The work of Frank Borzage — more than 100 films in forty years — is one of the best kept secrets of the American cinema. The director himself, in the words of critic Andrew Sarris, remains an elusive figure in film history. A contemporary of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, King Vidor, and Frank Capra, working during the peak of the Hollywood studio system, Borzage’s fame was second to none in the ’20s and ’30s. The expression “the Borzage touch” immediately evoked a lyrical, romantic style that remains without parallel to this day.
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So why is the director of classics such as Seventh Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Till We Meet Again (1944) so little known outside the circle of die-hard fans and film scholars? One reason: When the revaluation of American cinema was begun by the young postwar French film critics of the Auteur theory, Borzage’s work was fairly unknown in Europe. The new generation was too young to have seen the silent masterpieces, and World War II had impeded the arrival of American releases to European shores. Also, Borzage’s romantic comedies and dramas slipped under the radar of sensibilities mesmerized by vintage American genres such as the Western, the musical, and film noir. The omission was subsequently corrected by European and American critics, and the director entered the pantheon of Hollywood filmmakers who shaped a highly collaborative form of popular entertainment into an artistic endeavor.
Borzage’s works are often difficult to obtain, another explanation for his obscurity. Even though all of his sound films have survived, it is a challenge to gather a substantial number of titles for an overall study. Occasionally, cable channels — especially American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies — show Borzage films. There are sometimes retrospectives, organized by archives and film clubs. This author’s search for the works of Borzage — the clues to his “Rosebud” — is the stuff of detective stories. I have been able to review more than forty films, including six from the silent era that cemented his fame as a great screen romanticist.
The fourth of fourteen children, Frank Borzage — originally Borzaga — was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 24, 1894, into a close-knit immigrant family of Italian, Swiss, German, and Austrian descent. A Catholic clan in Mormon territory, before the days of statehood, the Borzages lost several children to influenza and struggled to make a living under harsh conditions. Many Borzage films would later vividly reflect these early experiences, mainly the anguish and uncertainty caused by poverty, and the spiritual wealth brought by love, family life, and solidarity.
In 1913, with some acting experience in traveling theater groups, Borzage joined Hollywood’s fledgling film industry. After a stint as a lead actor, Borzage became a sought-after director with the critical and popular success of the sentimental drama Humoresque (1920), about a gifted violinist born into an immigrant Jewish family in New York. His masterful direction of 7th Heaven (1927) made this intense romantic drama about Parisian lovers separated by World War I one of the masterpieces of the silent era. It also established Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as the quintessential romantic couple of their time. The director paired them again in Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929), delicate romances about the power of love to transcend the harshness of life.
Working for the major Hollywood studios of the ’30s, including Paramount, Warner Bros., and MGM, Borzage directed films that were not only popular successes but also reflected, from a personal and intensely visual perspective, the moral and political issues of his time. Most notable were the portrayals of Depression-era little people struggling to keep marriages and families from disintegration, like Bad Girl (1931), After Tomorrow (1932), and Man’s Castle (1933); the intellectual and spiritual crisis of pre-World War II Germany, captured in Little Man, What Now?, Three Comrades, and The Mortal Storm; and the folly of war, in the allegorical After Tomorrow (1932) and Farewell to Arms, a remarkable twist on Hemingway’s autobiographical novel. Other relevant works of the late ’30s show Borzage’s affinity for strong, cynical characters who undergo a radical spiritual transformation, like the protagonists of Green Light (1937), The Shining Hour (1938), Disputed Passage (1939), and Strange Cargo (1940), all films with overtly religious tones. Alongside the entertaining romantic, musical, and period comedies of the ’40s, such as Smilin’ Through (1942), The Vanishing Virginian (1942), Seven Sweethearts (1942), His Butler’s Sister (1943), the pirate adventure The Spanish Main (1945), and the Broadway stage contribution to the war effort Stage Door Canteen (1943), two notable films stand out: the war drama Till We Meet Again, set in France during the Nazi occupation, and the psychological crime drama Moonrise (1948), about a young man responsible for a murder who redeems himself through the love of a woman. Absent from the screen for ten years, Borzage returned with two final films, China Doll (1958), a love story set in China during World War II, and the biblical epic The Big Fisherman (1959), about St. Peter’s transformation from Simon of Galilee to a fisherman of souls.
The films of Borzage are rooted in a vision of man and love that is distinctively Catholic. The first critics to note a consistent pattern of redemption and transcendence through love were Henri Agel and Michael Henry; both wrote from a Catholic perspective. In Henry’s words, Borzage is the Fra Angelico of melodrama, an eloquent metaphor that captures the essence of his work. The Swiss film scholar Hervé Dumont, who has written the definitive biography on Borzage, Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, notes that the filmmaker was singularly private about his religious beliefs. As was the case with many other Catholic directors — Ford, Hitchcock, Coppola, and Wenders — their Catholic vision is embedded in their films. The cinema of Borzage clearly translates the values of the Gospel, notably those of the Sermon of the Mount. When the work is viewed in its entirety over a short period of time, this becomes even more clear. Simply stated, Borzage’s main theme is the power of love to transform those who love. Love is a healing and redemptive force that propels the lovers and those who surround them into a transcendental dimension, a spiritual realm beyond death, time, and space. The quintessential Borzagean narrative involves a couple braving the storms of life — mainly poverty and war, but also intolerance and selfishness — to find, through their love and suffering, a safe port. The opening intertitle of Street Angel summarizes the defining theme of Borzage’s whole work: “Everywhere . . . in every town . . . in every street . . . we pass, unknowing, human souls made great through love and adversity.”
Initially, the treatment of romantic love seems traditional, following generic Hollywood conventions. However, the understanding of how love shapes the dynamic of a couple follows a uniquely Borzagean route. In his films, love is a process that starts as eros, a sensual attraction, and becomes, through redemptive suffering, agape, the selfless care and concern for the well-being of the loved one and others. In the most overtly religious films, like Green Light and Disputed Passage (two pictures where agnostic doctors become believers), Strange Cargo (a Christian parable in the guise of an adventure film), Till We Meet Again (a fearful religious woman accepts the designs of providence to enter a hostile world), and The Big Fisherman, the love of the couple becomes a subtly stated analogy of God’s deep love and joy for his creation. “God is everywhere,” Ray Milland, an American pilot hiding from the Germans, tells the French novice who saves him in Till We Meet Again.
By means of delicate visual ellipses, the sexual union is accomplished at an early stage of the relationship and seals the formation of the couple. What begins as eros — a physical longing that is soon fulfilled — begins a process of spiritual growth through which the two become one flesh and soul. Quintessential Borzage films like 7th Heaven, Man’s Castle, and China Doll show the process by which a fiercely independent — but incomplete — man slowly enters into the realm of domesticity inhabited by the woman, who “makes an empty house into a home, a home into a haven,” in the words of Ray Milland. A shy Janet Gaynor turns a shabby Montmartre attic into a domestic paradise in Seventh Heaven. In Man’s Castle, Spencer Tracy is torn between the pull to abandon a pregnant Loretta Young or stay and thus relinquish his cherished freedom. The dilemma is laid out visually: the beckoning whistle of passing trains versus the stove he has bought to be paid in installments. In China Doll, the blasé war pilot Victor Mature learns to enjoy the home his “temporary” Chinese wife has made of the shack assigned to him.
The passage from eros to agape is marked by a simple but solemn ritual of marriage, where the spirit of the sacrament is fulfilled. Catholic priests — sympathetic characters who understand the unusual circumstances surrounding the couples — bless the hasty weddings of soldiers called to the war front in Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, and China Doll. Priest-like mediators provide the spiritual atmosphere where couples in danger can exchange vows. The preacher in Man’s Castle performs a moving ceremony, remarking that although they are not in a church, in the eyes of God, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young are husband and wife. Man’s Castle contains meaningful religious epiphanies: Tracy reads from the “Song of Songs,” and the preacher cites 1 Corinthians 1:26. The mother in Mortal Storm blesses the cup of wine exchanged by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan before fleeing from a Nazi patrol. In Three Comrades Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor exchange vows among friends in the restaurant where they courted.
The sting of death has no power over couples made one by love and suffering; the dead enter a spiritual realm and watch over the living. Like John Ford’s films, the dead and the living are part of a mystical body, held together by love. (Also, the director shares with the Irish-American filmmaker a sacramental sense of reality — in Ford the landscape, in Borzage the human face.) Some of the most memorable moments in Borzage are the intensely spiritual farewells, foreshadowing death: Helen Hayes at her deathbed in A Farewell to Arms, as “Death and Tranfiguration” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde plays in the background; Frank Morgan, as the German Jewish professor talking to his wife in a concentration camp for the last time in The Mortal Storm; Margaret Sullavan dying in Jimmy Stewart’s arms in the same film, and sacrificing herself for her husband and friend in Three Comrades.
Borzage also excelled in capturing the lighter side of romantic love. In many comedies, he delights the audience by showing the very instant love is born, be it by Cupid’s arrow at first sight, or the tender moment when reciprocated feelings are confessed. The scenes are always staged in a similar manner: camera, lighting, and music create a private space for the man and woman caught in an intense romantic spell. Kay Francis and George Brent are magnetically attracted to one another in a crowded room in Living on Velvet (1935); Spencer Tracy, a street-smart New York cab driver, courts on a busy sidewalk a flustered Romanian immigrant played by Luise Rainer in Big City (1937); under the Spanish moon, a sophisticated Marlene Dietrich falls for the bashful Gary Cooper in Desire (1936); a Spanish redheaded señorita (Maureen O’Hara) is swept away — and wed — by a daring Dutch pirate (Paul Henreid) in The Spanish Main.
However, in Borzage’s universe, the trajectory from eros to agape — the transformation of selfishness into selflessness — is not confined to romantic love. In those films infused with a notable religious sensibility, agape coincides with a Christian understanding of the relationship between man and his neighbor as a reflection of God’s love for his creation. The rational doctors of Green Light and Disputed Passage realize in an epiphany that they can reside in the human family only if they sacrifice themselves for the good of others. Risking death, Errol Flynn tests on himself a vaccine for a deadly disease, and John Howard behaves heroically during a Japanese bombing. Both films were based on best-selling novels by the Lutheran pastor Lloyd C. Douglas that examined the relationship between men of science and faith. The redemptive value of sacrifice is at the core of the beautiful romantic drama The Shining Hour, where the goodness and immolation of Margaret Sullavan heals a whole family, transforms a cynical lady played by Joan Crawford, and saves two marriages.
In so many of Borzage’s films, spiritual growth is achieved through physical loss. The director renders in visual terms the paradox at the heart of the Gospel: The grain of wheat must die in order to give fruit. Even though the Gospel message is never explicitly alluded to, film after film show that love overcomes the havoc wrought by selfishness, poverty, and war. In the Borzagean universe evil is a force that causes moral degradation, such as in A Farewell to Arms and No Greater Glory, the remarkable anti-Nazi trilogy, Little Man, What Now?, Three Comrades, and The Mortal Storm, and the religious-romantic drama of French resistance, Till We Meet Again, released after D-Day in August 1944. They are not only topical political denunciations, like many Hollywood films made as part of the war effort, but timeless explorations of what dehumanizing behavior, violence, legalized brutality — in sum, spiritual chaos — can do to the human soul. In some instances, the only heroic response is martyrdom, beautifully embodied by the young novice in Till We Meet Again, who learned of love and evil by risking her life.
Strange Cargo is perhaps the film that best shows the individual and communal implications of eros transformed into agape. It is a Gospel narrative — the redemption of assorted sinners, including the repentant prostitute as in Street Angel — told as a romantic adventure with glamorous Hollywood stars dressed in rags throughout the film. In an isolated penal colony, Cambreau (Ian Hunter), an enigmatic man who emerges from nowhere, leads a group of prisoners to freedom through the jungle. Only tough guy Verne (Clark Gable) and Julie (Joan Crawford), a hardened prostitute in search of better horizons, survive the perils of the journey and fall in love. The rest of the criminals die at peace with themselves, having reached redemption through the serene example and words of Cambreau. After the mysterious Cambreau dies and is resurrected in a climactic sea storm, and later disappears, Verne decides to return to the colony and pay his debt to society while Julie waits for him. The trajectory of eros to agape has been completed. The Christian allusions build the metaphorical layer of this pilgrim’s progress. Cambreau is Christ, though the name is never mentioned; he gives Gable a map with the escape route drawn on a Bible; Gable courts Crawford with the “Song of Songs,” a moving moment that triggers her conversion. Strange Cargo — certainly an unusual film for its time, with its mix of sensuality and spirituality — was condemned by the Legion of Decency, the Catholic watchdog group founded in 1934 to ensure the enforcement of Hollywood’s self-censorship code. The controversy is recounted in the well-researched book by Frank Walsh, Sin and Censorship (1996). The Legion deemed offensive the portrayal of the Christ-like figure and irreverent the use of the Scripture. Time has shown the Legion was woefully shortsighted in its judgment of one of the most Catholic films made in Hollywood.
The conflict with the Legion of Decency encapsulates the difficulty of understanding Borzage as a filmmaker with a Catholic view of the human experience. Borzage-the-man did not speak publicly about his religious beliefs, but Borzage-the-artist believed — and his work shows — that the spirit matters more than the letter of the law. The experience of beauty — generally through music — performs a radical transformation, as delicately summarized in the television play The Day I Met Caruso (1956), where a little Quaker girl’s austere view of joy is changed forever. (Like Babette’s Feast, this work contrasts Catholic and Protestant sensibilities.) Goodness, beauty, and truth — attributes of God — move a person, a couple, a family, and a community to transcend the limits imposed by a flawed human condition, become whole, and thus fulfill their humaneness. In his stories of conversion through love, there flows a predilection for the little people, for the weak, the wounded, the innocent, the children, for all God’s creatures blessed by Christ in the Sermon of the Mount. It was not by chance that Borzage’s last film was The Big Fisherman, and its climax that very passage of the Gospel. The director, an unprepossessing man, once remarked that the stories that most attracted him were the simple dramas of ordinary people, and that Hollywood had the moral obligation “to embody in the fundamentals of entertainment a point of view designed to enlighten as well as entertain.” In his films about love, beauty, suffering, and sacrifice Borzage translated the beatitudes of the Gospel to the Hollywood screen.
This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.