the screen, logistically complex undertakings that are so folded up and telescoped that they could just as well be bicycle-powered operatic backdrops behind Charles Farrell and Gary Cooper). It's interesting that the fact of the film's source material being a play led Borzage, accidentally as it were, to the creation of an aesthetic practice as well as a moral choice of sorts. He had filmed the streets before, and perhaps decided that the only way to show supposedly real life was as an abstraction, the better to focus on the transcendent reality of love during each step of its unfolding.

The stoic, confident man who is afraid to acknowledge the immanence of a love far more powerful than himself ("If you want to stay, you're not in my way," says Chico to Diane) and the trembling gamine of a woman who is afraid that her man's stoicism will cause him to flee his true self: This early paradigm in Borzage's work reaches its apogee in the extraordinarily concentrated suites of measured, volleying closeups between Spencer Tracy and a heartbreakingly soft Loretta Young in Man's Castle (33) and between George Brent and Kay Francis in Living on Velvet (35). The conflict of Living on Velvet is close to more modern narratives like The Stone Boy or Fearless, in which the survivor of a traumatic event suppresses all of his emotion beneath a deceptively placid surface. The terrible fear that Francis in turn suppresses, so as not to throw Brent off his precarious balance even as she sees him falling apart, gives those smiling exchanges an almost tragic intensity. It's remarkable if not miraculous that Borzage was able to wring such wonders out of two of the blandest actors in Hollywood. But it's his refinement of their individual traits as people -- Brent's glassy slowness and Francis's slightly goofy suspension between glamour and dimness -- that makes them pay off in a flawed but affecting film, in which the fear of being incomplete becomes quietly terrifying.

Borzage's work is actually missing one of the most consistent features of romantic fiction in the cinema, the deferral of romantic union by circumstance or self-delusion. In Man's Castle, for instance, the point is that the evidence of Tracy's love for Young is there before his eyes and ours and hers, and it only awaits his acknowledgment, which is in fact an overpowering self-acknowledgment. That is the strange difference between Borzage and almost every other purveyor of cinematic romance. In I Know Where I'm Going!, Powell and Pressburger slyly stake their claim to one of the richest veins in American romantic comedy, self-delusion as class envy (or, in the case of Sturges, as pure, lusting materialism), and key it to the vitalism of the Scottish landscape. We know from the first frame that Wendy Hiller's pragmatic, sensible viewpoint is going to be laid bare by the violent beauty of the landscape and by Roger Livesey's laird, who is so comfortable within it, but the question is when -- how long will self-knowledge be deferred? In the case of a Powell or a Leo McCarey, for as long as possible, so that a greater degree of understanding can be reached. What is initially frivolous and silly is finally inverted and revealed as a reality that is being avoided, but it is finally the practical reality of two individuals finding happiness in each other's company -- and happiness is far too weak a word to describe what Borzage's couples experience.

Wise women who thoughtfully reject men until they shed their vanity and risk embarrassment, or wise men who patiently pursue confused women until they finally see the reality of their attraction staring them in the face: romantic comedy is always about liberty, an individual identity liberated from a false one by silliness and playacting, defined to perfection by Stanley Cavell in his book Pursuits of Happiness. In romantic melodrama, the action is more often than not consumed with the deferral of romantic union by circumstance or mistaken information, and often ends with the sacrifice of love for a higher purpose -- Casablanca being a case in point. In Borzage, there is no higher purpose than love -- nothing exists beyond love, everything else is ephemeral. The union of lovers in death is of course one of the cornerstones of Western literature and drama, as is the suggestion that lovers can only be united in death since love itself is too fragile for coarse mortal hands. In Borzage, since the union of lovers is already consecrated here on earth, death itself is rendered transparent. Then China Doll (42), which is often recognized as the final flowering of Borzage's sensibility, is actually a disappointing film not because of its unfashionable sensibility but because it is played by actors accustomed to one rhythm and mode of presentation working for a director accustomed to another, the two mindsets meeting for only seconds at a time. But in the film's mystically triumphant finale, after the lovers played by Victor Mature and Li Li Hua have been killed in a bombing attack, the infant daughter whom Mature has saved steps off a plane thirteen years later as a smiling adolescent and embraces her parents' old friends waiting on the tarmac. Death is drained of its dark power and becomes a mere stage in the metamorphosis from a lovers' union to a beautiful, poised young girl.

Borzage's cinema is sexual, to be sure, but sex is never an end in itself, nor is it a prelude to the bourgeois stability of home and hearth: it is a spiritual act that raises lovers into the heavens. Few meetings in the cinema are as charged as Brent and Francis locking eyes in Living on Velvet, the force of which causes suitor Warren William to gently step aside. But it's so forceful that it goes beyond the merely sexual. Often in post-Production Code Hollywood, "love" stands for sexual attraction, which renders both concepts squishy and malleable. But in Borzage, sexual attraction is part of the greater certainty of being completed. He never treats sexuality in the "frank" sense of, say, Delmer Daves, a zealous missionary on behalf of the honest proclamation of sexual appetite: in Borzage, since the union is already sanctified (keenly obvious to any witness who encounters the lovers, like Jack LaRue's priest in A Farewell to Arms who suddenly marries Cooper and Hayes in the hospital), the question of appetite and merely "sexual" attraction becomes moot.

The chemical spark between Borzage's lovers takes on many different permutations. In Farewell, Helen Hayes slaps Gary Cooper and suddenly reveals a violently beautiful love beneath a wartime sexual encounter. A gently comic meeting between the two dreamers played by Don Ameche and Catherine McLeod in That's My Man (47) is slowly drained of its comedy and converted into a quiet little tone poem of love, culminating in a poignant dialogue exchanges in as they lie in the dark ("It is a wonderful world." "And everything in it is perfect --everything"). In The Shining Hour (38), Wisconsin gentleman farmer Robert Young flies to New York to check out Joan Crawford, the dancing star with whom his brother Melvyn Douglas has been publicly cavorting, and as he watches her dance he is shocked by his own instant attraction (this scene plays like a less sinister version of the moment in Bresson's Les dames du bois de Boulogne when Paul Bernard studies Elina Labourdette dancing).

To throw the romance question into even more chaos, in later Borzage the fixation on love is replaced by something else altogether. I think that Borzage was one filmmaker who was truly affected by the imposition of the Production Code. If his pre-Code films are all about the discovery of love and its acknowledgment, the removal of premarital sex and extended physical intimacy as a possibility refined his focus to the metaphysical certainty at the core of love. I've Always Loved You is a misleading title for an extreme film brought to the brink of madness by its candy-box color scheme and completely disconnected acting, in which various forms of soaring communion (master/disciple, music/musician, callow lovers out of balance) are mingled and hopelessly confused, then sorted out through the medium of an unsuspecting third party. In Mannequin (37), Joan Crawford seems to have formed a perfect platonic conception of a harmonious existence within herself, while Spencer Tracy's self-made magnate seems to understand from the beginning that they are meant to be together, and the film is about the process of their two perfect conceptions adjusting until they are in perfect harmony. It makes an interesting contrast with Otto Preminger's sharp, dry Daisy Kenyon, where an older Crawford also wavers between two men and spends a great deal of screentime in bitter, conflicted solitude. In the Borzage film Crawford's solitude as she mounts the stairs of her tenement building or rides the El with her resentful, indifferent husband (Alan Curtis) is sad but bearable because she has located a wondrous certainty within herself.

What are the defining moments in Borzage's cinema, the moments at the heart of his luminous oeuvre? At the end of The River, Ivan Linow's deaf mute carries a frozen and unconscious Farrell into Mary Duncan's cabin. He picks up handfuls of snow and rubs it on Farrell's chest in an effort to shock him back to life. As Farrell lies unconscious, his chest gleaming in the light, the vampish Duncan, a tall willowy, sexual creature unlike anything else in the director's oeuvre, pounds Linow on the chest, begging him to go get his mother to help revive this naïve young man whom she suddenly realizes she loves. She stands by the window and watches Linow trudge off into the blinding snow, pulls her bathrobe over her bare shoulders, and paces back and forth. She suddenly stops, opens her robe to reveal a thin nightgown over her body, and slowly, tentatively climbs into bed on top of Farrell, pressing herself tightly against him. Borzage fades to black and then up on a close two-shot as Farrell revives and his eyes open. Borzage cuts to a tight closeup of Farrell as he sees a series of visions from earlier scenes pass before his eyes before Duncan's face enters the frame. Sexuality transforms itself into an electrical spark of love that brings a man back from the dead.

Fifteen years later, Borzage made Till We Meet Again, which was intended to be a love story between an American aviator and a French nun. On orders from the Breen office, the nun became a novice, the flyer was given a wife and child back home, and any explicit reference to a love affair was removed. So the story became the drama of a young woman's awakening to the true spirituality of the world rather than the abstract spirituality of a convent. By the end of the film, after they have traveled in disguise as man and wife, she is ready to sacrifice her life so that the flyer can escape occupied France. She does not tell him. When they part, they realize that they have come to mean a great deal to each other in the time they have spent escaping from the Nazis. She has understood the meaning and beauty of conjugal life ("You say it like it was a kind of litany," says Barbara Britton's novice after Ray Milland's flyer describes what it's like to be married), and both of them have found that their souls have unexpectedly united. As he's called to go by a signal from a tinny piano, she blesses him. He can't quite think of how to reciprocate, and before climbing down a ladder to the boat waiting below he kisses her hands as she holds the trap door open for him. The fresh, open-faced Britton watches as Milland floats away before she walks to her doom in what is far and away the cinema's most astonishing suspension between anguish and wonder.

Eleven years later, like many other directors of his generation, Borzage turned to television and directed three half-hour episodes of the "Screen Director's Playhouse" series. The last, called "The Day I Met Caruso," was based on the true story of a Quaker girl named Elizabeth (Sandi Descher) who, as Dumont notes, is like a smaller version of Britton's novice, carefully ensconced in a world of spiritual devotion. On a train trip from Boston to New York, she meets the legendary tenor (Lofty Mansieri), plays cards with him, and then listens as he sings arias from La Bohème, Rigoletto, and Pagliacci. And as she listens and looks out the window, she is transported, and Borzage dissolves between closeups of Descher and visions of billowing clouds. And that's all there is to it. This story of a little girl whose life is opened up to a sense of harmony with the world around her, is told with the simplest of means: a train set, two principal actors, some scratchy old Caruso recordings, and some filtered shots of clouds. "He never stopped looking for the natural and the simple," it was once said of Borzage, and at the end of his career, on a half-hour television show, he found them.

*Further misconceptions: that he was illiterate, a rumor started by John Ford; that a large portion of one of his incontestable masterpieces, The Mortal Storm, was directed by its producer Victor Saville, who took over for only a few days when Borzage drowned his sorrows over his separation with his wife Rena in drink; that he was blacklisted during the Forties, which can be written off to youthful critical enthusiasm).

Kent Jones has previously written for Film Comment on Olivier Assayas (Jan/Feb 96), Hal Hartley (Jul/Aug 96) and Phillipe Garrel (May/Jun 97). He wishes to thank Michael Henry Wilson, John Belton, and especially Nicole Brenez for their help on the Borzage piece.

©1997 by Kent Jones

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