Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 depression-era drama as Jack Doray, a hardware store owner with the wise-guy manner of a mug and the high-society lifestyle of an industry magnate, but Young America is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon). Art is a hard-luck saint among the kids of neighborhood, a good boy with bad judgment, and Conlon, a child actor in his first major role, plays him with the spunky spark of a well-meaning kid with a quick temper, a can-do attitude, and a weakness for taking unattended cars on impromptu joy rides.
Based on a play by John Frederick Ballard, Young America is a script built on clichés and contrivances to give us a kid whose generosity of spirit and loyalty to defenseless friends, notably skinny little creative genius Nutty Beamish (Raymond Borzage, no relation to the director), constantly lands him in trouble. “This boy has the reputation of being the worst boy in town,” says the old Irish cop of his neighborhood to juvenile court Judge Blake (Ralph Bellamy), one of those paternal authority figures who mixes compassion with tough love. Art gets his compassion, but it only gets him so far when his latest “good deed” gets him arrested for robbing Jack Doray’s pharmacy (to get medicine for Nutty’s sweet but frail grandmother, of course).
Frank Borzage makes good use of Tracy, who was a busy actor for the Fox Film Corporation in the early 1930s but not yet a major movie star. His Jack is both a street-smart businessman and an arrogant high-society gent whose time is too valuable to waste on a minor legal manner that drags him into juvenile court.
“History Is Made at Night is not only the most romantic title in the history of cinema but also a profound expression of [Frank] Borzage’s commitment to love over probability.” – Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
Frank Borzage was arguably the most unabashedly romantic director of his time. His late silent “trilogy” — Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929) — is the holy trinity of “love conquers all”: stories of star-crossed lovers whose unconditional love transcends mortal boundaries. His 1932 screen version of A Farewell to Arms was despised by author Ernest Hemingway, yet for all of Hollywood’s sanitizing of Hemingway’s earthy characters, Borzage gave us a frank romance between sexually sophisticated and romantically committed adults. No other director presents love — that is, the unequivocal emotional commitment between two adults — as such a spiritually pure act or powerful emotional force.
History Is Made at Night (1937) is one of Borzage’s masterpieces of romantic triumph through unconditional love. Produced by Walter Wanger, an independent operator in Hollywood, without the budgets or resources that an MGM or Paramount might have brought to the film, it relies on the strength of its stars: continental actor Charles Boyer, the “French lover” of Hollywood romances, and all-American Jean Arthur, best known as a spunky, street-smart gal Friday and deft screwball actress in such films as The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town(1936).
The film depicts a chance meeting between Paul Dumond (Boyer), “the greatest headwaiter in Europe,” and society figure Irene Vail (Arthur), a forthright, independent woman, trying to escape a pathologically jealous husband (played with manic intensity by Colin Clive); their encounter blossoms into true love and looks forward to Love Affair, the beloved romantic drama that Boyer made with Irene Dunne and director Leo McCarey in 1939, but without the elegance of the latter film’s script. Their first meeting — in a Paris apartment, where Irene is saved from a devious plot by Paul’s impulsive chivalry and quick thinking — plays out like a crime thriller with a screwball twist but eases into a delicately-played romance. History Is Made at Night relies on contrived plotting and an obsessive madman of a villain to throw obstacles in the way of its star-crossed couple, the savvy and chivalrous maitre d’ and small-town girl turned high society prisoner. Yet the grace of Borzage’s direction and the emotional conviction and palpable devotion of its two stars makes this romance glow with the fires of true love.
Gary Cooper is the young ambulance in WWI and Helen Hayes a British nurse in the 1932 A Farewell to Arms (Kino), the first film based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel and still the most sophisticated. Made in the era before enforcement of the production code, the film, directed by Frank Borzage, offers a far more adult portrait of the love affair on the battlefield than the 1957 version.
Coop is almost impossibly young and beautiful as the stalwart soldier resigned to the grind of war and Helen Hayes practically glows as Catherine, an angel of a nurse who is nonetheless down to earth when it comes to sex. Frank Borzage’s romanticism would seem a poor match for Hemingway’s stoicism but he elevates their love to a holy purity even as it takes place outside the official bounds of the church and social acceptance. A priest performs a benediction over their union, which in this film passes for marriage; the Catholic League wasn’t fooled and condemned the film. Hemingway didn’t much like it much, either, but Borzage’s vision just looks better with time. It’s gorgeous (it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography), even as the choppiness suggests a rather violent treatment by the studio. But my, it glows.
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.”
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.