DVD of the Week – ‘Murnau, Borzage and Fox’ – December 16, 2008

Murnau, Borzage and Fox actually came out last week, but I didn’t receive a copy in time for that column, so it’s featured this week. And yes, it is a beauty of a set, a labor of love and a gift to all lovers of silent cinema (and, for that matter, anyone who loves great cinema of any and all kinds). The box set features two silent films by F.W. Murnau and ten complete features by the much less well known Frank Borzage, one of cinema’s great romantics and forgotten giant of silent cinema.

At the inaugural Academy Awards in 1927, Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, won for Director and Adapted Screenplay, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise won for Cinematography and “Artistic Quality of Production” (a sort of high-art “Best Picture” award that disappeared the next year), and the two shared Janet Gaynor’s Best Actress award. This confluence of directors, studio and era is essentially the grounding for this year’s answer to “Ford at Fox.”

Mary Duncan and the boys: "City Girl"
Mary Duncan and the boys: "City Girl"

Sunrise is the only film on this set to have been previously available on DVD and it’s been newly remastered for this set. City Girl (1930), the third of Murnau’s three films for Fox, makes its long awaited debut and it’s a beaut. A late silent film made in a period while the studios were rushing to sound, it’s a rural romance between a sincere young man (Charles Farrell) from a Minnesota farm, the harried dreamer of a waitress (Mary Duncan) from Chicago who falls for his sincerity and honesty and accompanies him back to the farm as his wife – much to the displeasure of the man’s father, a hard, severe man as cold as the Minnesota winters. It’s a simple story with moments of unabashed beauty and freedom, as when she runs through the wheat fields of her new home, a burst of innocence and joy from a woman who thinks she’s found her dream come true. Unlike Sunrise, Murnau did not have carte blanche with this film and it was completed in his absence, as he had grown disenchanted with Fox and the American studio system and left to make Tabu in the South Seas.

While Sunrise was a financial failure, it reaped other rewards for Fox. Murnau the studio’s artist in residence and every director came by to watch him work and soak in the expressive qualities of his style and cinematic sensibility. No one benefited more than Frank Borzage, a good director who became great as he found the imagery and approach to match his own romantic impulses. In Seventh Heaven (1927), perhaps not coincidentally featuring Sunrise stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, his style burst forth fully formed and irresistibly passionate. Farrell stars as a Parisian sewer worker gives a home to a destitute street girl and the two fall in love in the seventh floor garret, but before they can marry he leaves to fight in WWI. Borzage tells his story as much through visual metaphor as narrative convention, expressing in images what words cannot. Their daily ‘telepathic’ communication across hundred of miles defies logic, but Borzage makes it believable in the context of his story which takes place largely on the spiritual realm.

This collection finally brings his holy trinity of romantic classics to DVD: Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star. All starring Fox’s eternal young lovers, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, they are among the most lush silent films ever made and the most entrancing celebrations of the redemptive power of love in all of cinema.

In addition, the set features Borzage’s 1925 silent Lazybones, his early Will Rogers sound comedy They Had to See Paris, his adaptation of Liliom (with Charles Farrell again), the musical Song O’ My Heart, After Tomorrow, Young America and Bad Girl (1931), for which Borzage won his second Academy Award as Best Director. The romantic drama, set in the hard times of the depression and roiling with hard boiled facades and the rough life of tenement living, is mistitled: Dorothy (Sally Eillers) is not a bad girl by any stretch of the imagination and, despite what some reviews have stated, she’s not pregnant when she marries Eddie (James Dunn). At least not that either them are aware of. It’s really about the mixed signals and miscommunication that starts to drive them apart, born of his inability to be honest about his feelings and her fear of saying anything that she thinks will drive him away. Silly kids! Love will win out, of course. It’s an odd mix of pre-code snappiness and street smart miliue and Borzage’s soft heart and his conviction makes every miscommunication a knot in the viewers’ stomach.

Read my DVD review here.

Also new this week is the complete HBO mini-series Generation Kill, a grunt’s eye view of the 2002 invasion of Iraq and the first first forty days of fighting, produced and adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns (of The Wire) from the book by journalist Evan Wright.

Lee Tergesen plays Wright in the series but his part is observer and secondary to the men in his assigned unit and the officers up the chain of command. “Marines make due,” is the standard line for a platoon that is constantly under-supplied and overstretched as it lead the recon on the way to Baghdad. If they resemble the classic types from decades of platoon movies – the cool team leader (Alexander Skarsgard), the joker (James Ransone), the idiot (Billy Lush) and such – Simon and company give them an authenticity and an immediacy. These guys are too busy making due with inferior supplies and surviving the confusion of orders and expectations from ill-prepared officers to debate the war, unlike the earlier, short lived Iraq series “Over There.”

It’s the featured review in the TV section of the DVD column.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: Mamma Mia! and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor:

If the Stephen Sommers’ 1999 The Mummy is the Raiders of the Lost Ark of mummy movies, then this Chinese adventure is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with a zombie army, abominable snowmen in the Himalayas, and an undead Jet Li. Brendan Fraser and John Hannah are back and Maria Bello puts on a fitful British accent to take over from Rachel Weisz but the chemistry just isn’t there and director Rob Cohen lacks Sommers’ sense of humor and gift for over-the-top action.

TV: Mr. Bean: The Ultimate Collection (featuring both feature films as well as the complete TV series) and Will Shakespeare:

Tim Curry plays actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare in this rather unfocussed 1984 mini-series came from the shot-on-video days of British television. Writer John Mortimer throws theater, history and speculation into the dramatic mix and comes up with a series of episodes that lurches from period to period, sketching out such legendary characters as playwright Christopher Marlowe (Ian McShane), actor Dick Burbage, Shakespeare’s sponsor the Earl of Southampton, and the mysterious “Dark Lady” of his sonnets

Special Releases: Three Short Films by Werner Herzog and Bottle Rocket:

Wes Anderson’s feature debut, an affectionate shaggy dog story of middle class kids who plan an elaborate heist of a small bookstore with the help of the local “criminal mastermind” (James Caan), also marks the debut of actors Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the film with Anderson) and Luke Wilson.

Blu-ray: It’s the launch of Criterion’s first wave of Blu-ray releases: The Third Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Chungking Express and Bottle Rocket. More on those later. I’m going to spotlight a pair of releases here: Death Proof and Planet Terror:

Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, an offbeat mix of seventies car chase movie, slasher film, and female buddy movie, is Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to low budget drive-in movies. Planet Terror is Robert Rodriguez’s idea of a fantasy drive-in movie: a scruffy, over-the-top zombie action film starring Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer with a machine gun leg. Originally made as short films in the self-contained double-feature, Grindhouse, the directors expanded these B-movie larks for home video and filled the discs with supplements, all of them preserved in these Blu-ray releases.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, except for the next two weeks, when it will go on haitus for the holidays. I, however, will be back here next week to spotlight a few choice Christmas week releases.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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