Saturday, December 11, 2010

No Greater Glory; Or, Is Subtlety Necessary?

Last week Tom Shone asked when uplift became a quality reserved for children’s movies, and wearily observed, “We toast the misanthrope. We ask for morbidity's autograph.” James Wolcott issued a hearty second, and the Siren votes in favor of the motion.

Today, however, she has a different, but perhaps related query: Is subtlety necessary? We don’t seem to require it when the plot slams into ways in which we humans are, frankly, a bunch of slobs. But when the subject is the yearning for love, home and friendship, or the virtues of peace over war, suddenly modern audiences are all about a lighter touch--unless, as Tom also notes, we have a bit of distance lent by CGI animation. Wanna show the beast within? Hit me with your best shot, baby. (As the very first commenter on Richard Brody’s 25 Best of the Year puts it, “What’s wrong with unpleasant?”) But dial up the emotion on the love scenes, and some--not the Siren’s distinguished company in comments, but some--are going to squirm, especially if you’re unlucky enough to be in a snickering moviehouse audience, as the Siren has been on a couple of occasions she’s complained about too much already.

This meditation is inspired by the Siren’s second viewing of No Greater Glory, the 1934 Frank Borzage masterpiece that she urges you once again, in a most unsubtle way, to just click over and buy, please. Themes are spelled out in line after line, big moments are brandished like the flag the young characters fight over, the sentiment and melancholy are grand and conspicuous. The film is not subtle, and that’s why it’s great.

In an Eastern European city just after World War I, a gang calling itself the Paul Street Boys is fighting a rival group for control of a lumberyard that serves as their sole playground. The Paul Street Boys are just that, no more than ten or eleven years old. Their enemies, the Red Shirts, are maybe three or four years older, larger and tougher as well. At first young Nemecsek (George Breakston) seems the weakest of the Paul Street Boys, but the film gradually shows that he is, as Lawrence Quirk put it, “the one pure spirit of the lot.”

Quirk included this in his collection of The Great Romantic Films, and for years the Siren thought it a rather odd choice. What’s an antiwar allegory doing side-by-side with Death Takes a Holiday and The Life of Vergie Winters? One viewing showed her why, of course. Nemecsek’s devotion to the Paul Street leader, Boka (Jimmy Butler) is irrationally romantic and very like a women’s picture, where the love object is often unaware, undeserving and unable to respond until the woman does something drastic, such as catch her death. Boka doesn’t seem to deserve Nemecsek until the end, and perhaps not even then. It’s the leader of the rival gang, Feri (the handsome and quite marvelous Frankie Darro) who declares to Nemecsek, “You’re all right,” and treats him with respect from then on. But as in other classic Hollywood love stories, the appeal of a rival is beside the point. When Boka realizes, too late of course, that the devotion he’s been mocking is the worthiest he’ll ever experience, he goes to Nemecsek’s bedside--and Nemecsek rears his head off the pillow with a light in his eyes more blazing than Camille’s.

The movie starts with stock war footage, then cuts to an embittered soldier raging about war: “They made me fight.” Then we see that same soldier, older now, in front of a class lecturing the boys on the old lie, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” It’s a loud echo of a similar scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, but the switch also prepares the ground for No Greater Glory’s tonal shifts.

Nemecsek’s ineptitude gets played frequently for laughs, underlined by a rather bouncy score that includes some Strauss late in the movie when the gangs swing into their version of war. But Borzage switches emotions during those scenes with ease, as when Boka chews out Private Nemecsek, and it’s amusing until Nemecsek starts to cry, gets mocked for it, and we remember the agony of such moments from our own childhood.

Take the scene in a greenhouse where Boka, Nemescek and another Paul Street boy are hiding from the Red Shirts. Nemecsek, already shivering and soaking wet from falling in the lake, is ordered into the greenhouse pool to hide and, absurdly, he covers his head with a lily leaf. The camera shows us a frog on another lily pad, and the first cut to Nemecsek shows his nervousness as funny. Then we see the frog closer, and the croaks get louder, and the cuts back to Nemecsek reveal the boy’s genuine terror, and the way he’s fighting not to scream. But he stays in the pool, big-eyed and fearful, even after the Redshirts have finished their search and left. Nemecsek won’t get out until Boka tells him to. Subtle, no--the scene’s effects are obvious--but it’s an astonishing feat of tone, ludicrous childhood fears giving way to the movie’s purest example of courage.

What knocked the Siren sideways in both viewings of No Greater Glory was just how ravishing it is. George Breakston’s weak-chinned, big-nosed face takes on the aspects of a Christ child. The boys shoot marbles, their arms lined up in perfect rhythm. Lamplight turns the scenes in the botanical gardens into glimpses of the supernatural. Nemecsek climbs a pile of lumber to see whether someone is trying to steal their flag, and the camera follows him with a movement so lovely and precise the Siren gasped. The simplest shots, like one looking down a row of boys being inspected by Boka, are so immaculately balanced the Siren drank them in as though she were spending the afternoon at the Frick. There isn’t a single graceless frame, not one shift of the camera that doesn’t give complete aesthetic satisfaction. On that basis alone, the Siren would happily call this her favorite Borzage movie (and the Siren loves Borzage in general, she loves him very much indeed).

If the Siren wants to irritate herself, via the same impulse that has some of her Twitter pals live-tweeting certain talk-show hosts, she can look up a treasured old romantic film and find someone sneering. And not necessarily a modern critic either; there’s always Bosley Crowther, so consistently, flamboyantly wrong the Siren has developed a weird affection for the prosy old bore (scroll down for a nice example). So it’s really quite heartening, in this holiday season, to note this movie’s fervent support in unexpected quarters, and look at the IMDB ranking, and see the comments from all sorts of viewers who get it. Perhaps, pace Tom, we don’t need to “lighten up.” Maybe we just need more romance--obvious romance.

Note: Several people have commented on the new banner, from Desk Set. It comes from the splendid Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, which the Siren has been praising a lot lately, for excellent reasons. If you want a larger dose of Christmas cheer, in black-and-white and even (unusuallly for the blog's proprietor) color, just click over to Shahn's series from December 2007.


Arthur S. said...

Well I love Borzage much too. But this film didn't work for me although its visually ravishing(shot by Joseph August of THE INFORMER and later PORTRAIT OF JENNIE fame), the kid street gangs are too well dressed for its anti-violent preachiness to work. I'd like to see Borzage direct a Hollywood remake of LOS OLVIDADOS and still bring in the same mythopoetic beauty in a reality of fighting street kids.

But then he made MOONRISE after all, and that deals with it much more strongly.

The Siren said...

You're ahead of me Arthur. That's a different post altogether: Is Realism Necessary? Or even: Is Realism More Real? or Is Gritty Realistic? Maybe after the holidays. Christmas doesn't imbue me with a desire for reality!

Arthur S. said...

In all of Borzage's best films, a strong sense of reality is what creates the special spiritual texture. Like MAN'S CASTLE is one of the great films about the Depression and the war scenes of 7th Heaven are very powerful. And MOONRISE has a strong believable rural feel. With NO GREATER GLORY I find it lacking. But its still a strong film.

The Siren said...

Oh, I disagree. I think it's the otherworldly take on love that makes Borzage special.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Not that I have seen either film, but it would be interesting to compare Borzage with the more recent (1969) version, The Boys of Paul Street, both from the Molnar novel.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, a very interesting post. Not something I'd be likely to watch perhaps, but I do know my tastes tend more towards the bourgeois. ;D

Love the new banner -- I purchased Desk Set less than a week ago in a pack of four films!

X. Trapnel said...

This sounds great. Borzage had an uncanny feeling for Central Europe (has anybody written about this?) just as Margaret Sullavan so perfectly embodied CE romantic heroines: Little Man, What Now? (Fallada, who's having a revival) The Good Fairy (Molnar), 3 Comrades, So Ends Our Night (these last 2 Remarque) Shop, Mortal Storm. I've never seen Elizabeth Bergner, but there seeem to be parallels in the feerique quality.

I just read Molnar's diary of his NY exile. Painful

Enid said...

Hi Siren,

Longtime lurker and sometime commenter, delurking for the moment.

Timely post for me. I just watched the first few episodes of "Breaking Bad" at the behest of some friends whose taste is similar to mine most of the time. It's not a quality issue per se, but that subject matter is just not for me.

I am no stranger or foe of "dark", but I get something out of dark works when I feel that the artist had a compelling need to tell the story or that the work explores an important psychological or spiritual truth. Examples: Frankenheimer's "Seconds" (which I first heard about on your blog); Val Lewton's films; "The Rapture" with Mimi Rogers from the '90s. If I feel that it's simply a rumination, or worse, a wallow looking for rubberneckers, I'm not interested. Not sure how I would classify "Breaking Bad".

Again, I first heard of Borzage through your blog. "Mortal Storm" is probably my favorite so far. I watched "No Greater Glory" some months ago for the first time. I found myself wanting the young boy to snap out of it (when I'm sick, I like to stay in bed and watch TV - no martyr, I). So I found the progression of the plot a bit beyond me. That being said, your writing on the visuals makes me want to check it out again.

Finally, I can't tell you how many times the final shot of "Seconds" serves me as metaphor these days.

This is a wonderful community of people. Siren, your work has definitely enriched my life. Looking forward to more.

The Siren said...

Mat, there is no shame in not getting it, and I regret implying that there is, although in truth I don't think I did. I was saying I appreciate those who do get it. I will readily admit, for example, to not getting Sergio Leone, a filmmaker who also spells out his themes in capital letters, only they are, of course, nice and dark. I do think that anyone who appreciates b&w has to appreciate this film on a compositional level. It's that beautiful (via DP Joseph H. August, whom Arthur mentions, and I did not here, although I did when I posted a brief on this movie once before). But yes, it's aggressively, obviously, in-your-face romantic. Borzage was so pacifist that as Armond White points out at the link, he didn't want to shoot battle scenes. So it's quite logical that his imagination would swerve in the other direction. He happens to suit my taste for the romantic, the grand, the sweeping and the gentle. That isn't to say, of course, that sometimes I don't need a good dose of the dark and cynical. That will be coming in February at the latest: For the Love of Film (Noir).

The Siren said...

Peter, that other version of Molnar's novel has been mentioned before (by Lou Lumenick, I think). I don't know about its Stateside availability but as I recall it's supposed to be pretty good.

Emm, see my comment to Mat; there are certainly movies I avoid on the grounds that though they may be Great Art, they are also Not For Me. I always do hope people enjoy reading even when they're saying "I so do not want to see this one."

XT, otoh - I think this one has your number. If Margaret Sullavan thrills you, so will this movie. And I need to see Little Man, What Now?, can you believe it? I only recently caught Man's Castle. Spencer Tracy was great and the movie was beautiful, but boy did that character shred the nerves. Loretta Young, on the other hand--what in the hell did the Code do to her? All her pre-1934 work seems to be delightful.

The Siren said...

Enid, I love it when people de-lurk. I go to my statcounter sometimes and see visitors and wonder who they all are. Mortal Storm is great, isn't it? And Seconds is a perfect example of the sort of darkness I appreciate too--that movie's heart is black as night. I'm tickled to death you heard of it through here.

And I haven't see Breaking Bad and probably won't, for the reasons you cite. If you think I have movie-viewing gaps (and I do) you should try me on television sometime. I go out with people discussing Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad and I'm all like, "I keep TCM on all the time."

Vanwall said...

I'm a hopeless romantic, and that means things writ large are just like bigger bites of the pie. Or apple, I guess - Dolworth in "The Professionals" said it right: "I'm a born sucker for love!" - this soon after realizing the woman he killed, and who would've killed him for her great love but ran out of bullets, was actually his great love.

Borzage's film always seem lush, with lots of visual depth, almost regardless of DP. His films for me also have a kind of fairy-tale quality to them, something you could've had passed down to you in an oral tradition, and not because of simplicity, oh no, but because of their romantic extremes - and these were not excesses, they were like chess pieces used at the right moments.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Leone is capabl of great subtlety too, Siren -- particularly in Once Upon a Time in America.
(No, not the scenes with Tuesday Weld.)

As for "What's wrong with depressing?" I just saw the greatly lauded Winter's Bone
right after looking at the new Skolimowski . Skolimowski's film is about a Taliban fighter whoafter being tortured by us manages to escape in a freak accident and tries his best to survive in the snow-covered mountains. He's given to eating ants and tree bark he's so hungry.

And yet Winter's Bone, about the daughter of an Oakie meth lab runner is INFINITELY more depressing. Great performance from a young woman named Jennifer Lawrence, about whomyou're destined to hear a whole lot more. But MAN did it leave me longing for a Don Weis musical when it was over.

Somene called it "Poverty Porn." They're right.

The Siren said...

Emm, one more thing re: the banner -- I need to see Desk Set again. Karen tweeted her librarian love for that one to me. It's a really sweet-natured, good-time movie, perfect for Christmas, and they used to show it around the holidays a lot. Haven't checked skeds for it lately.

Vanwall, I never thought about it, but in its way The Professionals is quite romantic, isn't it? And I agree that Borzage has amazingly consistent visual qualities, movie to movie. Even something as slight as Seven Sweethearts has it. I love Seven Sweethearts, actually; the movie that most resembles a flat-out fairy tale, with the seven sisters and the youngest is the fairest, only the others must marry first...

The Siren said...

David E, I worship you, but I am so not discussing Leone, LOL! I Leone-d myself to death over at Glenn's a while back. Got nothing left to say.

I hear mixed things on Winter's Bone but I'm in rather a cheery mood this holiday season and so I don't think I'll be watching anything more depressing than Village of the Damned and Hound of the Baskervilles, which just arrived. Speaking of Santa Claus - they were misdelivered to an address several blocks from here, and still made their way to me. Holiday cheer!

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Fine piece! Thank you, Siren. The second half of your headfline reminds me of an encdote from a callege friend of mine: of his being told, entirely without irony, "You wouldn't know subtlety if it hit you in the face!"

I love Borzage, although I'm not terrifically well-versed in his films. The primary love is for "History Is Made At Night" [insert clip of Jean Arthur talking to Charles Boyer's hand]. After that, my thoughts drift toward the Gary Cooper Paramount-iana.

'Scuse me while I loll 'midst tender images of Cooper and "Dietrich and "Desire."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I second Mrs.HenryWindleVale on "History is Made at Night", a film I haven't yet tackled blogging about because it somehow intimidates me. Picking it apart I suspect would be like pulling the wings off a butterfly.

However, on the battle between those who get it and those who don't want it, here's from “Shane” (which I hope to tackle in the coming weeks) - "The Critical Edition" by Jack Schaefer, edited by James C. Work. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1984. - specially from the forward by Marc Simmons:

“I recall attending a showing of Shane twenty-five years after its release, during a film classic series on a university campus. I was not surprised that it now appeared a bit dated and that some of its original luster had faded. But I was wholly unprepared for the reaction of the young audience. Throughout, they laughed at serious moments, jeered at Shane’s deference toward women, and hooted at Bob’s (little Joe in the movie) open admiration for his hero. Without making too much of that single incident, it seems to me at the very least that some of our youth have capitulated to the doctrine that the world is without serious purpose, chaos is our destiny, and serious thought is a pointless exercise in futility.”

The Siren said...

Mat, that would be yes, but why does it matter? I don't believe in heaven, ghosts, or bug-eyed aliens with incandescent fingers, but when I see A Matter of Life and Death, The Ghost and Mrs Muir and ET, I believe in those things until the lights come up.

Mrs HWV and Jacqueline, my little post on History Is Made at Night a long while back did not do it justice, and neither did my post on Moonrise, but oh well. I keep thinking I should order Desire on Region 2 so it will come out in Region 1 (a pattern that has repeated itself several times) but have such a backlog of unseen movies that I haven't bothered yet. If I ever wrote up Desire, a movie I saw probably more than a decade ago and adored, I would want to read up on the debate over whose movie it really is, Lubitsch or Borzage, or both. My memory of some of the shots jibes with what I now know as Borzage's style, but the tone seems more Lubitsch. At least in my recollection.

As for Shane, it can be extraordinarily painful to have an audience not respond to a film you love, and I wonder how film teachers manage sometimes. But audiences are funny things. One person or a knot of people laughing at a moment can have a contagious effect. It's always interesting to me, though, when I read about a film-school audience seeing a movie and responding it to solely based on believability of plot, characters etc. How could you be there to learn about film, and not at least get how gorgeous Shane is? (or did they, and Simmons doesn't mention it?) Does that just not matter if you find a small boy's hero-worship ridiculous? Lord knows there are movies I see where I have problems with the goings-on, like Hot Blood which I saw last week. But in that one, I was still caught up with the visual things I love about Nicholas Ray. I'm still trying to parse out which part of the scale for Hot Blood tips over for me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

" little post on History Is Made at Night a long while back..."

Will put brand new batteries in my flashlight so that I may go down cellar and hunt through your archives. Would love your take on it.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, Little Man, What Now? is marvelous, but as sometimes happens Borzage with Borzage and painfully often with Sullavan, the leading man is intractibly dull (in this case, Douglas Montgomery). For someone who didn't make that many films the funereal procession of her boring or repellent costars is appalling: Montgomery, John Boles, Randolph Scott, S.A. Brugh, a very callow Glen Ford, Wendell Corey. In view of this it's all the more criminal that "they" are withholding Back Street.

Yes, Who Lost Loretta Young? Why did this have to happen?

DavidEhrenstein said...

When I see any of her movies I believe in Marlene Dietrich until the lights come up.

Or as my oongtime S.O. Bill Reed so often says "My favorite character in American fiction is Ethel Waters."

gmoke said...

As mentioned before when this film first came up in a previous post, I've seen the more recent version of "The Paul Street Boys" (1969) back in the days when there was an International Channel and they showed Hungarian films late on Sundays. At the time, I was preparing for a trip to Budapest and tried to get the sound of the language into my ears.

As I remember, the film was good and held my attention. I thought it was a very clear analogy to WWI and was surprised to learn that Molnar wrote it years before that war. I remember that movie's greenhouse scene and Nemecsek's frightening night freezing in the water. Haven't seen "No Greater Glory" but would like to at some time. Frankie Darro had a great presence on the screen, as I know from "Wild Boys of the Road." In the 1969 movie, Nemecsek's loyalty is more important than his love and admiration for his leader but that love is definitely there, if I remember correctly.

One thing I got from Hungarian films is that, at the end, everybody dies. That's an exaggeration but not by much. There's a darkness in Hungarian culture that contrasts with its humor and passion. Some think of the Hungarians as the Latins of Central Europe though prone to melancholy and fatalism. Given their history, one can understand those tendencies.

Recently, I read Frigyes Karinthy's _Journey Round My Skull_, an account of the author's brain tumor and the successful operation to remove it. Karinthy wrote it in the 1930s and there was still a cafe culture where the whole of Budapest seemed to be the Algonquin Roundtable, or at least that's the impression Karinthy, a humorist, gives. Yet, at the same time, he is observant and knowledgeable about mortality and the human reactions to it:

"You were so _very_ cheerful, all of you. It was too much of a good thing. Had you come to see me one by one, I shouldn't have noticed anything. But this way it was rather obvious that _every man jack of you_ was bursting with hilarity in exactly the same way. After all, there are plenty of different temperaments in the world. Didn't it occur to you that your uniform joviality in the stalls made me all the more conscious of the stage on which I stand alone here? A suspicion formed slowly in my mind, to become a certainty at the last. You were all _very silent_ before you came into my room, and once you left me again you were no less quiet. After a while I could make out quite clearly how the new arrivals hesitated a moment before entering the door and put a mask on their faces. I almost saw them open their mouths, force their expression into a smile, and make their throats ready for laughter."

There is a flavor here that permeates all the Hungarian literature I've read, that characteristic paprikash of red pepper and sour cream, fire and acidity.

I have not studied Borzage but it may be that some of what people don't get is that Magyar sensibility which Borzage may have translated to the screen. Of course, he probably made "No Greater Glory" because that sensibility suited him as well. I see that Hungarian-ness even in something like "The Werckmeister Harmonies" but then I've always been a little odd.

gmoke said...
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gmoke said...

Sorry about the deleted comments. Blogger kept telling me the comment was too large and I hadn't realized it was being posted over and over again as I tried to edit it down.

Kent Jones said...

Siren, have you ever seen TILL WE MEET AGAIN? I once saw a beat up 16, and at the time I thought it was one of Borzage's best films. This is not to be confused with the Edmund Goulding remake of ONE WAY PASSAGE. This is with Ray Milland as a flyer and Barbara Britton as a French nun. Mr. Ehrenstein might have seen it.

Regarding the intelligent reservations of Mat, I've seen and loved plenty of movies I don't "believe" in. I guess I feel that art - good art - always stays so open to surprise, possibility, contradiction, at the most minute level, that the kind of rigid uniformity of content and form you seem to see in Borzage doesn't apply. And, it's all conjured in a world of fancy. It's not a position paper. I always thought that what was so good in Borzage was the way he filmed people falling in love, the way it works between these characters under these circumstances in this movie. Because people do tend to fall in love. Even people who worry a lot about succumbing to myths. At this juncture, I'm reminded of "The Last Time I Saw Richard" by Joni Mitchell.

All of which has no bearing whatsoever on NO GREATER GLORY.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, I get the same Blogger message, and then it posts anyway. Fussy little platform. I don't know much about Hungary, I am afraid, my immersion in the culture being limited to an old romantic novel called Csardas (of course) about two sisters in a family from World War I up through II. I had a girlfriend who went there as an adolescent and adored it. Said Budapest had the most gorgeous men she'd ever seen in her life.

Kent, the frustrations of trying to see Borzage have long been a recurring theme in comments here, although it's been a while since we all rent our collective garments over it. Thus I have not seen Till We Meet Again. One reason I wanted to give this film a full writeup after covering it in brief was that I really want to encourage things like the Sony MOD program if it gets more rarities out there. The DVD looks quite good to me, although my standards for AV perfection are not that high. I once admitted in another forum that part of me has an affection for crappy old prints, provided they aren't too bad; reminds me of the old days taking in double features at Theatre 80 St Marks.

The Siren said...

Mat, I think Spielberg believes in spiritual love as well; in fact all three movies I mentioned do. But they put some distancing mechanisms in there--a black and white heaven with Marius Goring as your escort, Rex Harrison as a rough-spoken sailor, and the aforementioned bug-eyed alien. Borzage is happy to grant such powers to ordinary humans, even misfit boys.

Kent Jones said...

Mat, you should leave it up to The Siren to decide if you've gone too far afield, but since you haven't brought up Sergio Leone I guees you're on safe ground.

What self-aware human being would disagree with most of your observations? On the other hand, one can only insure one's self against loss of illusion for so long. Life is lived and not thought, and only so many bases can be covered.

But, I would take issue with one item - Borzage's "blatant, unabashed mystification of love." One one level, I know exactly what you're talking about. On the other hand, it would be nothing without his absolutely concrete approach to the process of falling in love. And that's why I like his movies. If MAN'S CASTLE, for instance, were a movie about sanctified lovers, it probably wouldn't add up to much. But it's about something quite unusual: a man who deludes himself into believing that he doesn't love a woman because he wants to guard himself against hurt, and a woman who has to suffer the anxiety of seeing him play out his private drama during hard times.

Arthur S. said...

I for one have seen TILL WE MEET AGAIN and it is one of Borzage's most moving and beautiful works. It's about a nun who falls in love with a man, pilot Ray Milland crash-landing in France, and who serves him on behalf of her Mother Superior who is martyred by the Nazis. It's terrific on many levels and Borzage doesn't let his softness and natural compassion dim his approach to Nazi violence and cruelty.

One thing that amazes me about Borzage is his complete ability to tackle the idea of a woman in a nun's habit falling in love without any attempt at irony, or hints of repression. His approach to his characters is entirely different.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Hey Kent, did you ever see Carol Burnett's take off of One Way Passage -- One Way Ticket? Carol did he best Kay Francis and Vickie Lawrence played "Dr. Ospenskaya" who explains to her that she's dying of "The Movie Disease." The great James Coco played her crooked beloved, and it all ended with their ghosts (Carol and Coco dressed in white) revisiting their favorite night club.

Kent Jones said...

David, I'd forgotten it, and thanks for returning it to consciousness. I just have a general memory of a series of great Carol Burnett movie parodies - they did DARK VICTORY too, right - my favorite of which is probably the best known: GONE WITH THE WIND, with Carol Burnett as Scarlett leaving the curtain rods in her dress.

Arthur S., where did you see TILL WE MEET AGAIN and how did it look?

Bob Westal said...

I don't know how this happened, exactly, but I've somehow managed to never see a Frank Borzage move (at least that I know of). Maybe it's the fear of drippiness that's kept me away.

Which leads to the point about uplift. I think there's two things going on. Sometime after the end of WWII, a lot of people realized that, on some level, things are, in fact, worse than they are supposed to be and so we overreacted and optimists became "suckers" -- "darker" has been more hip since "hip was "hep."

It also translates into such pop cultural phenomenon as urban legends. People will buy the most outlandish and illogical premises as long as they presuppose a massive capacity for human evil. Deadly (?) levels of LSD in children's tattoo's? Sure! AIDS tainted needles in movie theater seats? Why the heck not?! An entire generation was kept from trick or treating because of a false fear of tainted candy when the real danger was children getting accidentally hit by cars.

I also think that a lot of us prefer "dark" movies because we're actually pretty comfortable in our modern world and we "escape" to people having more uncomfortable, but also more exciting lives. The darkest, most "realistic" crime movie will almost never depress me because I will never be a criminal or a cop, though I might enjoy fantasizing a bit about being either.

At the same time, a little coming of age comedy drama that some might sniff at as "escapist" might really depress me if it reminds me of stuff I actually went through -- especially if the characters had better luck than I did. Maybe there's a kind of envy involved.

One more thing. Back in the day, my mom went to some sort of screening of "The Boys of Paul Street" (might have been the only subtitled movie she's ever seen!). I had never seen a kid die in a movie and when she, for some reason, told me the story I completely freaked out, causing her to completely freak out. She had grown up with stuff like "Little Women" where kids die in a romantic fashion and she didn't understand that a seven year old might find that really upsetting, even only hearing about it.

Kent Jones said...

Mat, I've seen THREE COMRADES and can stomach it just fine. And unless I'm reading wrong, The Siren wrote that she can believe in any number of things "until the lights come up." And, since it's difficult for me to even start thinking about a scientific approach to love, and since I don't really see the value in boiling movies down to some thematic essence, I'm going to drop out of the conversation.

Siren, I too never had a problem with crummy, beat-up prints. But even back in the day, Theater 80 St. Marks was a little much for me. The same crummy 16s, half the life spliced out of them, shown over and over again...and back projected!

I saw HOT BLOOD most recently at Film Forum a couple years ago, and while it wasn't exactly a masterpiece, I liked the feel of it, the effort to try for a valid portrait of Roma life with Cornel Wilde, Jane Russell and Luther Adler in the lead roles.

Trish said...

Pardon my Philistine (pronounced the way Hedy L. would). I have to see No Greater Glory soon because all of this commentary is too good to pass up. In the meantime, can I just make a shallow boast related to the banner? I don't usually get hot and bothered about Tracy and Hepburn but with this film I make an exception. I have the same Eva Zeisel china coffee pot that Kate uses in several scenes. And good for Kate for actually using hers! Mine sits in its protective niche, and requires dusting every now and then...

Arthur S. said...

As you have a problem with crummy beat-up prints, being a product of a later age, I have to make do with dupes of TV broadcast and VHS prints. That's how I saw TILL WE MEET AGAIN(via a TCM copy or a CHS one, I am not sure) and just yesterday, I finally saw Nicholas Ray's WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES(on a VHS copy), the aspect ratio of the Ray wasn't widescreen and since this is Ray, that is a problem but the film is visually teeming with excess in a manner that practically skywrites his signature on the film, even if he was removed from the film at some point and had no say on the editing.

Among Borzage's films, I generally prefer his pre-censorship films to his later one and find his MGM movies inert, so in the case of THREE COMRADES, ever shot without Margaret Sullavan and that murder scene with the church music is dry. But those bits are enough, especially Sullavan's death scene. Among the German-set films, LITTLE MAN,WHAT NOW? is the best.

Kent Jones said...

arthur S., I hope you have Hervé Dumont's book.

There's quite a bit of good post-code Borzage, like LIVING ON VELVET, MANNEQUIN and THE SHINING HOUR, GREEN LIGHT, BIG CITY in the 30s, THE MORTAL STORM, TILL WE MEET AGAIN, I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU and MOONRISE in the 40s (I remember sort of liking THAT'S MY MAN too), CHINA DOLL, and the Screen Directors Playhouse episode "The Day I Met Caruso." All the Screen Directors Playhouse episodes were added as extras on the new Carlotta blu-rays of SEVENTH HEAVEN, LUCKY STAR and STREET ANGEL, along with the fragment of THE RIVER.

gmoke said...

Always did like The Mortal Storm and seeing it on TCM a few months ago the early domestic scenes play very well. The descent into Nazism mirrors the best book I know about the subject, Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner.

I wonder what Borzage could have done with some of the Lanny Budd books by Upton Sinclair.

Siren, I am half Hungarian which must make me at least half goodlooking.

Dan Callahan said...

I saw a beautiful print of "Till We Meet Again" at the Museum of the Moving Image when they did their Borzage retro, and it really is one of his finest films.

There's a moment in that movie when Ray Milland gently pulls a kerchief off of Barbara Britton's head, and it has to count as one of the most erotic things I've ever seen. She's a nun and he's a flyer, and they don't need to speak about falling in love, or doing anything about it, but it's all there on the screen. Will also never forget the way Borzage lights a puff of cigarette smoke coming out of the dark in the last scene.

In recent years, Borzage has been getting the attention he deserves; "Till We Meet Again" is the really great one that deserves more commentary; it's still too hard to see.

Kent Jones said...

Dan, thanks for the verification. When I wrote about Borzage back in the late 90s, I focused on that one. Do you remember where the print came from? Did it have an archive logo? Curious.

I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU has also stayed in my mind over the years. Especially the movements that link the conductor and the girl as they're playing. I still have my laserdisc of that one.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's a link to my contribution to David Cairn's "Blogathon"

X. Trapnel said...


If you want--and why wouldn't you?--a deep immersion in the glories of Hungarian culture read John (not the dread Georg) Lukacs's enthralling and evocative Budapest 1900. And then Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, the favorite novel of all cultivated Hungarians.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Back in the pre-infomercial days when TV during the night meant old movies, KTLA in Los Angeles used to show a lot of Paramount pictures ... and I remember seeing and liking a KTLA-screened "Till We Meet Again." Not that many specifics stick with me. Somethiong about a close-up of Pamela Britten's hand, perhaps?

In any case, though, I'm ashamed that my previous posting omitted any mention of "Strange Cargo." A definite favorite, as well as being on the shortlist for my hypothetical "Sweat and Spirituality" film festival. It's odd and dynamic, in pretty much equal measure, as well as featuring a *very* good Joan Crawford performance. Much more convincing than, say, her work in "Susan and God."

Dan Callahan said...

I'm not sure where they got the print for "Till We Meet Again," but David Schwartz or someone at Museum of the Moving Image should be able to tell you, Kent.

I only saw it once, and it was already a while ago, but I still vividly remember images and camera movements from the film. To my mind, it really is a work on the highest possible level, visually and thematically.

It's a film that I can imagine Rossellini admiring; it has the same unsparing but very positive spiritual energy that I find in Rossellini's best work.

Kent Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kent Jones said...

A Sweat and Spirituality Film Festival - interesting. You might add two more Borzage movies, GREEN LIGHT and DISPUTED PASSAGE, both based on Lloyd C. Douglas novels.

Barbara Britton, not Pamela Britten.

Dan, thanks for the info. I'll ask David.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Sorry about that.

Kent Jones said...

Mrs. Vale, why apologize? Pamela Britton was the woman in D.O.A. and Barbara was the Revlon spokeswoman, who actually played Laura Petrie before Mary Tyler Moore.

shahn said...

Reading through the comments of your posts is like listening to a game of "Telephone" played during a party of dedicated film scholars and movie buffs!

I feel silly jumping back to the original text, but I did want to thank you for linking to my blog. Your ongoing support over the years is truly heartwarming and hugely appreciated. Happy Holidays!

Trish said...

Blake Edwards is gone!!! Oh, sad...

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

Just revisited the Borzage "Farewell To Arms" -- in a less than optimal print, admittedly -- last Thursday. One thought that came to mind was that Wyler must have studied its last scene when he prepared "Wuthering Heights."

*Very* Roman Catholic it seemed, with the hollow "victory" of the war's end becoming the genuine victory of the virtuous soul's final reward [clang, clang].

I also kinda liked the "marriage" between Frederic and Catherine, sop to the censors though it may have been ... the way that it became a "Peter Ibbetson"-style shared hallucination.

David Rayner said...

This is a superb anti-war film, filmed in 1933, but not released in Great Britain until late 1934 and directed by Frank Borzage. I've been thinking how I could describe, to those who haven't seen it, how wonderful this film is and I've decided to paste in this 1934 British film magazine review, the sentiments of which I agree with entirely.

“NO GREATER GLORY” (Columbia Pictures, 1933).

From Film Pictorial dated December 15th, 1934.

This week's honours to: GEORGE BREAKSTON.

We have had film children smart and clever, showing skill and ability above their years. But in “No Greater Glory” we get from George Breakston not cleverness or smartness, but sheer acting ability and naturalness. This from a boy of such tender years is an achievement indeed. He is only eleven: he has never acted before. Yet in this plea for greater understanding among men, in a picture that needed so much courage to produce, he lives. He plays the part of a weakling boy with the heart of a lion. Throughout the film he will play havoc with your emotions and at the end you will shed a tear for him. But you will want to see this lad again. And you will.


It needed courage in abundance to make this film. Whether the director has succeeded in what he set out to achieve will probably be a subject for warm discussion. But there can be no two opinions about the sincerity of this ambitious effort. And in these days, when war talk is so much in the air, the moral he tries to point will inevitably have its effect in many places.

Showing, first of all, the terrors of battle, in 1917, with a private screaming a tirade against war, its horror, its pain, its suffering, and being obviously afraid to die, the scene is then switched to 1934. A professor is lecturing his class on the glory of dying for one's country – and then we see two rival schoolboy gangs, or armies, if you prefer it. There are the two leaders struggling for supremacy, culminating in a pitched battle for a playground. Throughout, the seemingly weak character of the boy, Nemecsek, is thrust to the foreground; frail in body though he is, he tries so hard to be courageous. He would do anything for his leader; anything for the cause he loves. The end is inevitable.

Grim though the production is, it is brilliantly acted by the boys, with George Breakston giving a performance that is supreme. Here is a mere child of eleven, playing his first part, who lives on the screen as few actors have ever lived. His terror, his forced bravado in moments of battle – every scene, in fact, is perfect. Unless you are the type of filmgoer who must be amused every time you go to a cinema, you really should see this film. It points a moral, but it is so vividly and beautifully done, that it should appeal to every person who seeks the “different” in his filmgoing.”

THE SONY DVD. This is an excellent transfer of an obviously remastered print of the film. The image and sound quality are amazing, taking into consideration the fact that this 85 years old picture is an early sound film and the sound is as loud and clear as you would wish it to be. Highly Recommended!