Murnau, Borzage and Fox

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12/16/2008 3:00 PM |

In which the L’s Cullen Gallagher discusses the DVD event of the season.

This is what I want for Christmas, and you should want it, too. Among the most anticipated DVD releases of the year by cinephiles, Murnau, Borzage and Fox is to be admired for its daring and thorough offering of no less than twelve feature films, two "reconstructions" of lost films, two coffee table-sized books and one documentary, all housed within a ridiculously handsome faux-leather case. One can’t accuse Fox of going only halfway with this release; as with their comprehensive Ford at Fox box set released this time last year, Murnau, Borzage and Fox digs deep into the archives and comes up with a wealth of highly desired films. Truly a monumental release, this box set not only satiates the ravenous appetites of classic film lovers, it also opens up new critical and historical discourses that were, up to now, impossible because of restricted access to prints. Previously, only one of these movies — the apex of silent film artistry, Sunrise (1927) — was ever released on DVD. As for the other eleven, it was up to the cunning viewer to wait for none-too-often theatrical screenings or search out poor quality bootlegs.

While the German auteur F.W. Murnau may get first billing in the title, the real star of the Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set is neglected expressionistic romantic Frank Borzage, who throughout the 1920s and 1930s was one Hollywood’s top directors, striking the much-envied balance of artistic stylization and popular success.

Ten of the features are his, including the silent pictures Lazybones (1925), Seventh Heaven (1928; pictured), Street Angel (1929), and sound works They Had to See Paris (1929), Liliom (1930), Song O’ My Heart (1930), Bad Girl (1931), After Tomorrow (1932) and Young America (1932). Additionally, there’s also a "reconstruction" of the unfortunately lost The River (1929) comprised of stills and about 40 minutes of surviving footage. Marvelous even in its present state, The River makes us appreciate that the rest of the films in the box set are not only intact, but in such good condition.

Arguably the most coveted of Borzage’s films is Seventh Heaven, which won three Academy Awards during the first-ever ceremony (Best Director for Frank Borzage, Best Writing Adaptation for Benjamin Glazer, and a unique Best Actress nod for twenty-one-year-old Janet Gaynor for her roles in Seventh Heaven, as well as Borzage’s Street Angel and Murnau’s Sunrise). Gaynor plays a delicate gutter waif and Charles Farrell her street sweeper savior, and together they take refuge in his seventh story apartment — their "heaven." Surpassing even the majesty of Murnau’s iconic elevator shot in The Last Laugh (1924), Borzage has the camera rise the entire seven stories along with his characters, the weight of the world literally falling behind them as they ascend to a higher plane. From subterranean sewers to joyless streets, Borzage reclaims expressionistic flourishes for his own romantic visions of life — not a nightmare, but a world where love transcends the muck and grime of our everyday existence. Frederick Lamster summed it up best with the title of his insightful study of Borzage: Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity.

Gaynor and Farrell are also the couple at the center of Murnau’s own Sunrise, his eagerly anticipated first American feature. Expectations were akin to Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, in that both filmmakers were already highly touted artists given unprecedented freedom by the studios. And like Welles, Murnau produced a truly remarkable film, one of haunting, everlasting beauty, but that wasn’t exactly the hit with audiences that the studio had hoped for. With studio control becoming increasingly tighter, Murnau’s next project was much smaller in scope: the now-lost Four Devils (1928), here reconstructed by Janet Bergstrom through stills, sketches, and the surviving script. His next and last silent film (and last for Fox) was City Girl (1930). Clearly a transitional work, it eschews Murnau’s iconic shadow-play for a more introspective form of expressionism. The story of a farmer who goes to the big city and brings back a diner waitress as a wife, it is at once a perfect companion piece to, and reversal of, Sunrise: instead of the city corrupting the country boy, it is the city girl who goes to the country and discovers that sexual and moral corruption is already rampant.

The lives and careers of both directors, as well as studio founder William Fox, are explored in John Cork’s insightful documentary Murnau, Borzage, and Fox. Much could be said about the Cork’s skillful handling of the fascinatingly intricate history of Hollywood and its dichotomy of commerce and art — but there’s just too much great stuff in this collection to mention all at once. Suffice to say, more than just a box set, this release is essentially an encyclopedia of film history.

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