Big City (1937)

16 05 2009

The first fifteen minutes or so of this are probably the best fifteen minutes I’ve seen in any Borzage film. Unfortunately, that tone doesn’t hold its own for much longer. The opening sequences involving Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer are mindblowingly brilliant. There relationship, at least initially, is one of the most pleasant and “advanced” I’ve seen from a film in a long time. This could read as a criticism, but personally, I feel that Borzage is much more successful in portraying the blissful existence of successful romantics rather than the struggles of problematic and dysfunctional ones. From there, though, conventional narrative “incidents” occur pushing the film into the territory of a slightly over the top genre picture, which just happens to have a love story inside of it. When Borzage indulges in his impulses, the film is almost a revelation, but he doesn’t do that enough.

Like his much more remembered film from nine years earlier, Seventh Heaven, this film (not so gracefully) switches it original, more impressive tone involving a romantic relationship to something a bit more generic. In his earlier film, it’s a war movie, but here the gears are changed to resemble something close to the gangster films that Warner Brothers had churned out at a rapid rate during the earlier part of the 1930s. It doesn’t help that I’ve been on something of a “WB gangster” kick lately, but Borzage’s idea of a gangster film pales in comparison to the ideas of William A. Wellman.

As I’ve already mentioned, the best parts of the film are when Frank Borzage shows his true interests, in other words, when the film is a love story that has little to no care for regular plot developments. Tracy is definitely picking up where his character in Man’s Castle left off, but simply stated, he’s not as much of an asshole here. He’s still got a mean edge to him, but this only manifests in teasing his spouse rather than criticizing her as he did to Loretta Young in the aforementioned film.

Tracy, as he almost always was when working with Borzage, is brilliant here. Unfortunately, the great charactor actor Charley Grapewin is wasted here. He plays a classy mayor here, the antithesis of the characters depicted in his very best performances. On the other hand, Luise Rainer impressed me a great deal here. I wouldn’t mind seeing her a few more times, but it looks like his career wasn’t all that extensive.

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