(McFarland, 420 pages, $45)
By Hervé Dumont
As Martin Scorsese, a lifelong admirer, notes in his introduction, “[Frank] Borzage... was a romantic, and that’s one strike against him... I think I can safely say that there isn’t an ironic moment in any of [his movies]. He clearly believed in romance.” While making silent films, Borzage often sobbed as he directed his performers, throwing himself into the soaring emotions of his stories in a way that might seem overly sentimental to our cynical modern eyes. With his lyricism, luminosity and appetite for transcendence, Borzage is one of the great directors of Hollywood’s silent and early sound eras most in danger of vanishing into oblivion.
But with a new box set of his early work and the arrival of Hervé Dumont’s exemplary critical biography (it was written in 1993, but just recently translated), Borzage should finally get the credit he deserves. There was a time, after all, when critics spoke of “the Borzage touch,” which Dumont defines as including “his pictorial splendor and velvet-smooth images,” his “unsurpassed degree of sobriety in poignant, restrained emotion,” and his “naturalness in the supernatural.” Love reigns over his universe, tenderness is the presiding emotion, and nothing can destroy it, not even death. In movie after movie, including 7th Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), History Is Made at Night (1937) and Three Comrades (1938, partly scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald), his belief in love as life’s driving force abides.
Dumont began tracking down Borzage’s missing works and fragments in the mid-’60s. Thus his biography is informed by a profound and sympathetic familiarity with a widely dispersed oeuvre. He writes rewardingly, for example, of The River (1929), which was considered a masterpiece on its release, but of which only some 40 minutes survive.
And Borzage himself, one of the founders of the Screen Directors Guild (the forerunner of the DGA), is rescued from obscurity to emerge as a fascinating character in his own drama. Dumont’s biographical sections detail a poor young man who, as a teenager, joined theatrical troupes crisscrossing the vanishing Old West. Landing in pre-WWI Hollywood, he helmed Westerns before finding his own style. Discussing transcendence in Borzage’s movies, Dumont points out the director’s dedication to the tenets of Freemasonry, reminding us that Borzage’s much-vaunted spiritualism was not really grounded in Christianity, but in a more generous, less judgmental romantic mysticism whose power can still move us to tears.
Review written by John Patterson.