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Oscar Profile #107: Frank Borzage

Born April 23, 1894, the son of Luigi and Maria Borzaga AKA Borzage, the future actor/producer/director’s name is pronounced Bor-zay-gee (long “a”, hard “g” as in guy) and not Borsage (rhyming with “corsage”) as it is often mispronounced by TV commentators. One of fourteen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood, one of his sisters lived to be over 100.

On screen as an actor from 1912, Borzage acted through 1918 when he turned exclusively to directing, often producing his films as well, returning to acting only once in an un-credited role in 1957’s Jeanne Eagels.

Bozage began his directing career, as he had his acting career, in shorts, but by the 1920s was a major director of feature films including 1925’s Lazybones with Buck Jones and Madge Bellamy. It was 1927’s 7th Heaven, heavily influenced by F.W. Murnau’s direction of Sunrise, however, that began the series of romantic drams that is best remembered for.

Borzage’s follow-up films with his 7th Heaven stars, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Street Angel and Lucky Star were, like that film, out of the public eye for decades but have in recent years re-emerged to open the eyes of younger generations to the glories of exquisitely detailed screen romance, as was his lost 1929 film, The River with Mary Duncan substituting for Gaynor as Farrell’s love interest.

Borzage was Oscar’s first Best Director winner for 7th Heaven and the first two-time Best Director winner with his 1931/32 award for the ironically titled Bad Girl. He was the only multiple winner in this category to have won both awards for films that did not also win Best Picture until George Stevens’ awards for A Place in the Sun and Giant in the 1950s.

Borzage’s 1932 film of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms displeased the author but audiences ate it up. His 1934 film, Little Man, What Now while still very much in his romantic mode was one of the earliest Hollywood films to warn about the encroaching rise of Nazism, as did two subsequent films with that film’s star, Margaret Sullavan, 1938’s Three Comrades and 1940’s The Mortal Storm. Between those films he made the 1937’s lushly romantic film, History Is Made at Night, featuring an ending aboard a luxury liner patterned after the Titanic.

Borzage slowed down in the 1940s, but still managed to direct a number of interesting works including 1943’s all-star cast Stage Door Canteen; that same year’s Deanna Durbin charmer, His Butler’s Sister; the 1944 anti-Nazi drama, Till We Meet Again set in occupied France and 1948’s film noir, Moonrise.

Borzage’s career went on hiatus after Moonrise. Although he directed a few episodes of TV’s Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and 1956 and played a director in 1957’s Jeanne eagels for George Sidney, he did not direct another film until 1958’s China Doll. His last completed film was 1959’s The Big Fisherman which received three Oscar nominations, all of which it lost to William Wyler’s better known biblical epic, Ben-Hur. He began work on 1961’s Journey Beneath the Seas but was too ill to complete the project.

Frank Borzage died of cancer on June 19, 1962 at the age of 68. He was survived by his third wife of six years, Juanita Scott. Previous wives had been vaudevillian Rena Rogers (1916-1941) and Edna Skelton, Red Skelton’s ex-wife (1945-1949).

ESSENTIAL FILMS

7TH HEAVEN (1927)

This first of twelve films in which Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell co-starred owes much of its look to F.W. Murnau’s influence on Borzage who was in awe of Murnau’s direction of Sunrise on the Fox lot as Borzage was preparing to direct this exquisitely romantic drama.

Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar for her performances in three films, Murnau’s Sunrise and two by Borzage, this and the 1928 film, Street Angel also co-starring Farrell.

Whereas the Murnau film is the more visually stunning, Borzage’s films are no mere imitation. The cinematography with those incredible tracking shots and the Oscar winning art direction in this film are masterful. Gaynor’s portrayal of the prostitute saved by the sewer worker is a virtuoso piece of acting, easily the best of her three Oscar winning performances, and Farrell as her savior, protector and ultimately blinded war veteran is almost on her level. This is a work of enduring beauty that should be required viewing for everyone.

LUCKY STAR/THE RIVER (1929)

In Lucky Star, their third film together, and the third directed by Borzage, Farrell actually outshines Gaynor, but she is her radiant self as well as the conflicted farmgirl pursued by both Farrell and the local lout played by Guinn Williams.

Farrell is a telephone lineman in this one who is wounded in World War I and comes home, not blinded this time, but in a wheelchair. The film’s climax would seem hokey were it directed by anyone less accomplished than Borzage and performed by actors with less passion than Farrell and Gaynor bring to it.

An even better film, the erotically charged The River shocked American audiences with its extensive nudity, but was a major success in Europe, especially France. Farrell is the innocent in this one, seduced by woman of the world Mary Duncan. The scene in which she saves his life by covering his shivering naked body with hers is one of the great romantic scenes in screen history.

Sadly only forty minutes of so exist of the original 84 minute film, but it has been reconstructed with stills and title cards for DVD.

Both these films should be required viewing for any serious cineaste.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932)

The first film version of Ernest Hemingway’s novel set in World War I is by far the best even if Hemingway didn’t like it. He thought Borzage’s emphasis on the romance between nurse Helen Hayes and ambulance driver Gary Cooper was laid on too thick, but he liked Cooper’s interpretation of the character that was essentially Hemingway himself.

Hayes and Cooper are excellent as the ill-fated lovers, but Adolphe Menjou steals the film as Cooper’s friend and romantic rival.

As with all of Borzage’s films of the era, the Oscar winning cinematography adds immensely to one’s enjoyment of the film. Try catching it on TCM or another premium cable channel or seek out the George Eastman House restored version on Kino Blu-ray and DVD and do not view it on one of those awful competing public domain releases.

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937)

Charles Boyer had one of his best roles as the charming Parisian who romances divorcee Jean Arthur only to incur the wrath of her ex-husband played by a dissipated Colin Clive in his next to last role. The actor, best known for Frankenstein would be dead of the effects of alcoholism at the age of 37 less three months after the film’s release.

Borzage gets terrific performances from all three stars, especially Boyer. It’s a shame the film isn’t better known, but it is available on-line at HULU.

THE MORTAL STORM (1940)

The third of Borzage’s films about the rise of Nazism is the bluntest and most sorrowful of his three films dealing with the subject.

James Stewart is the idealistic hero whose girl Margaret Sullavan is the daughter of beloved professor Frank Morgan who is carted off and jailed by the Nazis for no apparent reason. Robert Young, Robert Stack and William T. Orr are friends in their circle who are beguiled by the Nazis. Young, playing against type, is an especially vile character. Irene Rich is Sullavan’s mother, Maria Ouspenskaya is Stewart’s mother, Bonita Granville her young charge and Dan Dailey a Nazi youth. They’re all excellent, although Morgan is easily the standout, as is the cinematography.

After seeing the film, Hitler banned all MGM films from being shown in Germany.

FRANK BORZAGE AND OSCAR

  • 7th Heaven (1927/1928) – Oscar - Best Director
  • Bad Girl (1931/1932) – Oscar - Best Director
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