Sunday, 6 November 2016

Rapture by Tearlight: The Silent Cinema of Frank Borzage

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)

Recently, I’ve been spending time in the silent film world of Frank Borzage, with its shared sensual spaces, its certainty and sparkle, its bemused and knowing faces, their gazes and rapture, its cinematic fairytales of innocence and experience. The films are those found on the two volumes released under his name from the BFI, the first containing the 1927 and 1928 films Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, while the second has the 1929 film Lucky Star, the early sound film Liliom, from 1930, and the surviving portions of his extraordinary 1929 film, The River, whose erotic directness still catches one off-guard today. Here are some thoughts from my viewing.

Borzage’s characters do not live in a world that recognises the word ‘perhaps’. I think of Seventh Heaven, a film set in Hollywood dream of 1920s Paris, where a sewer dredger can be a man who lives on the seventh floor of an apartment building, from where, through his open window, he can touch the stars. ‘It’s wonderful!’ says Diane, the waif that he rescues from her maddened sister’s grasp, and the room, and indeed the film, is a place of wonder, a Raymond Peynet-like world where a sewer worker’s lunchtime onion is a violet, where love is sustained through sheer willpower, and where the stars can be reached out to and gifted to a lover’s eyes.

Likewise it is a place where we know that, as soon as Chico is out of the frame, the wicked sister will return to take her vengeance – or give Diane a chance to exact hers – and that, in Lucky Star, the vain, boastful, no-good swaggering captain who caused  Tom to lose his legs in wartime will return to nip any growing attachment between Tom and the simple farm girl up the road in the bud, or as before, be the catalyst for the confirmation of their love.

In The River, Charles Farrell’s backwoods boy Allen John is interrupted in his journey downriver by a construction camp for a dam whose workers are breaking camp for the winter. One of the only people left behind is Mary Duncan’s Rosalee, the lover of the boss who has been taken away for murdering a man in a fight. When Allen John says to her that he is going to catch the train, she lays a table for him. ‘Are you expecting somebody?’ he asks when he returns, seeing the place set for two, ‘No-one but you,’ she replies, ‘I knew you’d never make that train.’

Her look, somewhere between amusement, the fixing of prey and a certain weariness that the cycle has recommenced so soon, sees through all his innocent dissimulation about their relationship. ‘Get me some wood,’ she says, and as he walks in the door of the cabin her gaze cuts to the quick of the matter at hand, not whether this man is destined to be her future lover, that much is already apparent, but one that stares right through that knowledge, on into the winter ahead and beyond. For 18 seconds, across two shots, we watch her watching him, firstly as he enters the cabin, wood in arm, and then when he holds it in his hands as she leans provocatively against the sink and he nervously taps his fingers against the logs, discomfited by the directness of her gaze that he might like to imagine is unfathomable, but knows is anything but. She is gauging what she has got, a guileless, wholesome man-boy – ‘6 feet 1 going on 2’ – with a ‘say’ and ‘gee’ prefacing his sentences. ‘Say, I’ve got to make the next train, it’s the last one till spring,’ he says, as she takes him in from her rocking chair in her silk dressing-gown and then sits in the doorway watching him admiring his own woodcutting skill, smiling with the certain knowledge that he will never make the train.

It’s said that Borzage’s background as an actor made him sympathetic to how they would be portrayed on screen, but his skill in picturing them goes beyond this into the realm of making his central characters, male and female, irresistible. They are people into whose dreams you can lose yourself. Before Diane meets Chico in Seventh Heaven she returns to the bare boards of the room where her whip-wielding absinthe-craving sister awaits. On her way she passes a lamplighter, and leaning against the stones of a church, she is shown  held in and transfixed by the warming glow of the newly-lit street lamp. That’s a director whose film you want to be in.

I think too of Rose Hobart, in Liliom, her first film. A strange early talkie set in a minimal, abstract and at times surreal setting, it sees an almost unrecognisable, kinky-haired Charles Farrell play the petulant fairground barker with whom she falls in love, a love that is as incomprehensible to her as it is to anyone else, and yet is unquestioned. It is.

Despite its voices, Liliom looks like a silent, and watched silent its images are as captivating as any of the films in the two volumes. Indeed there are some breath-catching moments, all of which involve Rose Hobart. She offers a beguiling naturalism and her presence is both bewitching and bewitched. Part confident innocent, part prowling huntress, her stern and certain gaze is softened by a bewilderment at her own quiet rapture.

In the minutes Borzage’s camera spends on her face in the cafe, where Liliom has invited her for a drink, it watches her face shift between guileless smiles and nervousness masked by a calm demeanour, to occasional subdued seriousness in which she tries to communicate her love for Liliom to his eyes, and tries to understand it herself too. The scene culminates in Liliom holding her chin and looking into her eyes, the camera shifting so her close-up face is gazing just past us with an inscrutable look. There is a slight quiver of the lips, a slight lift of the eyebrow, an acceptance of the melancholy seriousness of profound fatalistic love – no wonder Liliom is discomfited, knowing only that he has been touched, deeply, but not knowing how to respond other than by drinking from his stein of beer. I’m left thinking how much I would have loved to see Rose Hobart photographed by Man Ray.

After watching the films I came away with image after image of characters’ eyes in my mind – they are central to Borzage’s silent world. When Chico responds to the implacable military call, his last sight of Janet Gaynor’s Diane is in the wedding dress he has bought for her. She has learned to skip across the rooftop walkway as easily as he, and enters in the dress through the window, a relation of Dita Parlo’s Juliette in her wedding dress on the barge in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and stands before him, marionette-like beneath the clock that chimes the hour for Chico’s departure. ‘Let me fill my eyes with you,’ he says. When he eventually returns, from the dead perhaps, blinded and wearing the inward gaze of the shell-shocked, he says the only thing possible: ‘My eyes are still filled with you,’ to which Diane responds, ‘I will be your eyes.’

These films are often filled with a shared sensual space. It’s in Seventh Heaven certainly in the rooftop apartment where Chico gives Diane the gift of solace, the gift of a night to gaze at the stars before sleeping in peace beneath them and waking without fear, and where the morning smells of coffee and a new start. No wonder when Chico can’t bring himself to say baldly, ‘I love you’ to her, he comes up with his own version: ‘Chico – Diane – Heaven,’ he says, ‘Say it again,’ says Diane, ‘Chico – Diane – Heaven,’ he says, ‘Say it again,’ says Diane.

And then there are the times when lovers collapse the space between them, sometimes quite literally, as in Street Angel, when painter Gino whistles to a stilt-walking Angela from the harbour wall, and she falls, as if the recently-charged space between them had to be closed. Later, in their house in Naples, they whistle to each other from their separate rooms, encircling their created space with sound.

I think too of Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan in her cabin in The River. The night is drawing on and they are measuring each other’s relative height, she standing, chest thrust forward, back to his chest, and then, shoes prised off as she slinks across the table before his unnoticing self, standing head to chest as he pulls her head to him and measures her in sexless child's play – except that it is anything but, and when they turn heads together and look at each other's eyes, Allen John realises that his holding of her in a brotherly embrace exactly fits the contours of of a leading man taking a lover into his arms … and his arm goes limp with the realisation and his sureness is replaced by the fidgets. The midnight train comes to his rescue, or rather doesn’t as it’s apparent he is going to miss that one too. For a brief moment the two of them stand in the doorway of her cabin and as he looks upwards at the opportunity he has persuaded himself he needed to take, she is all knowing and amused. For a brief moment of shared space their hands drop to their sides and they look as if they are clasping hands in a cinematic illusion of intimacy.

Something similar happens in Lucky Star, when Mary doesn’t feel she can enter Tim’s house any more, so they share tea at a table set on his doorstep. For a moment, we see them filmed from behind Tim’s back. We see the light outlining Mary’s Tam o’ shanter as they appear to lean into each other, igniting the briefest suspicion that they night be kissing; the impression lasts only a second but it serves to unite them in the sensual space they deserve.

In The River again, when Allen John has returned to Rosalee’s hut in winter, she lights a lamp which throws a threatening shadow of Marsdon’s crow and its cage on the cabin walls, sits and faces him across the bed. ‘You're still thinking of Marsdon,’ says Allen John, ‘I’m thinking of you Allen John,’ says Rosalee; words that may not sound much, but spoken in a snowbound cabin in a deserted construction camp in the middle of a snowy winter imply much and charge the atmosphere.

It’s impossible to watch these silent Borzage films without noticing the sparkle that time and again lights the characters’ eyes. In Seventh Heaven it’s in the tears in Diane’s eyes when Chico asks her to stay with him. By Lucky Star, this sparkle seems to have transferred itself to the objects and elements in the central couple’s lives: it’s in an upper window at the poor widow Tucker’s farm early in the morning when Mary lights a lamp; it’s in the gleam on the insulators on the telegraph pole that Tim climbs early on in the film when he still had the use of his legs; in the shine on his toolbox as he walks the road, on the soundbox of the mended gramophone that Tim gifts to Mary, and in the sparkle of stream water from the pail with which he washes her hair, transforming it from a dull lifeless mat. And it’s in the ending of Street Angel, when Gino confronts Angela beneath his portrait of her, now doctored into an old master’s religious painting. ‘You must believe me Gino, look in my eyes’ she pleads, the sparkle of tearlight marrying them in the only meaningful reconciliation possible.

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