. . . Borzage

. . .

Movie Comment: Meet Me in St. Louis

  1. Probably the only example of Technicolor that's both classically MGM and unironically beautiful. Much more than the chintzy Americana of the script or the schematic performances, it's the impossible combination of impossibly rich and impossibly restrained color that fuels the movie's nostalgia. Vincent Minnelli's crew must've worked like mad to coordinate sets, costumes, lighting, and lab work to such an extent.

  2. I've seen Judy Garland's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" described as an "attempt to comfort her sister." On the contrary, it's very clear that Garland's character is intent on making her sister hysterical with grief, and not at all adverse to getting a little weepy herself. It's a sadomasochistic impulse I remember as pretty common in childhood (telling horror stories that scare the teller, making emotional threats that threaten to isolate the threatener...), but it's not usually depicted with so little editorializing.

    Of course, Minnelli was in no position to criticize. While Garland's fictional character struggled on screen to induce childish hysteria and adult melancholy, he was sweating bullets on the reality of the set toward the same ends.

    Aside from artists of the sentimental, the need for this kind of boundary testing mercifully tapers off in adulthood, only springing out in romantic crises (e.g., "I don't like you -- but I love you"). Which brings me, as I'm brought so often, to thoughts of that master of mature collaborative pain, Frank Borzage... and there is something Christmasy about that ridiculous sublime last shot in Man's Castle....

. . .

Elements of Film Style:
"Critics are inclined to belittle them and call them cheap. But they don't seem to sense the idea that life is made up largely of melodrama. The most grotesque situations rise every day in life.... And yet when these true to life situations are transferred to the screen, they are sometimes laughed down because they are 'melodrama.'

"If this is true then all life is a joke and while some humorists hold to this idea, I am not one those who believe it so."

-- Frank Borzage as quoted by Peter Milne in Motion Picture Directing, 1922
Little Man, What Now?

Those of us who have attended fiction workshops may recognize this as the flip side of the common warning against overly dramatic plot points whose only defense is "But that's how it really happened!" Some such warning is needed, as those of us who have read manuscripts in fiction workshops can testify, but when overapplied leads to the numbly unmoving body of cliché called "literature" by its practitioners and "MFA crap" by everyone else.

And then we end up relying on the unguiltily mendacious genre of the memoir to get our melodrama fix.

Not a pretty sight. Not compared to a Borzage movie, anyway.

Our memories and self-images are formed of stories. And so it's inevitable that we're particularly drawn to the most obviously story-like (i.e., melodramatic) incidents that crop up in our "real life," and that we strive to make the incidents that seem important to us more story-like.

But when we put ourselves to the job of story-telling rather than the job of real life, we're operating in a different context. In real life, it's excitingly unusual for story-like forms to appear. In story-telling, it's expected; you don't get extra credit for producing a story that does nothing but sound like a story -- that's the bare minimum that you promised when entering the fray.

Borzage (along with most of the other narrative artists I love) shows by example that melodrama is not a guarantee of success, to be clung to; nor a guarantee of failure, to be shunned. Melodrama is an added responsibility, to be taken on and dealt with, to be rewarded and punished. Melodrama executed with courage, wit, observation, and beauty will always carry more weight than work that avoids "grotesque situations."

And it'll also always run the risk of being laughed down.

. . .

Last night, poet Owen Hill wondered within earshot whether the current spate of degrade-yourself TV hits would bring on a relapse of popularity for Terry Southern's The Magic Christian. And as if to prove his prescience, here's Episode 3 of Juliet Clark's psychedelic serial:


The Magic Christian (1969)

Chatting with a German friend on the train, I learned that U2ís Bono is co-producing a new adaptation of The Magic Christian. "It will be very Continental in style," my friend said. I suggested that the previews Iíd seen made it look more Borzagean, but then Borzageís films do have sort of a Continental look, donít they?

. . .

Cast a cold eye

A reader writes:

Now let's talk about Gregg Toland

OK, let's. You go first.

Me, I got nothin', except a couple of topics to research. Maybe you can help?

  1. At the height of his career as a cinematographer, having just finished Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, Toland vanished into wartime work for four years. Then he returned to Hollywood and dropped dead, age 44.

    One artifact of his Navy tour is readily available: a peculiar attempt at propaganda with real good explosions. But I'm curious as to what else went on. Toland was a fast worker, an experimenter, and a control freak. What does a guy like that end up doing in the military?

  2. I wonder whether composition-in-depth can be funny.

    Toland had iffy results himself. He worked, uncredited, on Frank Borzage's sublime History Is Made at Night, but that's not exactly a laff riot. While I have a soft spot for both Come and Get It and Ball of Fire, neither click gracefully into place. It's possible that Edward Arnold was getting tired of his broken-hearty shtick; in Ball of Fire, Hawks bears some blame for flubbing the slapstick finale. But there's something more persistently off, some interference with the Hawksian rhythm.

    Even though claustrophobic clutter seems thematically appropriate to the later movie's sequestered scholars, Toland's style just might not meld with Hawks's gift for portraying social engagement. In a Hawks movie, the world's well sacrificed to the pleasure of two or three human beings noticing each other. In Toland's camera, the world stays with us.

    Maybe for a different type of comedy, though? Robert Altman and Jacques Tati are more detached, and use wider canvases. In the right hands (of a madman!) maybe deep-focus could attain Will Elder levels of disorientation?


The Little Foxes is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Gibson Girls

Between his Naval discharge and his heart attack, Toland shot two films of interest to Renfrew Q. Hobblewort:

(1) Here's a man who came back from the wars, even if he fought them in Hollywood, to work with Walt Disney on "Song of the South", itself a cult film yet oft-neglected by filmistas, I think largely because of the whole Uncle Remus thing, arguments over which will permanently color (ahem, maybe a poor choice of words) the expeerience of watching it. But check out some of these frames.

(Toland visible or not in this production shot?)

It's been a while since I've seen the film (with good reason -- see below about distorted reality nightmares), but my recollection is this is the film where live action and animation had to be combined in greatest detail to date. Toland fans ought not neglect this one.

What my memory finds odd about the look of this movie isn't just the juxtaposition between the animated and live action, the black and white and color, but the sense of being in this otherworldly little box of parallel reality -- the sharp focus but limited horizon of the Uncle Remus soundstage. No wonder this movie gave me nightmares as a kid.

Parenthetically, and I don't want to open a digressive can of worms here, has anybody done a good study of Hollywood's process of learning how to photograph people of differing skin tones?

(2) "Best Years of Our Lives" is one of my favorite movies, and I don't think it's just because it's William Wyler. (Wyler, as I recall, lost his hearing while filming 'Memphis Belle', only partially recovered it, and made the sadsack unemployable bombardier the focus of the war-nightmares part of the movie. But I digress.) For all the rep "Best Years" has as an alternatingly sentimental and realistic (for the time) movie, there's a good part of the storytelling done visually.

"Kane" fans ought to all own a copy of this and take a look at it shot by shot. So hard to say how much of the editing and pacing and so forth came from where, but the framing and shots will be recognizable. Check out the ceilings in the scenes at Butch's; the lingering depth of focus on Hoagy Carmichael's fingers, just lingering in the foreground, while everything else goes on in the rear; the anti-Norman Rockwell composition of the scene with the Dana Andrews character coming home to his hell-hole home on the wrong side of (underneath) the tracks. Check out that pan over the drug store when he finds the best job he can get in the modernized place is as a soda-jerk. The from the floor shot of Fred in his hangover bed, where he wakes up not knowing where he is or who the pretty dame who put him to bed is, and compare it to Susan Alexander's suicide bed. Etcetera.

. . .

Consumer Alert

We interrupt this incomprehensibabble for some straightforward advice. If you care about movies and you can get to Berkeley, California, make the trip while the Pacific Film Archive projects an unprecedented selection of films by Frank Borzage: 12 in its official Borzage series, 3 as part of a Janet Gaynor fest.

From what I've seen before, I'm particularly looking forward to Man's Castle (the reason Lars von Trier doesn't impress me), Lazybones (the most mysteriously moving experience I've ever had in a theater), and A Farewell to Arms, whose recent restoration transformed a warhorse into full Borzageosis. Among those I've never had a shot at, I'm especially excited by Little Man What Now? if only because goddamn what a great title for a Borzage picture.

Enraptured cinephiles "invariably" consider Borzage the most unrecognized of great Hollywood auteurs. Despite his unique long-career-long meld of earthiness and transcendence, the situation's unlikely to improve until his best work becomes more widely available. Join us in our privilege.

. . .

Tashlin directs 'It'$ Only Money'

The Road to Son of Paleface, 1

Cartoons are a very stimulating medium.... But it's also a world of enslavement.... You've got to get out of it. We live in fear. How many of my colleagues cling on to their jobs, just like bureaucrats, so that nothing ever changes. They get so caught up in their routine that they lose all desire to break out. You have to live with this fear, because insecurity is part of the life of anyone who devotes himself to comedy.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Robert Benayoun, 1964
I'm always where I'm not.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Mike Barrier, 1971

Frank Tashlin directed cartoons before directing live-action movies.

The same could be said of David Lynch or Tim Burton. And Federico Fellini drew caricatures, and Mitchell Leisen designed costumes, and Frank Borzage was a cowboy....

But Tashlin's switch was less like an art school kid landing a lucrative day job than like Nabokov losing Russian. Over a fifteen year career at Van Buren, Warner Brothers, Disney (he left after being denied credit for "Mickey & the Beanstalk"), Screen Gems (where he perfected the formula later used by Road Runner cartoons), Morey and Sutherland, and Warner Brothers again at the division's energetic peak (or, as Tashlin called it, the "poor man's Ufa"), he pursued new levels of artifactual self-awareness and new techniques of "speed," of "cutting," of "camerawork," of "POV" the quotes to remind us that all this aggressive anti-convention had to be hand-crafted rather than happily accidental while almost always staying funnier than Pudovkin.

If Warner's animation department hadn't been controlled by budget-crazed maroons, would Tashlin had felt compelled to move? If it'd set up extravagant feature-film units and given full credit to creators...?

I can't guess. During his transition from cartoon shorts to live features, Tashlin worked in a thoroughly independent medium picture books and that career matched the pattern of his others: a couple of masterpieces trailing off into dissatisfaction and unfinished never-quite-abandoned projects. It doesn't take much to make a shy 6' 4" 250-pound man feel trapped.

. . .

Lazybones (1925)

This film is the world, really, in an hour and a half, in eighty minutes, it shows us the world. And manages the job without donkey torture.

In most other ways, though, Borzage's titular saint anticipates Bresson's: patient, gentle, a bit obtuse, stubborn, and above all passive. What makes the difference isn't so much the leading man's species as the filmmaker's spirit. For all the catharsis he provides, Borzage is not in the least tragic. His waterworks run at full capacity in happy endings, and even in his unhappiest endings which can be very unhappy suffering's redeemed by a gain so vast that its loss still counts as treasure.

Lazybones, in particular, keeps to the cornball comic mode as closely as it can while circumventing a suicide attempt, casual cruelties, meticulous soul-crushing deceit, and the Great War. At least one writer associates that circuit with 1930s generic mélanges like Borzage's screwball-thriller-disaster-romance History Is Made at Night, but the tone isn't that much darker than the Americana of Will Rogers, or, later, The Strawberry Blonde and Meet Me in St. Louis, even if its final import seems more global.

Lacking the body-and-soul lust that propels Borzage's other transcendences, what power propels this one?

Not the characters or incidents or hoary gags of the script, certainly; types and tableaux wheeled atop and off the stage, they could have been drawn as stick figures, almost, in their unadorned familiarity.

The performers are wonderful, but never this wonderful with any other director. Dithering Zasu Pitts? Cowboy Buck Jones? (But then Borzage himself began as a movie cowboy.) Even the five-year-old engages us.

The conceptual audacity of centering a movie on a good, decent man has something to do it, but Borzage made other conceptually audacious movies kids invent fascism; Jesus harrows a prison break which never fully send us.

What makes Lazybones effective, for those affected by it, is all of the above: the unfussy performances, the drifty protagonist, and the parabolic simplicity they enable. Lacking the prefab Hollywood structure of goal and conflict and resolution, the film marks time by what marks it most forcefully in life: the growth of a child.

Young Agnes
Mature Agnes
... and Agnes
Distraught Ruth
Sick and distraught Ruth
... and Ruth
Mature Mrs. Fanning
Mother Fanning
Old Mrs. Fanning
... and Mother Fanning
Young Steve Tuttle
Veteran Steve Tuttle
... and Steve
Kit in infancy
Kit at five, comforting Uncle Steve
... and Kit

The only parental role accessible by Steve Tuttle is that of peer: a patient, gentle, and slightly obtuse peer.

Kit in her early teens
... and Kit

Understandably, if disturbingly, the pose deceives him more than her. There are reasonable limits to a child's playacting; to an adult's, none.

Kit all growed up
... and Kit

"Rip van Winkle" is mentioned in dialog only as an example of extreme age, but in retrospect the film embodies the sense of the tale itself, in its hero's life-long doze and occasional perplexing rouses, and in an audience who blinks across three decades into the sort of moments we recognize even at the time as memorable, instantly nostalgic or rueful or both. Moments which reduce us to points on a trite plotline. The moments we recognize we'll be left with.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.