Inevitably, the UCLA Film Archive's retrospective to Frank Borzage is subtitled "American Romantic." He won the very first Oscar for best direction for "Seventh Heaven" (1927), which remains his most famous film--and is synonymous with screen romance. From the beginning of his career in the teens, at which time he acted as well as directed, Borzage was preoccupied with the transforming power of love.
In the years since his death in 1962--his final film was the biblical epic "The Big Fisherman" (1959)--Borzage's reputation has only grown. Along with such better-known Borzage films as "A Farewell to Arms" (1932), "History Is Made at Night" (1937) and "Three Comrades" (1938), UCLA will be presenting, in its 28-film retrospective, such silent rarities as "Pitch O' Chance" (1915) and "The Gun Woman" (1917). These two films, which along with "Seventh Heaven" make up the first program in the series, screen Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in UCLA Melnitz.
Even though both the two earlier films are Westerns, they are above all love stories. The lighthearted "Pitch O' Chance," which may be Borzage's first film as a director, is barely 20 minutes and has to do with two frontier suitors--one of whom is played by the clean-cut 22-year-old Borzage himself--who end up happily with each other's girl. Produced by director Allan Dwan, "The Gun Woman," a two-reeler, is remarkably subtle and understated for its period. Texas Guinan, soon to become New York's brassy queen of the speak-easies, plays a tough dance hall proprietress who unexpectedly falls hard for a handsome bandit (Darrell Foss). The film is far more complex than one would expect, and Guinan is quite a skilled actress, revealing a surprising tenderness and vulnerability.
A tale of spiritual redemption through love, "Seventh Heaven" has an emotional extravagance no longer possible to get away with on the screen. Nonetheless, it is still potent, thanks largely to Borzage's assured style and utter sincerity, and it attests to the magical visual power of the black-and-white silent cinema. Janet Gaynor's Diane is a Parisian waif rescued by handsome Charles Farrell's Chico--only to have World War I intervene.
Otar Iosseliani's deliciously funny, highly original and warmly beautiful "Favorites of the Moon," the Venice Film Festival Grand Jury prize winner in 1984, seems dedicated to the proposition that there really are only 500 people in the world, since the lives of his Parisians keep intersecting--even though they scarcely, if ever, are aware of it. It screens at the Nuart on Wednesday and Thursday.
Iosseliani's distinguished co-writer, Gerard Brach, says their film "is about time, life passing by. We follow the trajectory of objects through time and become aware that for them, as for ourselves, time is passing inexorably, and all of us, rich or poor, weak or strong, are wasting our lives away."
The objects Brach refers to are a 200-year-old Sevres dinner service--the film opens with the dropping of a plate and flashes back to its painstaking manufacture--that serves as a loose link to the vignettes, as does a 19th-Century painting of a nude that decreases in size as it keeps getting cut out of one frame after another by thieves.
As has been noted by others, the influence of Clair and Tati is evident in the work of Iosseliani, a Soviet Georgian working in France under special dispensation from the Soviet Union. Don't be surprised if you become so caught up in "Favorites of the Moon" you're scarcely aware that it's virtually without dialogue. Phone: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.
Imagine the Marx Brothers turned loose on MGM, and you get a rough idea what the Crazy Gang's "O-Kay for Sound" (1937) is like when the gang's six knockabout comedians are cast as extras mistaken for a shaky British film studio's new backers. Screening Saturday in UCLA Melnitz at 7:30 p.m. as part of "The Music Hall Tradition: British Musicals and Comedies" it has hilarious puns and is lots of fun; the studio's head is affectionately presented as a malapropping, Yiddish-accented schlockmeister (Fred Duprez)--something that L.B. Mayer et al. would never have permitted. For complete Melnitz schedules: (213) 825-9261, 825-2581.