Last week, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films presented a screening of Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms, an adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel. Borzage is a great filmmaker, but the general consensus surrounding him seems to argue that he is a neglected director, even though his work does not lack for incisive and important critical commentary, particularly here in the pages of the Reader. And yet his films have never really captured the public’s imagination, perhaps because they deal so closely with matters generally considered sentimental, frivolous, or—for lack of a better word—uncool; stuff like love, romance, hope, and emotion. So much of the writing on Borzage general scholarship restricts him as a sort of transcendental romantic, a director whose films envision a world where romantic love holds limitless power, even the ability to transform time and space. Admittedly, there’s enough evidence in his work to support such claims—including the final sequence in A Farewell to Arms—but the more I work through Borzage’s filmography (and I regret to admit that I haven’t seen nearly enough) the more I detect a sort of earthbound humanism that runs parallel with his mystical romanticism. Taken hand in hand, these seemingly disparate elements allow for a deeper appreciation of the director and his work. You can find my five favorite Borzage films below.
5. Mannequin (1937) Maybe it’s because I’m still something of a Borzage novice that I find this supposedly minor work thoroughly rewarding. There are some wondrous visual flourishes here, and I’m always enthralled by Joan Crawford, though Borzage himself seems taken with Alan Curtis, the underrated Chicago actor who appeared in films by Douglas Sirk and Josef von Sternberg.
4. I’ve Always Loved You (1946) Borzage’s late period is filled with some impossibly rich films, and this one is my favorite. (Here’s where I admit that I haven’t seen 1948’s Moonrise, considered by some to be his best film, period.) Like so many of the director’s films, it’s an unabashed celebration of romance, but certain lurid elements—particularly the truly noxious Technicolor—give things a unique twist. It’s also one of the better Republic releases from this era.
3. Little Man, What Now? (1934) This pre-Code drama ran afoul of studio brass and the Hays Office, and its politics remain amorphous, if not outright confusing. But like all of Borzage’s films about Germany and Europe’s march toward WWII, the film relies on intuition and remarkable character interplay to articulate both his political leanings as well as his feelings toward fascism’s effect on domestic life. Much has been made of the way Borzage filmed faces—Margaret Sullavan’s is particularly expressive here.
2. The Mortal Storm (1940) This drama about the rise of Nazism is among the director’s most somber films. It opens with an ominous voice-over that chronicles the history of man and the human condition, then settles into a suitably serious story of Hitler’s rise and the pervasive influence of fascism over Germany. Borzage’s trademark romanticism is relegated to the margins, emerging gradually in wistful intervals before arriving full force by the time the film reaches its elegant climax, a concluding two or three minutes brimming with equal parts hope, love, death, and sadness.
1. History Is Made at Night (1937) An obvious choice, but I can’t deny such a masterpiece. There’s no better place to start if you’re new to Borzage, 1930s American film, or melodrama. (Or all three, really.) Dave Kehr put it perfectly: “It is melodrama, certainly, but melodrama played with so much conviction and exquisite sensitivity that all the viewer’s defenses are destroyed.” Indeed, Borzage’s ability to disarm an audience is unmatched; the final sequence is more joyous, delirious, and exhilarating than a lesser filmmaker’s entire career.