“Why should we bother with Frank Borzage?” asked Kent Jones, launching into a detailed consideration of the director’s work in Film Comment in 1997. It was a good question. At the time of Jones’s article, Borzage, once celebrated as one of Hollywood’s leading directors, had languished in obscurity for the best part of four decades, largely written off—when he was noticed at all—as a director of hopelessly dated, ultraromantic melodramas. Summing up this view, Jones described Borzage as “a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life—the world around Borzage’s lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions.” The director, he added, can offer us “precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir.”
But, Jones continued, Borzage “had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life.” By contrast with the characters in films by Hitchcock, who are generally looking at something real, or John Ford’s, who look into the past, Jones observed, “When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it’s usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony . . . For Borzage, love means certainty.” And this “superhuman idea of existence,” Jones wrote, “is one of the great glories of the cinema.”
Despite the eloquence of Jones’s advocacy, however, Borzage’s reputation has recovered very little in the two decades since that article was published—certainly nowhere approaching the level of acclaim he attained in the 1930s. A “melodramatist” he was, with very little cynicism in his makeup. What might be questioned, though, is whether he indeed “never made a film noir.” There are those—not least Yann Tobin in Positif—who have emphatically asserted otherwise: that he did make at least one, in many ways his least characteristic yet most potent film.
When a director’s basic instincts and the style in which he or she is working are at daggers drawn, the results can be disastrous—or paradoxically fruitful. Few films display this creative tension more effectively than Moonrise, the last—and some would say the best—major film directed by Borzage.
Even in 1948, with the noir cycle cruising at its darkest and most doom-laden—this was the year of, inter alia, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, John Farrow’s The Big Clock, and Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal—the opening sequence of Moonrise is hard to beat for sheer relentless, deep-dyed gloom. We open on a pool of murky water, spotted with rain (water, as we’ll see, symbolizes confusion and death throughout this film), reflecting moving feet, in a distorted image. Pan to those actual feet, belonging to three men, one escorted by two others, all framed from the waist down, trudging heavily through puddles. They start ascending steps as the camera tilts up over the heads of grim-faced spectators armed with umbrellas, and we’re shown a man being hanged, graphically projected in shadow. As the silhouetted executioner pulls the lever, cut to a howling infant, terrified by a doll hanging by the neck over its crib—again, shown as a shadow.
Pull back to reveal the suspended doll—a brief insert of the trudging feet, which will recur more than once—then cut again to an overhead shot of a small boy isolated on a school playground, walking fast with shoulders hunched and pursued by a mocking children’s chorus: “Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged!” Noir, in which protagonists are typically trapped by fate and/or predestination, scarcely comes more despairing than all this. And knowing Borzage’s attachment to the theme of redemption through love, it’s hard to imagine how the tussle of style and content will play out. All the more so since throughout most of the film its protagonist, Danny, seems stubbornly determined to reject love and any redemption it might bring him. Yet as we’ll see, Borzage does finally succeed in reconciling these competing forces, in this, his final masterpiece.
“Borzage’s characters seem to radiate from within a unique, spiritual energy that makes them appear luminescently unreal.”
Ten years before he directed Moonrise, Borzage (born in Salt Lake City of Italian-Swiss parentage, he pronounced his name Bor-ZAH-ghee, with a hard g) was riding high on the Hollywood A-list. He’d started out in films in 1912, acting in shorts for producer-director Thomas Ince, often comedies or westerns. In 1915, he moved to the American Film Company, where he started to direct as well as act; then in 1917 to Triangle, where he switched almost exclusively to directing. After stints at Paramount, First National, and MGM, his reputation steadily on the up, he arrived in 1925 at Fox, scene of his greatest triumphs.
His first film at Fox was Lazybones (1925), a well-received melancholic comedy-melodrama with a rural setting. And by 1927, he had made more than fifty films, about forty of them features, including 7th Heaven, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, which in 1929 won a best director Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony (in the short-lived dramatic category; Lewis Milestone won for comedy, with Two Arabian Knights). This success launched a run of highly successful romantic melodramas for Borzage, often teaming Gaynor and Farrell. Bad Girl (1931) won him a second Oscar, and throughout the thirties he continued to make big-budget movies with major stars—A Farewell to Arms (Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper), Man’s Castle (Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young), Desire (Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper), Three Comrades (Robert Taylor, Margaret Sullavan).
Common to almost all of these was what Andrew Sarris, in his influential 1968 book The American Cinema, would term “a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” A few years later, film scholar John Belton, noting that Borzage shared with D. W. Griffith a “wholehearted commitment to a melodramatic worldview,” added that “where Griffith’s characters contain irrepressible physical vitality,” Borzage’s characters seem to “radiate from within a unique, spiritual energy that makes them appear luminescently unreal.”
These weren’t the kinds of sentiments likely to endear a filmmaker to a more cynical age, and Borzage’s reputation slumped badly in the early forties when, with the shadows of war darkening, Hollywood’s prevailing mood moved into a less romantic register. His standing wasn’t helped by the reception of Strange Cargo (1940), a bizarre religious allegory condemned by the Legion of Decency for its “irreverent use of Scripture” and “lustful complications.”
By 1945, Borzage was reduced to working for the Poverty Row outfit Republic Pictures, run by Herbert Yates. Republic’s chief production-line specialty was a wearisome stream of B westerns, often starring the boss’s glacially untalented future wife, ex–ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston. But now and then, Yates aspired to something more ambitious for his studio, a policy that green-lit Orson Welles’s Macbeth, John Ford’s The Quiet Man—and Moonrise.
Written by New York Times film critic Theodore Strauss, the novel Moonrise was published in 1946, but even prior to publication it had attracted something of a bidding war among the studios. The rights were secured for $50,000 by two independent producers, Marshall Grant and Charles Haas, who planned to release the film through United Artists with William A. Wellman directing and John Garfield playing the lead. But funding fell through, Wellman pulled out, suing the producers, and Grant and Haas teamed up with their more experienced fellow independent Charles K. Feldman, who offered the project to Republic. Various writers had a hand in the script, but Haas secured sole on-screen credit.
Borzage was unhappy at the cut-price studio. The first two films he directed there, I’ve Always Loved You (a.k.a. Concerto, 1946) and That’s My Man (a.k.a. Will Tomorrow Ever Come?, 1947), had proved dispiritingly mediocre and lit no fires at the box office. According to his widow, Juanita Moss, he didn’t at first want to take on Moonrise and accepted it only to fulfill his three-picture contract. But evidently he found something in the material that stirred his interest: there’s an energy and an intensity to the film that hadn’t been evident in Borzage’s work since his 1940 anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm.
Generously budgeted by Republic’s standards—its final production cost was some $850,000, compared with the studio’s usual B-movie rate of $50,000—Moonrise still betrays its technical limitations, being rather too obviously shot in the studio. But then, Borzage had always preferred to shoot on sets, and he turns these restrictions to his advantage. Though the action is set mostly outdoors, on the streets of a small Virginia town and the surrounding countryside, he creates a pervasive feeling of oppressive claustrophobia, often giving us those close-up framings of hands or legs. His protagonist is constantly trapped by the mise-en-scène, by the shadowy lighting, and by Borzage’s encircling camera, often peering down at him from overhead like a censorious eye. The settings seem like an emanation of Danny’s troubled, paranoid mind—especially the swamp country, locus of hidden crimes and festering resentments.
Borzage had hoped to retain Garfield for the lead role of Danny Hawkins, but Republic couldn’t afford his fee. Instead, they cast Garfield’s friend Dane Clark, who gives a rather too one-note performance, unrelievedly sullen and awkward. Garfield would surely have found more nuance in the part. But Clark is backed by a rich supporting cast, not least Gail Russell as his schoolteacher girlfriend, Gilly. (Impossible, seeing Russell’s sad, expressive eyes, not to recall the fate of this gifted actor, dead from alcohol poisoning at age thirty-six.) Ethel Barrymore contributes a folksy cameo as Danny’s grandma; Rex Ingram—in what he called “the best role ever written for a Negro”—plays Danny’s philosophical friend Mose, the only man he can talk to; and we also get (briefly) Lloyd Bridges, venomous as Danny’s tormentor and victim Jerry Sykes, and Allyn Joslyn as the pensive town sheriff—surely the gentlest and most compassionate southern sheriff ever to be depicted in the movies.
Borzage’s director of photography was John L. Russell (no relation to Gail). He had just shot Macbeth for Welles, and would go on to shoot Psycho for Hitchcock. His deep-textured black-and-white photography, pools of darkness shot through with dangerous stabs of light, enhances the sense of entrapment that tortures and enrages Danny. As Danny and Gilly stand talking at a nocturnal street corner, moving shadows cast by the trees surrounding them take on the aspect of a web. And when Danny paces grimly through the woods on the way to his fateful encounter with Jerry, he’s once again framed from the knees down, just as his father was on his way to execution.
The fight between Danny and Jerry plays out on the brink of the pond, in whose waters Danny then conceals Jerry’s body. He’s drawn back there by a raccoon hunt that leads to the discovery of the body, and later flees through the swamp to escape the sheriff’s posse. There’s nothing cleansing about this water; it’s dark and engulfing, symbolic of the spiritual and psychological darkness that constantly threatens to drag Danny down.
Danny’s killing of Jerry, even though partly in self-defense, confirms him in his belief that it is his “bad blood” that’s pushing him toward violence—a murderer’s son himself become a murderer. It is chiefly women—as so often in Borzage’s films—who provide the voices of sanity and redemption: Danny’s aunt (Selena Royle), whom he lives with; his grandma; and above all Gilly, attracted to him despite his boorish behavior (or maybe even because of it, seeing it as an index of his inner torment), trying to defuse the anger and self-disgust in him that blight their relationship. This central dynamic anticipates two equally noir-tinged Nicholas Ray films, In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1951), both of which pick up on the theme of a woman trying to redeem a self-destructive outsider.
More unusual in this context is the role of Ingram’s Mose, who represents a father figure to the orphaned Danny. It would be hard to think of another American film of the period where a black man acts as adviser and mentor to a white southerner—a black man, furthermore, who is described as an “educated fella” who has “read about every book there is.” It’s Mose who, using himself as a warning example (“Man ought to live in a world with other folks. What I did was resign from the human race—and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is”), points Danny on his way to redemption.
For all the encroaching shadows, Moonrise succeeds in achieving romantic intensity. At one point, as Danny and Gilly dance together in their refuge—an abandoned mansion (significantly named Blackwater)—an ecstatic crane shot tracks back, soars up to gaze on them from the ceiling, then swoops back down into close-up as they kiss in silhouette. Max Ophuls might have given an approving nod. Crane shots suggesting exultation were something of a Borzage trademark: among other instances, they also figure in the ending of Man’s Castle and twice in Till We Meet Again (1944).
The film is not without humor, either. Borzage slips in some sly satire of small-town mores—the endlessly inquisitive, deaf old coot, the irritatingly jive-talking soda jerk, the gloriously tacky county fair with its gum-chewing “Syrian” belly dancers. And was Hitchcock recalling the big-wheel scene when he made Strangers on a Train, with its fairground-pursuit climax?
It’s only in its final ten minutes that Moonrise finally throws off its noir trappings. After talking with his grandmother, who exorcises the oppressive ghost of his father and releases him from the stranglehold of the past, Danny goes outside and stands at the graves of his parents, before leaving his rifle leaning against his father’s headstone and walking down to surrender to the sheriff and his posse—and to Gilly, who has accompanied them. The sheriff, humane as ever, refuses to handcuff Danny but lets him walk back with Gilly, and as they depart, Borzage gives us the first and only extreme long shot in the film, with a view of distant hills. (Okay, it’s obviously a backdrop, but the point is made.) The shadows are banished, the confining spaces are expanded out to the horizon, and daylight has come.
It could be that, had Borzage stuck to noir conventions and killed Danny off in the last reel instead of following his own deepest instincts and allowing love and redemption a hard-won victory, Moonrise would have been well received. But as it was, the film flopped badly, with the critics largely dismissive. “Some serious scenes are so entirely out of key that they are laughable,” observed the Los Angeles Times. “Exhibitors know there’s money in moonrise,” declared Republic’s launch poster, hopefully—but there wasn’t. The film was generally regarded as sentimental and anachronistic, a reversion to the despised conventions of silent-movie style; very much the same criticisms, in fact, that a few years later would be leveled against Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter.
Discouraged, his career further impeded by the blacklist, Borzage virtually abandoned filmmaking for ten years. He directed two undistinguished films in the late fifties and died in 1962, by which time his reputation—as Belton comments—had fallen to “near anonymity.” For the next half century, Moonrise, along with the rest of his output, was more or less forgotten. Only more recently has the film been reassessed and come to be seen, as critic and film curator Dave Kehr has put it, as “the summing up and reaffirmation of past work, the final statement or testament of a man who has actually spent his life making one film.” In other words, a hard-won, against-all-odds culmination—as much for Borzage, indeed, as it was for Danny.