Monday, August 28, 2006

Frank Borzage and the "Classical Hollywood Style"


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The "Classical Hollywood Style" of the 1930s and 40s is often referred to as if it were a monolith. The achievements of Hollywood auteurs from the era, whether Chaplin or Welles, Hawks or Hitchcock, are usually illustrated in terms of their divergence from this so-called "invisible style". Less often discussed are the contributions individual directors (outside of D.W. Griffith) may have made to constructing the style.

The legacy of Frank Borzage, whose films have recently been on view in New York, Berkeley, California and elsewhere this summer, is perhaps an ideal battleground for some of these issues to be wrangled out. Borzage was certainly no "maverick" director like Chaplin or Welles; he earned the first and the fifth Academy Awards for Direction for his Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, respectively. Rather, he was a crucial developer of the ways that talking picture melodramas might resemble and distiguish themselves from their silent film predecessors. He was one of the first successful importers of European movements like expressionism and the Kammerspiel into his films (surely it was no coincidence that for a brief while he shared a studio, Fox, and a leading lady, Janet Gaynor, with F.W. Murnau). A silent-era Borzage film, especially a collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, contains a far more sophisticated interplay between shadow and light than most other Hollywood releases of the era. The result: these films look years ahead of their time.

But it's also interesting to take a look at Borzage flourishes that did not become assimilated into the "Classical Hollywood Style." Take Man's Castle, a beautiful film in spite of an apparant technical crudity even for a film made at the low-budget Columbia of 1933. I say "in spite of", but is it in part because of certain now-crude-seeming characteristics that the film is such a masterpiece? Frederick Lamster, in his 1981 auteurist survey Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity points out that after an early scene in which Spencer Tracy's Bill has just dramatically revealed his shared bond of poverty with the homeless Trina (Loretta Young, who developed a real-life romance with Tracy during filming), the couple are visually separated from the street crowd by a scale-distorting back-projection. The technical effect would be unacceptable by the standards of realism demanded for Hollywood product only a few years later, but the emotional effect of showing the pair all the more isolated from the world around them adds resonance to the film's romatic themes. I also noticed numerous instances in the film of what could be eyeline mismatch, but which also lent a dreamlike outlook to Borzage's starry-eyed characters.

Films like 1937's History is Made at Night and 1940's the Mortal Storm might be examples of the "Classical Hollywood Style" at its pre-war epitome, but the films Borzage made after the war have been characterized as increasingly out-of-step. His 1948 Moonrise, which led to a ten-year absence from feature filmmaking, has been categorized with the films noirs of the time, but it doesn't deal with the hardened criminals and cold-blooded schemers they do, nor does it utilize much of the gritty realism associated with the genre. Instead the film looks like a set-constructed exterior manifestation of the Dane Clark protagonist's increasingly tortured mental state, the bucolic decaying into full-fledged paranoia exhibited through the use of entrapping camera angles and POV-shots. The result seems more at home compared to Night of the Hunter or certain RKO Val Lewton films of the mid-1940s, than lumped in with Hollywood's increasingly "real" noir films of the time.

A wealth of recent web-based writing on Borzage has recently arisen along with the touring retrospective; Reverse Shot and Slant are two of the best places to find it. If you have your own thoughts on this underdiscussed filmmaker, the "Classical Hollywood Style", or the relationship between the two, please add a comment below!