Frank Borzage’s best films create a world where romantic love transforms space into a private wonderland, a seemingly frail but indestructible, very feminine bulwark against the threat of organized male brutality, which runs from the difficulty of earning a living to battling the threat of fascism. His people are social outcasts who find a society of their own, couples and comrades who recognize and celebrate the personal idiosyncrasies that make them pariahs to the menacing crowd outside their windows. Borzage’s lovers are pure and innocent, with no cares about bourgeois morality. Before the Production Code set in, his sweethearts didn’t need pieces of paper from the city hall to keep them tied and true—they found all the sustenance they needed in each other’s eyes, in their hands on each other, in the anticipatory promise of their bodies pressed together. You feel that every time they make love is the first time, and the last.
This poet of desire is being celebrated this summer of love with a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image (July 15 - August 20) and with the publication of Herve Dumont’s monumental biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic. The films in the retro will be discussed as they unroll, but the biography deserves special attention for what it reveals about Borzage the man, a dreamy carnal pacifist whose unusual background and experience contributed to his unique work as an artist.
Borzage was born in 1894, the son of Italian-Austrian and Swiss parents (he was not Swedish, as has been previously reported), and his mother Maria gave birth to 14 children, six of whom died early. The Catholic Borzage family lived in Salt Lake City, with its large Morman population. Later on, Borzage joined the Freemasons, a group with mystical leanings that Dumont describes in detail in his book. Times were tough, and he hit the road early as a traveling actor, experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty before joining the motion picture industry in the teens, where he found work as a matinee idol (in early photos, he looks like a cross between two of his favorite leading men, Charles Farrell and Spencer Tracy). Borzage loved his family and supported all of them when he reached success—he also cast them in many of his movies.
Borzage made the transition to director fairly quickly, and was put to work on westerns and society dramas, making a special hit with Fannie Hurst’s Humoresque and two films with Norma Talmadge that highlighted her self-regarding emotionalism (Secrets and The Lady). There are embarrassments in Borzage’s career, and they shouldn’t be overlooked: he directed a shameful anti-Japanese drama for William Randolph Hearst (The Pride of Palomar), and as the studio system hardened into place, Borzage’s freedom was curtailed whenever one of his personal works didn’t make money. In between his masterpieces, he made two films with Will Rogers, two insipid Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler musicals, two MGM musicals with shrieking soprano Kathryn Grayson, and a movie where Ginger Rogers impersonated Dolley Madison (Magnificent Doll). Many of these films are wearisome distractions, and Borzage only occasionally breaks through their studio house-style torpor (notice the fantastical sense of a private sexual harem opening up to an aroused Van Heflin in the opening scenes of his second Grayson film, Seven Sweethearts).
According to Dumont’s book, Borzage was perhaps the most well liked man in all of Hollywood. Every one of his actors raved about the intimate atmosphere he created on his sets, and his magic touch transformed everyone from theater stars like Helen Hayes to movie monsters like Marlene Dietrich. The haughty Josef Von Sternberg claimed that of all film directors Borzage was “most worthy of my admiration.” Borzage’s films are closer to Von Sternberg’s than you would think: Though the men’s outrageousness is inflected in drastically different directions, their obsessive sense of love and fondness for artificial locations is endemic of their rejection of prosaic reality. (Borzage had the chance to shoot Seventh Heaven in Paris, but he opted for a studio recreation, to our everlasting joy.)
Dumont’s book is quite valuable for its descriptions of Borzage’s little-seen early work, but it is probably most interesting in the small dribs and drabs it reveals of the auteur’s heretofore mysterious personal life. Though he is widely celebrated as the screen’s supreme poet of love, no one has ever really asked questions about Borzage’s real-life loves and how they reflect on his work. According to Dumont, who interviewed all surviving family members for his book, Borzage was desperately in love with his first wife, Rena, and suffered greatly as a result.
“Frank did everything to make Rena happy, paid for everything, all her fancies,” remembered two of his sisters, Dolly and Sue. “He spoiled her, he put her on a pedestal.” But Rena didn’t feel the same way he did. “I respect him, but I don’t love him,” she told her sister-in-law. The first Mrs. Borzage “spent money like water,” was often away traveling, had an abortion without telling Borzage (who loved children) and started to take on lovers of both sexes. Borzage was forced to find consolation with some of his actresses, but he continued to love his wife. In 1940, on the day of their 24th wedding anniversary, Borzage finally got up and left Rena after she toasted a man he didn’t like, a gay male friend (an affront to Borzage, who made a religion of heterosexual contrast, with his tall men and tiny women). There followed a grim period where Borzage took to the bottle, and his career suffered. He married a second time, briefly, then found some happiness with his third wife.
Dumont is too discreet to extrapolate any ideas on how this romantic ordeal reflected onto Borzage’s films. But now it seems obvious why Borzage created what he did: unsatisfied by the woman he loved for so many years, Borzage funneled his gentle romantic feelings into his films. His men, many of whom look like him, are confident and pretty, but always impaired in some way, fake-tough or childlike. (“Erich is a baby,” Margaret Sullavan says, lovingly, of Robert Taylor in Three Comrades.) His women are small and will o’ the wisp but emotionally resilient, believing unreservedly in the power of two people against the world.
The Borzage woman is an idealization of what he wanted his first wife to be. Rena let him down, so he made alternate Rena’s in Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, big-eyed waifs with limitless reserves of toughness. Borzage never got over the charge of this contrast, and he never got over Rena. He is as abstract a fantasist of romance as Jacques Demy, who he surpasses through the sheer duration of his obsession. Borzage knows some of the special agonies of love, but he doesn’t fully admit them, which makes him a lesser artist than, say, Max Ophüls or Von Sternberg. But if its full-out soft-focus erotic paradise you want, Borzage is your man. Go ahead, indulge.
In closing, there are several worthy Borzage films that are not included in AMMI’s retro, especially his version of Liliom with Charles Farrell, Living on Velvet, with its classic “Love At First Sight” scene between Kay Francis and George Brent, Stranded and Big City, which detail the social and political upheavals of the 1930s with rare grace and sensitivity to ethnic differences, and Mannequin, a Joan Crawford film where the proletarian heroine’s opening walk up the stairs of her ugly tenement reverses the logic of 7th Heaven’s idyll: sometimes there are staircases to hell as well as heaven. Most importantly, the retro is missing a movie that might be Borzage’s masterpiece, No Greater Glory (though it was screened by Moving Image earlier this
year), a stunning portrayal of man’s instinctive war instinct as expressed through the gang warfare of children. This barely known film has extremely uncomfortable insights into the most misguided concepts of honor and the chilly corruption of twisted childlike innocence. It’s a film that sees no end to war, but, in its closing sequence of a grieving mother and her senselessly dead child, it is a potent plea for peace. Hope is for dreamers! Borzage sees everything that is awful about human beings, and he acknowledges life’s horrors by keeping them scrupulously off-stage. Here’s peace, he says, and love…here’s film. Dan Callahan