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Frank Borzage volumes 1 & 2

Frank Borzage volumes 1 & 2. 2009. GB. DVD (Region 2 PAL), BFI. Volume One – 7th Heaven / Street Angel (114 mins + 97 mins); Volume Two – Lucky Star / Liliom (95 mins + 90 mins)

About the reviewer: Dr Stacey Abbott is Reader in Film and Television Studies at Roehampton University. Her recent publications include: Celluloid Vampires (University of Texas Press, 2007); Angel – TV Milestone (Wayne State University Press, 2009); Editor, The Cult TV Book (I.B. Tauris, 2010); c-editor with David Lavery, Supernatural: TV Goes to Hell (ECW Press, 2011); co-author with Lorna Jowett, TV Horror: Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen (I.B. Tauris, 2013). She is the Series Editor for I.B. Tauris’ Investigating Cult TV series of publications.

Often described as the master of silent melodrama and sentimental romance, Frank Borzage is one of the least known of the great Hollywood auteurs. Winner of the first Oscar for Best Director of a Dramatic Feature in 1927 (for 7th Heaven), Borzage’s films are unfamiliar to many because they were largely unavailable beyond film archives, festivals and the occasional retrospective. Those who have been fortunate enough to see his films, however, have been won over by the emotional intensity of his love stories, conveyed through sensuous lighting, cinematography and mise-en-scène. Finally, after many years of anticipation, the British Film Institute has released four of Borzage’s films on DVD in two lovingly constructed volumes that are a well deserved tribute to this great director.

The collections include 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929), the best of his silent films, and arguably the best work of his career. The films star Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, one of the great Hollywood romantic couples, rivalling the likes of Powell and Loy or Hepburn and Tracy for their onscreen chemistry. While the characters they played varied in personality, both actors deliver naturalistic performances tinged with humour and pathos. Their suffering and joy as they struggle to overcome the obstacles to their love, which include prison, paralysis and death, is all the more palpable to the audience because of their intensely realistic performances. Shot at Fox after Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) also starring Gaynor, the films bear the hint of Murnau’s influence particularly in their use of expressionist lighting and composition, as well as the beautifully constructed fairy tale versions of Paris, Naples and small time America. At the same time the inclusion of World War I in both 7th Heaven and Lucky Star grounds these films in the lived experience of audiences in the 1920s, telling hopeful stories about men damaged by the war and yet restored by the love of the women they returned home to. In this they are purely Borzage.

The inclusion of Borzage’s The River (1929) as a special feature in volume one rounds off the collection of Borzage’s great silent films. Long believed lost, this film now exists in fragmented form lasting only 55 minutes. The missing material has been replaced with stills and intertitles. Even in fragmented form this film captures the intense longing of its romantic leads, Farrell and Mary Duncan, trapped together in a deserted construction camp for the winter.  Duncan’s world-weary demeanour introduces a more overt sexuality than was ever expressed through Gaynor’s innocent persona as she taps into and intensifies the sensuality that was always the undercurrent of the earlier romances.

The final film in the collection is one of Borzage’s earliest sound features, Liliom (1930). Far more theatrical in style, Liliom is yet another tale of love against the odds and is not the strongest of Borzage’s oeuvre. In this case, Julie (Rose Hobart)’s love for Liliom (Farrell) does not seem as deserved and the film’s final message, that it is ok to beat a woman if you really love her, sits uncomfortably with the film’s romantic tone. The film does, however, showcase Borzage’s eye for composition and lighting and includes a series of stylised fantasy sequences that are quite delightful.

Finally, the DVDs contain a selection of insightful articles about Borzage and the films by Tom Gunning, Janet Bergstom, Paul Willeman and Joe McElhaney. This together with Gunning’s useful, although occasionally overly descriptive, audio-commentary for Lucky Star make these two volumes an invaluable and highly pleasurable introduction to the director and the magic of his films.

Enjoy.

Stacey Abbott

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