Liliom (1930)

22 03 2009

Frank Borzage is definitely at his best, at least so in my mind, when he’s doing this small town Americana tragic romances such as this film. There’s an odd burst of fantastical elements towards the end, but for the most part, this perfectly captures that tone that Borzage demonstrated earlier in Lucky Star and once again in Bad Girl. Like both of those films, it is easy to be turned off by the potential melodrama here, but the emotional extremity is played off in a genuine, if somewhat naive manner. It’s one of Borzage’s greatest romance stories and one of his best films as well.

Charles Farrell, in one of his earliest speaking roles, plays the title character, a carousel operator at the town fair. He has more than his fair share of lady friends, but that doesn’t stop naive house servant, Julie, from falling in love with him. His crude and frank attitude doesn’t bother her in the least, and he finds that comforting. He moves in with her, but his lazy demeanor quickly becomes a nuisance to Julie’s aunt. Liliom’s friend hatches a plan to provide Liliom with enough money to take him and Julie to America. He is skeptical at first, but when Julie tells him the news that she is pregnant, he reluctantly accepts. The plot fails, and Liliom kills himself, which leads to a very odd experience in the after life.

It’s somewhat surprising how much time Borzage devotes to fleshing out the relationship between Julie and Liliom. Their initial meeting and subsequent conversations make up more than half of the film. Liliom has very little in common with Farrell’s character in Lucky Star. In that film, he was an honest young man with a big heart. Here, he’s not the least bit charming. At the same time, he’s not evil. He’s not bringing Julie down, despite the fact that he does physically beat her. Her love for him seems to exist plainly in the realm of physical attraction and the fact that she sticks with this attraction to the grave (literally) is extremely bittersweet.

Once Liliom kills himself and is taken into the afterlife, which is really a railroad track in the sky, the film takes an innocent reflective tone, not entirely unlike A Christmas Carol. Liliom isn’t as stubborn as Mr. Scrooge, but he finds himself in a similar situation. In this case, the conclusion is more poignant than it is hopeful. Liliom, after ten years of “conventional rehabilitation” (i.e. hell) is given an opportunity to connect with his daughter and Julie one last time. He does so on accident before ascending into heaven.

If there’s anything inherently wrong with Borzage’s picture, it’s that the tonal shift that comes with the introduction of the after life is a little bit awkward. We get a harsh, brutual, yet beautiful world for about an hour and then get something of pure fantasy for the final thirty minutes. Borzage pulls it off, though. Farrell’s Liliom is neither smart nor likable, but like the after life’s train’s conductor, we sympathize with him. We, too, fall in love with the faithful and innocent Julie and we, too, want to help her. There’s something ridiculous in the narrative, but thankfully, it does little damage to the film’s overall power. No question, this is one of Borzage’s very best.

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