Doctors’ Wives (1931)

2 03 2010

I have to preface this review by mentioning that I am a Borzage apologist. He made very few films that I cannot defend and quite frankly, this is not one of them. There’s only a handful that I feel comfortable calling outright masterpieces (Man’s Castle is at least one) but even his minor stuff (such as this film) have a tremendous impact on me. The whole “romantic” angle is probably overplayed by every critical overview of Borzage, but it simply cannot be expressed enough. Simply stated, no one in Hollywood knew how to craft a love story quite like him. Sure, he could be hokey at times, but there is no denying that he matched such moments with ones of pure cinematic bliss.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Borzage film if there wasn’t something of a love story. Joan Bennett assists a dreamy doctor, they hopelessly fall in love, and get married. That alone sounds like the outline for some of Borzage’s best work. But it’s just the first act. From there, Bennett is neglected by her husband because of his business. She grows restless of her husband’s devotion to his profession and in the process, begins to suspect him of infidelity.

Once we get past the initial falling in love phase for the two main characters, Borzage kind of turns his own cinema on its heels. It almost feels like he’s playing off of the criticism that his films are disconnected from reality. This comes crashing down hard on Bennett immediately as she realizes that the love she feels for her husband may be mutual, but it also goes unrequited. The sorrow expressed by a failed relationship (or simply a failing one) is an emotion uncommon for Borzage. His area of expertise is mostly lovers that are divided by some physical, imposing force or at least some tragic character flaw. Here, it’s just an unmitigated failure, though by the ending, Borzage has stretched the story back into his aforementioned area of expertise.

In all honesty, this might sell more as a “pre-code melodrama” than as a young Borzage working out the kinks of his post-silent aesthetics. I might just be too partial towards him to feel like pointing out the flaws, but while I don’t completely love this movie, I have some special admiration for it. Not the same as “respect” so to speak, more of a crush. Fitting, I suppose, considering what Borzage is interested in photographing, but there’s something about nearly all of his work that just manages to get to me in some way. I might not think every film of his is perfection, but there’s something memorable in all of them. In this case, I think I am going to have a hard time forgetting Victor Varconi’s line about love. It is so earnest and sincere, like most things Borzage related.

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