Gettin’ Sentimental: Borzage and Ford

10 05 2010

Foreword: This is paper is for my Pop Culture 3500 class, taught by Dr. Dan Shoemaker. I am posting this paper in hopes of a discussion here, as well for my own archival purposes. Let’s cross our fingers that I’m not breaking some obscure clause in the curriculum about re-posting essays on personal blogs.

Gettin’ Sentimental: Borzage vs Ford

Within the past decade or so, the long-forgotten Frank Borzage has been given a critical revival. Like many overlooked filmmakers of Hollywood’s early years, this has been particularly helped by the advancements in home video distribution. His work is that of a relentless romantic, often described as devoid of cynicism, and detached from reality. Borzage’s stories are often described as love stories but that can only capture a very small aspect of his work. It’s mushy like a Hallmark card, yet these postcards are bursting from the sides with lyrical moments that rescue the maudlin topics from being too optimistic.

John Ford, on the other hand, has never needed a critical revival. Ever since he wowed audience in 1924 with The Iron Horse, he has been considered cinematic royalty. Ford himself, with his eye patch, pipe, and stubborn bravado, would undoubtedly scoff at this or any analysis. He once said “I love making pictures but I don`t like talking about them.” (Sinclair) I don’t exactly disagree with Ford’s persona of denying anyone of any insight into what his films mean. Whatever the case, Borzage and Ford are clashing personas. Borzage is the eager, optimistic, perhaps even naïve romantic and Ford (while displaying the same three traits in his work from time to time) was the well-read, snarky, critical darling. He is an American icon, while Borzage is only an icon for big-time cinephiles.

Ford is not a die-hard realist, though, and I hope my characterization of him didn’t give off that impression, but in real life, he was very closed-off. Borzage, had he be given the opportunity, would perhaps have been a more charming personality. Ford is still a romantic, though he’s not quite on the level as Borzage, there’s a grain of skepticism within every poetic stanza. His 1939 biographical picture, Young Mr. Lincoln demonstrates this perfectly. It is obviously a dramatized portrait of honest Abe; it paints him as the iconic moralistic hero, not unlike the same Lincoln in our history books. Ford himself once said that “When the legend becomes fact, film the legend” (Gallagher) and this is something he took to the grave with him. He was one of the few directors who could qualify as a historian, but he’d be a very difficult one.

Young Mr. Lincoln, made in 1939, comes during the most artistically successful period of Ford’s career. Between 1939 and 1941 he would leave his mark on the world of cinema with films like Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, and the highly underrated Tobacco Road. It’s easy for this film to fall through the cracks, especially when one considers the reputation of the first three mentioned. Stagecoach is credited with reviving the western genre (in truth, it gave birth to audiences taking the genre seriously), while the other two, both literary adaptations, had plenty of success at the Academy Awards. Ford himself would never claim to care about the approval of the masses and I no reason to doubt the legitimacy of this sentiment. However, his popularity is important, though. There are very few artists who are as synonymous with Americana as Ford, yet the filmmaker had a huge following in Europe. Ford’s apple pie sentimentality is at its best in Young Mr. Lincoln, hardly a surprise when one considers the similar sentimentalism history has associated with Lincoln himself.

In sharp contrast, Frank Borzage’s 1933 Man’s Castle is a film with little interest in location. Borzage’s tale of a confusing and complicated love affair has a universal appeal. Borzage was constantly drawing on his previous works. His (arguably) best-remembered work, Seventh Heaven tells a story of two similar misfit lovers and takes place in the slums of Paris. While there is an exoticism here, it is a very minor element. By the time he switched to sound, Borzage had abandoned this slant. Thus, Man’s Castle, though drawing from American experiences during the Great Depression, feels devoid of a location. Borzage’s interests lie in his characters, who they are, not where they are. This should be evident in the fact that he so frequently chooses to portray the lower class. Man’s Castle is indeed a “gritty” realistic drama, but this comes from the passion of the performers, not from a filmmaker trying to push an agenda.

Spencer Tracy has, thanks to the latter part of his career, established a very nice image for himself in public, but in the 30s, he was hard to like. There’s no denying it, his character in Man’s Castle, is an asshole. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction. In September 1933, following the film’s completion, Tracy was arrested for public intoxication. He had been unsuccessfully dealing with a drinking problem for well over a year at that point. On paper, the problem seems easy to explain. Tracy, a married man, had developed feelings for his co-star, Loretta Young. The two performers, both Catholic, resisted their mutual feelings, and the affair was eventually brushed under a rug. However, Tracy never forgot about Young, though. Many years later, his daughter Susan found the couples’ “breakup” letter and showed it to Young, she was extremely touched. All of this just contributes to the realism of Borzage’s film, which is odd coming from a film that is meant for the audience to escape reality. That’s not to say the film is escapism, as it does portray the life of an extremely poor couple and displays the effects of the depression, but Bill and Trina themselves are able to escape, if only temporary, in their love for each other.

There’s a love story in Ford’s film too, but not only is it minor, it also runs its course within the first twenty minutes of the film. In a now famous tracking shot, Henry Fonda’s Lincoln walks side by side with the woman he desires, Pauline Moore’s Ann Rutledge. Soon after, Lincoln skips a stone in the river and its ripples turn into glaciers, the music takes a sharp turn. Lincoln, now in proper winter attire, is back where he started. Ann is there as well, but it is her grave. Abe proceeds to conduct a conversation with the grave, a common motif for Ford that is present in Judge Priest and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, among other films. There are hints of Ann’s haunting influence on Abe throughout the film, and when he becomes the interest of a socialite woman, he turns down her advances. While attractive, she seems dull and unremarkable compared to Ann. Whether this is true of her character or not is not of any interest to Ford. He captures how Abe sees her, someone incapable of understanding his past and thus, worthless.

The “meatiest” part of Ford’s film is the trial, which is over-the-top, comical, and primitive. It’s seen as big problem to modern eyes to portray the legal system as something so silly and while laughs can be one explanation, the other seems more substantial. It’s impossible to know whether or not trials were actually as disorganized as the one Ford captures, but conventional wisdom would tell you that he’d have to be close. One should also consider the tone of every other trial in film. They are almost always stern, serious, and filled with tension. Ford, if anything, should be applauded for his unique approach to the subject, even if it does show the film to be somewhat “immature.” While he was a logical filmmaker, he did his best to not drain the energy out of his work through preaching. There’s a heavy hand in some of his political assertions later on, but never does one get the impression of Ford on a soapbox. He would be far too embarrassed to display such passion or protest in his work. If there’s a “lesson” in this particular film, it’s just that everyone is entitled to a fair and even trial. It’s perhaps ironic that Ford, the godfather of the western genre, expressed this motif in a much different way than a western following the same theme, such as Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide. In that film, the hero must escort a criminal to his trial, in which he will inevitably be found guilty. Ford’s film pays off with what the audiences suspected all along: both of Lincoln’s clients are innocent. It feels much less labored than the twist ending of Walsh’s work. It be extreme, perhaps, to accuse Ford of caring little about plot, but he definitely is one of the filmmaker who seems to have higher priorities. Here, the story seems like a backdrop: the real drama comes from the fascination we get from watching Fonda’s Lincoln interact. An awkward quiet sequence in which Lincoln plays around on his jew harp would seem tedious to mainstream audiences if they didn’t know the larger than life presence of Lincoln.

Borzage makes his characters icons, too, but they are closer to well-aged Greek statues. They are representations of humans, not a representation of a human. Still, though, they have the same larger-than-life complex, because, as many of Borzage’s protagonists, they’re drawn together by a love that will outlast every struggle in the universe or something equally mushy and pretentious. This is not meant as a slight to Borzage, because he is fairly conscious of the “pragmatic fairy tales” he tells, but where as he shows “no interest in the workings of daily life” (Kent Jones)  he still manages to demonstrate an absolutely poignant, and sometimes, heartbreaking understanding of primal passions like love, yearning, and fear. He’s a melodramatist, but he is a damn effective one. He cares about his lovers, in spite of all the pitfalls he places on their path.

I suppose my main point is about “love” and the way both directors approach the subject. It’s a vague one, and any attempt at specifying it just complicates things further. Mind my indulgence into my personal life, but I think it’s suitable, if not essential for discussing the subject. Simply stated, I am a romantic failure. I’m young and have plenty of time, but I know I couldn’t be further from finding a substantial romantic relationship. Yet, perhaps from inheriting the “sensitive, quiet loner” stock personality type from my father, I constantly hope, dream, and yearn for one. It’s a little pathetic, in all honesty, but it’s the same tone that one can find permeating from every frame of Man’s Castle. It’s like a love story for people who can’t find love. Sure, now there’s countless “indie” flicks about lonely twenty somethings finding and/or failing to find love but that’s too literal. It doesn’t get the sentiment, Borzage does. Borzage is the embodiment of me being upset by loneliness. In contrast, Ford, at least here, presents a potential new romance as an embodiment of me being angry. Lincoln’s potential suitor is, as I’ve already expressed, so pathetic and dull that she seems like an insult to any woman for which he has held a minor interest.

Hervé Dumont found Borzage’s depiction of intimate scenes to be detrimental to the action. (Jones) This was intended as criticism, but it also reflects Borzage’s ability as a filmmaker. The “melodramatist” tag evokes the work of Douglas Sirk, but his stories were focused on the actions, consequences, and situations in which people found themselves. Borzage’s “plots” are not what takes center stage. No, instead, the focus lies upon the faces of his protagonists. It is a little extravagant to say he’s in their heads, but he’s still immersed in their physical interaction. Ford, on the other hand, is obviously known to completely embrace the “action” and many identify him and colleague Howard Hawks as the epitome of Hollywood’s finest action directors. In the case of Young Mr. Lincoln, however, there is little to be found. What Ford was embracing here was apple pie sentimentality that was begininning to be weighed down by the cynical work of young post-depression directors. He was creating propaganda before it was even necessary. Like Borzage’s link with melodrama, I don’t mean propaganda in a negative way. After all, I already mentioned that Ford was not one to get on a soapbox, but in this particular film, there is something so inescapably American about the proceedings. Of course, it is about one of America’s most iconic figures, but still, even without that, it reeks of Americana. That’s what I mean when I describe it as propaganda; it’s an uplifting film, one that can get us to rally around our commonality. The best thing about it is that it is timeless, since there wasn’t a call for propaganda, Ford didn’t have to worry about portraying America in an overly flattering way, and instead he embraced the scars and blemishes. The result is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating works from a cinematic genius.

Man’s Castle does not appeal to a group of people, it is meant to appeal to all people. It’s quite the oddity that Ford would become so popular across the ocean, especially compared to Borzage. Maybe Ford’s vision of Americana is so fascinating to foreign eyes that he’s seen more as a ethnographer, albeit one who greatly dramatizes the past. As a fan of both, I am eager to help others embrace their approaches. They’re not completely different, but that subtle schism between their ideological interests is something that can easily be missed by those unfamiliar with both directors. Both filmmakers produced fascinating work and perhaps more importantly, both are equally fascinating individuals. As Borzage’s popularity (among film circles, that is) grows, I hope the comparative analysis with Ford can grow as well.

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4 responses

10 05 2010
Ian

I myself am hesitant with the Ford/Borzage comparison. Ford romanticizes the past, Borzage romanticizes the power of love. What is most interesting is that people today (in America) seem to romanticize the past the way Ford does and so have no problem with his films; but nobody seems to romanticize about love the way Borzage did, so might view him as “naive.” This might indicate one of two things: that Ford has had a far greater effect on our culture than Borzage (certainly true, but perhaps not the reason for the differing romanticism); or that our current “film canon” is the result of a culture which romanticizes its past and so prefers Ford to Borzage. One could also approach Ford as the “masculine” director (Borzage the “feminine”), which might also clue us in to cultural trends. (Perhaps the better director to analyze is Hawks, who romanticizes masculinity.)

Hmm… I am interested in hearing others thoughts.

11 05 2010
Jake Savage

It’s not so much a comparison as it is a comparative investigation (if that make sense) which stems from the fact that I think these are the two directors that are most responsible for my interest in older Hollywood cinema. I thought about doing Hawks but the fact that they he and Borzage were polar opposite actually played against what I was trying to do. I think Ford and Borzage overlapped with some territory (only a little bit, though) and so uh, yeah.

I could write a whole separate paper on the state of the film canon but it would be a mess.

13 05 2010
Ian

I think it’d be interesting to see a serious blogosphere discussion about our current film canon. I feel like (though cannot confirm as I have not lived through it) the canon has changed drastically since the introduction of home video (and the arthouse canon is now heavily shaped by Criterion and MoC and the like) and has changed even more rapidly now that we have the internet and have full access to an actualized ‘canon’ as well as access to a gazillion more movies and so on.

This seems to be a good enough place to start that discussion. Maybe we can turn it into a big deal.

13 05 2010
Jake Savage

I’m always up for some publicity.

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