Acclaim is often decreed as much by fashion as by accomplishment. While Frank Borzage spent four decades as a well-paid Hollywood director and was honored with two Oscars, his talent wasn't — and still isn't — fashionable. In his hundred or so features, he routinely elevated or rescued contrived material. Typed as a director of romances and melodramas, he made myriad movies that were phony in concept — but never in their treatment.
Indeed, purity was often his subject, transcendence a running theme. What sometimes looked like "mush stuff" to critics now seems an oft-extraordinary intensity of unforced emotion. "Frank Borzage's Philosophy of Desire," a retrospective starting at the PFA this week, just scratches the surface of a very deep filmography. Its 12 titles can match up against any dozen by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, and Howard Hawks.
Making his unlikely way into showbiz from a working-class Catholic immigrant family in Salt Lake City, the strapping, athletic Borzage entered movies as a popular mid-1910s actor. Disgusted by the poor product of a fledgling company he signed on with, he offered to direct himself, and early two-reel westerns distinguished him as an innovator with sophisticated visual and psychological instincts.
He abruptly jumped to the A-list when chosen to direct the first film version of Fannie Hurst's Humoresque. This tale of a concert violinist rising from New York City's Jewish ghetto was detested as "too realistic" by its own producer (Paramount's Adolph Zukor) but became a surprise smash — winning praise from Russia's Sergei Eisenstein and Europe's surrealists. As Herve Dumont's fine Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic puts it, Borzage's usual narrative centered on "the young couple facing adversity." Using poetical imagery and few words (Borzage admitted to being a de facto silent film director well into the sound era), his genius lay in mixing beauty and pain, happiness and sorrow in profoundly telling sequences he often invented himself.
These near-mystic surges of human yearning found quintessential expression in films he made for Fox during an eight-year stint starting in 1925. That year brought his first masterpiece, Lazybones, which cast cowboy star Buck Jones against type as a country layabout who ends up raising a local girl's abandoned child. There's one scene when the tot is crying because she's teased and shunned as a "bastard," and he comforts her with a self-deprecating lie. The moment is classic Borzage — character stoicism and directorial restraint at a point of crushing sadness — and for anyone who likes an honest cry at the movies, it is almost unbearably good.
Lazybones was not a hit, but the later films (most famously, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel) that Borzage made with newcomers Janet Gaynor (herself the subject of a current PFA program) and Charles Farrell were huge. Later the director found another elfin, fragile, yet morally fibrous favorite femme in Margaret Sullavan, heroine in a trilogy that subtly charted the growing fascism in Germany: 1934's Little Man, What Now?, 1938's Three Comrades, and 1940's The Mortal Storm. These ambitious movies blended comedy, romance, thriller, and drama to unpredictable effect. But no film of the era exemplified Borzage's penchant for unclassifiable projects more than 1937's History Is Made at Night, an exquisite-corpse narrative lent total emotional truth by his handling of Jean Arthur's flight from a demented rich husband into the arms of headwaiter Charles Boyer.
Demands for more focused escapism and propaganda during WWII paired Borzage with inappropriate projects, and the postwar cynicism and penchant for spectacle made him seem even less relevant.