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Tough Love

The romantic fever dreams of an underappreciated master

Love does not conquer all in the films of Frank Borzage, but it is the sole value capable of transcending the indignities of an ugly world. Amid the ravages and enforced separations of war and the hardships of poverty, Borzage's lovers find safety and redemption in each other's arms, a rapturous solace that even death can't kill. Framed in loving close-ups, swathed by soft, flat lighting, they glow with a sensuous, mysterious purity that's not quite of this earth. His melodramas posit love as a secular religion, and many of his films imply a spiritual continuity between this world and the next, allowing the dead to speak in voiceover (in the closing scene of The Mortal Storm, 1940) or appear in double exposure (in Three Comrades, 1938); Borzage's universe also permits returns from the dead (7th Heaven, 1927), angelic visitations (Street Angel, 1928), and godlike transformations (Strange Cargo, 1940).

Borzage (1894–1962) began in movies as an extra for Thomas Ince, and moved on to a series of two-reelers in the '10s, which he both directed and starred in. He eventually shot more than 100 films, working with leading ladies Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullavan, and Janet Gaynor; the latter starred in his wartime romance Lucky Star (1929), a movie long considered lost until its rediscovery by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. With Gaynor in the female lead, Borzage won the first ever directing Oscar for 7th Heaven, about a Parisian sewer worker and a prostitute whose love crosses the boundaries between life and afterlife.

Though Borzage always foregrounds and idealizes romance, his beautiful young protagonists are constantly beset: by tough economic conditions (the depressions of interwar Germany and America are a frequent backdrop), social upheaval, illness, and above all else, war. The celebration of the 1918 armistice is the backdrop for personal tragedy in both 7th Heaven and the Hemingway adaptation A Farewell to Arms (1932), in which nurse Helen Hayes and ambulance driver Gary Cooper are torn apart by World War I. For Borzage's "Weimar trilogy," the struggles of working- class Germans in the '20s and '30s provide the milieu for Little Man, What Now? (1934) and Three Comrades (1938), while in The Mortal Storm (1940), a fusion of melodrama and propaganda with Sullavan and James Stewart, the Nazi rise to power divides a German family along ideological lines. (Incidentally, the Third Reich banned the import of Hollywood movies not long after its release.)

Undimmed: Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Lucky Star
photo: Photofest/Museum of the Moving Image
Undimmed: Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Lucky Star

Borzage worked only sporadically in his later years, and to this day remains underappreciated. But his films' emotional power and visual effulgence remain undimmed—7th Heaven, for one, is bold enough to deliver a bona fide miracle for its finale. And in the sublime Farewell to Arms, feverish melodrama finally builds into visionary delirium, creating one of Borzage's most vivid testaments to love everlasting even unto death.

 
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