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A marvelous touch for romance

Frank Borzage had a way with love stories, and audiences responded. A UCLA film series revisits his work, as well as foreign directors' emulations.

October 26, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Who knows Frank Borzage?

He made so many films that they resist an accurate count, somewhere around 100 in a career that lasted from 1915 to 1959. Once, his pictures were among the most popular ever produced, with his name in gigantic letters above the title. He won two best director Oscars, one of the few who did so for both silent and sound films.

Now, Borzage and his films have become as forgotten as Nineveh and Tyre. Although shelves groan with multiple titles from Ford, Hitchcock and Welles, the best English-language treatment of his work remains a small bilingual film journal published in Italy more than a decade ago. Comprehensive screenings are so rare that "Love Affair: Frank Borzage and His Influence," the UCLA Film and Television Archive series beginning Saturday, has to be considered something of a miracle.

This descent into oblivion is even more remarkable because Borzage was not a specialist in some obscure genre. He was, audiences, fellow filmmakers, even critics agreed, the Rajah of Romance, Hollywood's deftest hand with a love story. "He had the most marvelous touch," is how Ernest Palmer, one of his cinematographers, put it. "Especially when you'd get a boy and girl together."

The results, wrote critic Andrew Sarris, were "privileged moments of extraordinary intimacy and vulnerability." "No director," thundered the distinguished French critic Georges Sadoul, "has shown better than he the intimate warmth of human love in a profoundly united couple." His was a style that foreign directors emulated, as witness the French "Jules and Jim," the Indian "Pyaasa," the Chinese "Street Angel" and the marvelous Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger "I Know Where I'm Going!" -- all part of the UCLA series.

So why is Borzage the man nobody knows? The answer begins with the fact that the intensity of feeling that Borzage was known for is so out of favor that it might best be described today as Xtreme Emotion, romance with all the stops pulled out.

Borzage believed in love as a transcendent, transformative experience, a wrings-you-out sensation so strong it laughs at reality, an emotion so powerful it can -- if necessary -- overcome death. His strength was in showing us moments that go too far and making us cherish him for it. If you like to cry at movies, Borzage will make it happen. If you don't believe in Really Big Love, you probably shouldn't even be in the room.

Yet what is singular about Borzage, what no modern director has been able to duplicate, is the way he combined that characteristic with an almost contradictory quality: the unadorned and overpowering directness he brought to his melodramatic vision. Borzage's scenarios might have been excessive, but the episodes within them were conveyed with unusual naturalness and restraint.

Using an innate, almost steely delicacy, Borzage enabled actors who'd never done it before to open themselves up, to speak from the heart, to be emotional in ways they never knew they had in them. "One can only stare with admiration," summed up Herve Dumont, the reigning Borzage scholar, about the director's classic "7th Heaven," "at the skill with which the director turns this kitsch and improbable tear-jerker into an inspired diadem of purity."

Feats of the silent era

Unfortunately for Borzage's modern reputation, his best, most completely realized work was done in the silent era, a time that truly appreciated emotion and, with its absence of spoken dialogue and reliance on music, knew how to put viewers into the kind of dream state that made them especially receptive to it.

UCLA is showing four of Borzage's silents with either a musical soundtrack or live accompaniment, starting chronologically with 1920's "Humoresque," the director's first hit. The story of a Jewish violinist striving for love and success (remade with John Garfield and Joan Crawford in 1946) was notable for the intensity of its Lower East Side milieu and for being named the best picture of the year by the then-powerful Photoplay Magazine.

The aforementioned "7th Heaven" was Borzage's great success, earning him the first best director Oscar ever awarded as well as statuettes for the screenplay and for 5-foot-tall actress Janet Gaynor, who was catapulted to stardom along with her 6-foot-2 costar, Charles Farrell.

Starting with the unlikely idea of a Parisian sewer worker as a romantic hero, "7th Heaven" capitalized on Gaynor's warmth and presence and Farrell's rough and ready masculinity to create a fantasy romance that managed to include realistic World War I trench warfare sequences and a beyond-words ending that might be the most transcendent of Borzage's career.

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