Borzage’s The River and Strange Cargo

André Bazin once wrote, “Our melodrama in the last century has lost almost all its dramatic integrity and merely survives as a parody.” If that was true in the 1950s (with Sirk and Ray at the height of their powers), it’s definitely true today, when ironic detachment reigns supreme. Outside of contemporary Korean cinema, the best examples of melodrama still hail from classic Hollywood, and few of them shine more brightly than the work of Frank Borzage, whose scant representation on DVD leaves a gaping hole in the medium: Borzage’s best films are full-blooded, convinced and convincing tributes to passionate devotion and transformative love.

Fittingly, a foreign distributor–the exemplary Edition Filmmuseum–is the first to release a Borzage touchstone on DVD: his once-lost masterpiece The River (1929), one of several artistically ambitious films that suffered with Hollywood’s transition to sound (see also Borzage’s Lucky Star and F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils and City Girl). The 2-disc set contains a dense 35-minute film essay by UCLA’s Janet Bergstrom describing the era, Murnau and Borzage at Fox: The Expressionist Heritage, along with some Borzage shorts, and essays by The River‘s reconstructionist, Hervé Dumont. (Warner has also just released another notable Borzage title, 1940’s Strange Cargo, packaged in a boxed tribute to its star, Joan Crawford; more on this in a bit.)

The River is still missing its beginning and ending, and two scenes in between, leaving a running time of 43 of its original 84 minutes, but with archival stills and explanatory intertitles, the entire reconstruction runs 55 minutes. Its setting is a dam construction site “somewhere in the Rocky Mountains” that is temporarily suspended. A young man named Allen John (Charles Farrell) wants to sail his barge down the river to the sea, but the dam has left treacherous, impassable rapids. One day while swimming nude, he narrowly avoids a deadly whirlpool and jumps out of the river, only to come face to face with Rosalee (Mary Duncan), the world weary girlfriend of a construction foreman convicted of murdering a rival. Allen John and Rosalee (whose only companion is a crow–more curse than comfort–given to her by her incarcerated lover) are both stranded, physically and emotionally, and begin a highly charged flirtation that pivots around his naiveté and her teasing sophistication. Eventually, as their relationship intensifies, all parties involved must dramatically come to terms.

Though it would doubtless be ideal to have the entire film as a piece, the negation of its first and last acts–by far its most melodramatic and plot-heavy–only emphasizes the middle act’s exquisitely subtle, interpersonal maneuverings, its dance of attractions and sexual tensions between the protagonists in and around Rosalee’s cabin in the woods. Thus it’s ironic that in Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic Hervé Dumont writes, “Practically all the American press criticized Borzage for overdeveloping the intimate scenes to the detriment of the action…in reality, the strong sensuality of the love scenes shocked puritanical America, so much that The River was banned in several states and by tacit consensus its diffusion was limited.”

The more intimate sections provide a vivid testament to Borzage’s emotional brilliance–especially in his use of space and actor positions that express the characters’ mixture of awkward but desirous feelings as they slowly, over the course of the film, physically unite. In their first encounter, Allen John hides his nakedness by jumping back into the river; later (after missing the train), Rosalee invites him to dinner and they stand nervously on her doorstep; Allen John constantly attempts to provide for her needs by chopping wood or bringing provisions, which she receives with indifference in the hopes of achieving deeper intimacy. Allen John is clearly attracted to Rosalee but appears to have no idea how to act upon it. (When she curiously asks him how many women he has known, he misunderstands and tells her none, given the fact that his mother died when he was a boy.) Rosalee’s frustration builds to the moment when she lies in bed and Allen John tries to set up a checkers game between the; she furiously throws the pieces aside and breathes, “I’m thinking of you” while passionately stroking her breast. Allen John’s inability to respond enflames Rosalle’s aggression, but their relationship ultimately culminates in a tender, life giving embrace. As the critic-filmmaker Jean Mitry once put it: “The game of these two people who desire, seek out and refuse each other instead of acting like everyone else in the most banal melodramas…. Rarely has the psychology of love–sensual, erotic–been rendered so exactly in its troubling, simple, complexity.”

Borzage and Murnau had more in common than industry woes; they also shared actors and personnel at Fox, including cinematographer Ernest Palmer, who at one point was filming The River during the day and Murnau’s 4 Devils at night. Bergstrom contends that the studio head, William Fox, thought Murnau’s The Last Laugh was the greatest film ever made and that Murnau was an artistic genius. The near carte-blanche Fox gave the production of Sunrise included a vision that spread throughout the studio. In her documentary, Bergstrom inserts an aerial photo of the studio backlot with its Rocky Mountain set from The River just around the bend from the city set in Sunrise–both incorporating forced perspective scaling and painted backdrops–a miniature Disneyland of innovative cinema.

Borzage’s elaborate set is a major component of his emotional use of space. The construction camp is a quasi-expressionist string of huts emphasizing the community of workers and contrasting John Allen and Rosalee’s initial isolation. (By way of character introduction, John Allen is standing in his stranded barge calling to the workers onshore, and Rosalee is loitering on the riverbank in frustrated contemplation as the workers stream past.) The huts connect with a rope bridge that spans the river and connects to a series of stairs that connects with the train platform, with more stairs that descend to Rosalee’s cabin. Borzage emphasizes this elaborate network of paths each time characters cross the river, maintaining continuity and tracking their ascents and descents as if they’re trapped in a necessary maze. At heart, the story is about lonely characters who seek release together, and the setting works like an extended metaphor–the river as obstructed destiny, the sea as ultimate freedom, and the deadly whirlpool as the ultimate trap that literally pulls victims into itself, sucking them into the earth, preventing escape and ensuring death.

A title card in Borzage’s Street Angel proclaims its story is about “human souls made great by love and adversity,” a phrase that has been used for at least one book-length study of the filmmaker, and it’s an apt description of so many of his pinnacle achievements that I’ve had the pleasure of watching the past few years: Seventh Heaven, Lucky Star, History is Made at Night (which Andrew Sarris appropriately called “the most romantic title in the history of cinema”), Three Comrades, The Mortal Storm, and Moonrise–none of which have been released on DVD in the US yet. To this list I’d also add the recently released Strange Cargo (starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable), an oddly intense spiritual parable about a group of prisoners who attempt to escape Devil’s Island through the jungle and surrounding ocean; the escapees include a bitter call girl (Crawford), an unrepentant thief (Gable), and various other hardened criminals; all of whom must bond with each other in friendship or in love in order to transcend the perils of nature, and Borzage underlines the spiritual and emotional projects of each character in ways that parallel their physical journeys. The film maintains a visual emphasis on actors’ faces as if peering into their souls. While it’s sometimes criticized for its heavy-handed religious metaphors (one mysterious character is overtly Christlike), it’s a movie that consistently shuns dogmatism (a fundamentalist is just as spiritually lost as anyone else) and wholly embraces personal intuition and compassion. Highly recommended for those who enjoy their melodramas served with trenchant conviction.