Frank Borzage may well be the best film director born in the United States, and I haven’t forgotten John Ford, who was also a master. Borzage, the son of Italian-Swiss immigrants, achieved much in his films that can only be understood as Catholic art, which is why his movies are now mostly unwatched or, when seen, misunderstood. He most certainly saw the world through Catholic eyes whatever the degree of apostasy in his personal life, something that remains obscure. The catch-all label of “cultural Catholic” could be applied to him as well as to many other filmmakers. Luis Bunuel, for example, a Communist and surrealist, once made what I believe he considered a scathing indictment of the Church. Being at heart an old-fashioned Spaniard to the core, and an honest artist with real talent, the resultant film, Nazarin, is now on the Vatican’s short list of highly recommended films. That is cultural Catholicism at its most extreme.
In a Borzage film, scarcely five minutes ever pass, except in several potboilers the studios foisted on him, without some reference being made, at least obliquely, to Catholic doctrine, philosophy, or art. Herve Dumont, in the most complete study of Borzage to date, claims him for the Masons of all people. This is a most extraordinary claim from someone who has actually watched his films. Even if Borzage dabbled in that group at one point, trying to interpret his films in that light makes hash of his work. Dumont is the first to analyze all extant Borzage movies, even his early ones in the mid 1910s as a cowboy actor. He provides a sound guide for interpretation except when he broaches the subject of religion. Then, every time his fingers hit the keyboard, nonsense pops up on his screen. The sacramentalism of Borzage’s films are self-evident to anyone retaining even the faintest memory of Christian teaching. Dumont doesn’t.
Let us take the example of Liliom (1930). This highly stylized production of the Molnar play was later the source material for the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Comparing the two is like comparing Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story. Whatever the musical’s virtues, it ultimately trivializes the original. In Carousel, the return of the dead carnival barker once more to earth for a glimpse of his daughter appears little more than occasion for the bombastic reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The gates of heaven open wide for Billy with rousing sentimentality. Whatever else this may be, Christianity is not part of it.
Even the original Molnar play does not quite take the afterlife seriously. The Fritz Lang film of this material follows the spirit of the original, the heavenly host resembling nothing so much as a Gallic version of the Keystone Kops, these spirits being the predecessors of all the Clarences out to get their wings. Remember It's a Wonderful Life.
Borzage strips the particular judgment of Liliom in the next world of all but a fitting portion of comedy. That which remains affords these scenes something of the feeling, if not exactly the content, of a medieval mystery play--perhaps a little thing the cobblers might have cooked up for the fair. Liliom spends ten years waiting to see his daughter in a place we are made to realize will help cleanse him from his sins. The dialogue emphasizes that this is Purgatory, though not expressly stating the word outright in Protestant, 1930 America. Even though Liliom claims he hasn’t repented, he protests far too much. His pride is not yet washed away. His tone and demonstrated sorrow, however, make clear he desires above all to make things right with heaven and earth.
Sources I have read maintain that even some Catholic countries actually banned the film because of an irreverent depiction of the afterlife. If true, this simply affirms that the Church was woefully tardy in reading films aright; it had, as always, bigger fish to fry. In truth, H.B. Warner, who portrays with gusto the Chief Executive of the Celestial Regions, only three years earlier gave the world the Cecil B. DeMille version of Christ in The King of Kings. The latter film alternates between ubiquitous sentimentality and sensationalism, and was a more fit candidate for an intelligent censor, if that is not an oxymoron.
Almost all the first two-thirds of the movie centers on the love of Julie (Rose Hobart in her best role) for Liliom (Charles Farrell). He appears at first to have no redeeming (if not redeemable) qualities. His conceit is unbearable and he treats women detestably, the surest sign of a cad. One particularly nefarious of his hangers on talks him much too easily into committing armed robbery. When captured he stabs himself and then lingers a short while before dying. Well, at least Farrell doesn’t whine for a change. The man was the classic case of the dashing silent star with a voice unsuitable for the talkies. Borzage was the only director that could tone him down; but we shall soon see why we need to care for Liliom.
Borzage’s world most often centers on lovers, but saying that will probably conjure the old Hollywood conception of love, a false mythology from which any sensible person would flee as he would an open cesspool. In 1930, at least we needn’t fear having our noses rubbed in the rampant concupiscence depicted today with satanic glee. Borzage focuses almost always on love that leads to marriage that further leads to family. This is the cornerstone of his world. In his tragedies, death prevents family, and most of his films are tragic. We come in these movies to a world kin to Romeo and Juliet. The emotional climax of Liliom comes at that moment when his soul meets his ten-year-old daughter. He tries to reach out to her, but she only knows her mother's carefully honed image of the dead carnival barker. The soul of the real Liliom when given the chance is still too much in need of cleansing, which he quickly proves by slapping the child in his frustration because she does not love him instantly. The girl later tells her mother that the tramp’s slap not only did not hurt but felt like love. Although that is in the original play, Molnar's original lacks the added purgatorial meaning of the slap. In the Borzage version, love was Liliom's genuine intention, and he is slowly learning, albeit a bit too late for this valley of tears.
This movie is now readily available for the first time since its initial run as part of a package set, but the individual films can be rented. It is well worth the ninety-two minutes of our time, but I wish to linger over one shot which Borzage holds long enough to force on the viewers’ attention, and which should put to rest any lingering doubts as to whether or not to apply a Catholic reading to his work. When Julie, Liliom's wife, mourns over his dead body of Liliom, she ceremoniously bends forward as if in prayer and in the classic pose of the pieta. The only light in the darkness comes from a single candle flame behind her. What we see next would look like a cinematic blunder to anybody who hasn’t internalized Catholic iconography. The candlelight appears to rest on top of Julie’s head, seemingly to create the identical mistake often made in family snapshots when something behind the subject, usually a tree, appears to sprout comically from the smiling loved one. This can be the source of light amusement at home, but when a meticulous visual artist creates a scene like this, he does it intentionally. Visual artists of integrity may make many blunders, but not this one.
Julie’s pose coupled with the flame resting on her head resemble many paintings of the Virgin Mary at Pentecost. The spiritual element of the stationary flame is actually better here because the medium permits us to see the flame in motion. The Holy Spirit’s decent on the action, represented by the flickering of the candle, while Julie intercedes for him in prayer, remains on-screen for one shot only, but is held for a good fifteen seconds, which is long enough for everyone who is aware of what he is seeing to get the point and to reflect on it. The camera cuts back and forth to parallel action in the story, but Julie for the rest of scene has now moved to a more conventional pose, with the flame now to her right. The efficacy of prayer has taken place quietly. Immediately follows Liliom's sojourn into the afterlife. I have encountered no critic yet who understands completely what transpires in this scene. Heaven has heard Julie’s prayer, through Mary, to God.
This tale of the efficacy of prayer is only one of many masterpieces by this neglected artist. He reached his absolute peak about 1926-1940, securing a number of appropriate projects within the studio system and often turning fair to good material into superior works of art. Perhaps you have seen one of his great films without knowing who directed it. Because he is so little remembered except by people who don’t really understand his religious dimension, a short list of his best films seems appropriate for anyone whose interest has been piqued: Seventh Heaven; Street Angel; Lucky Star, Bad Girl; A Farewell to Arms (1932); No Greater Glory; Little Man, What Now; History Is Made at Night; Big City; Three Comrades; Strange Cargo; The Mortal Storm; The Vanishing Virginian; Moonrise. This list is not exhaustive. To be sure he made lesser movies, especially in his two years at Warner Brothers where he continually received unsuitable assignments; but, despite the occasional dud of a project which no one could have overcome, Frank Borzage is at the apex of American film directors.