I’ve enjoyed all the Frank Borzage movies I’ve seen so far, so this week I watched all three that he released in 1929. Not only in the same year, but according to IMDB they all came out within a two-month period – can that be right? I’ve only seen seven feature-length movies from 1929, so now 43% of them are by Borzage.
Hunky, brave Tim (Charles Farrell, of course) meets a cute girl (Janet Gaynor, of course), then goes off to war in France and gets his legs blown off delivering food to the troops in a crappy horse carriage whilst his old boss at the telephone company takes the proper army truck to meet girls. There is no such thing as subtlety!
Chuck and Big Boy fight atop a telephone pole:
Janet watches, impressed:
Back home, Tim’s boss (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams of a couple Lang and Renoir movies) is passing himself off as a brave sergeant in town and wheelchair-bound Tim is making friends with the dirty, savage young girl (TOO young, as Tim eventually finds out, backing away slowly). But the girl’s parents promise her to Big Boy. Can Tim rise from his wheelchair for the first time since the war and crutch-walk into town (in the snow) in time to stop the marriage and claim the girl as his own, publicly revealing Big Boy to be a war coward along the way? Yes!
Big Boy and Janet’s mom Hedwiga Reicher:
Paul Fix (After the Thin Man, El Dorado, Red River), who sadly never worked with Tom Mix, is a buddy of Tim’s, his only human contact besides the girl. That’s probably him driving by, as Tim leans on a crutch at top of the frame.
Shot as a part-talkie with dialogue and effects, but that version has been lost, leaving behind a silent masterpiece. As silly as the plot can be, I got caught up in the (melo)drama of it all and the glorious visuals. Also loved how the film is sped up to make Tim look more wheelchair-proficient than he actually was.
They Had To See Paris
Good ol’ down-home mechanic Will Rogers (I liked him better as Judge Priest) strikes it rich as an investor in the town oil field. His wife acts just like Effie in Ruggles of Red Gap, packing up the family (unattached older son Rod, and daughter Opal who’s in love with a hometown boy) and heading to Paris to get them all fine clothes and high culture.
Rod with Christiane Yves, probably:
What would a Borzage movie be without beautiful cinematography, fluid camera movements and heartfelt performances? Well, it would be this one. Sound pictures were in their clunky infancy, and even a prestige director like Frank couldn’t make much of a talkie in 1929. No music, but could’ve used some – full of stagey, awkward, staticky silences in the dialogue. It’s also his first comedy that I’ve seen, and I wouldn’t say it exactly had the Lubitsch Touch. But it’s not late-Keaton bad, just disappointing.
Poor Will is saddled with increasingly unlikable wife Irene Rich (Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Champ, Fort Apache), aristo-dating daughter Marguerite Churchill (Dracula’s Daughter) and wannabe-bohemian son Owen Davis Jr. (All Quiet on the Western Front). Will raises some hell, wearing a suit of armor to a party and having a non-genteel, drunken conversation with guest of honor Grand Duke Mikhail (above), but eventually his family has him depressed so he fakes an affair with tedious slut Fifi (below) to horrify his family into returning home.
Unfortunately this wasn’t a career-killer for the grating Fifi D’Orsay. She appeared in They Just Had To Get Married, then in Joanna’s favorite film What a Way to Go. TJHTGM isn’t a sequel to this (though it sounds like one) but apparently They Had To See Paris was enough of a hit to engender follow-ups, first the semi-sequel So This Is London then the full-on sequel Down to Earth, both of which starred Will Rogers and Irene Rich (and Grand Duke Mikhail even returns in Down to Earth). This is some corny flick, and with Borzage (and let’s also blame the writer Owen Davis Sr., young Ross’s dad) unable to hide his cheesy melodrama behind the artifice of title cards and artful silent cinematography, it just sits out stinking.
Another gorgeous Borzage silent about simple-minded youth in love, ho-hum. This one is a different viewing experience because it’s incomplete, reconstructed with stills and titles a la the TCM version of Greed. Something else that’s different: Charles Farrell plays opposite Mary Duncan, not Janet Gaynor. Duncan (also of City Girl, 4 Devils) lived till the 90’s but only acted through ’33, and was obviously better-suited to this part than Gaynor, since the character is not at all the innocent sweet girl.
Farrell, polite and capable but so dumb, builds a riverboat to see the country but stalls at a dam for the winter. There are six more trains into the city where he plans to spend the season, but busying himself with skinny-dipping and wood-chopping, he can’t seem to manage timetables and misses them all. Now it’s just Farrell and somewhat cruel sexpot Duncan. Finally she stabs him and he proposes to her, in that order, but she laughs off the proposal until he almost dies in the cold.
Take it, D. Callahan:
The fragment ends with an extraordinary sequence that stands with Borzage’s best work. Allen John has chopped wood all night in the snow, trying to prove that he’s man enough for Rosalee, and he falls deathly ill. Snow is rubbed all over his bare chest in an effort to break his fever, but his heart stops beating. Desperate, realizing how much she loves him, Rosalee climbs into bed with Allen John and tries to warm him alive with her body. Borzage films their faces in close-up with a religious intensity reminiscent of Dreyer, lingering on Farrell’s beatific eyes as his soul slowly seeps back into them. The communion of bodies here is both a rebirth and a renewal, of Allen John’s life and Rosalee’s hopes.
Just then, Mary Duncan’s old boyfriend, the murderer Marsdon (Alfred Sabato, who directed the first talkie in Italian) escapes from prison to reclaim her from the weakened Farrell, but fortunately hulking deaf-mute Sam (Ivan Linow, of the Unholy Three remake, who has played characters named Rako, Red, twins Loko and Boko, Tossilitis, Slumguillion and Heinie) appears just in time. The closing titles are outrageous:
IMDB mentions lost characters The Miller and Widow Thompson, but the fifth lead of the surviving footage has got to be Marsdon’s pet crow, left behind to watch the girl while he’s imprisoned. I’m always glad to see a bird as a major character.
Mary Duncan with crow: