- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

The auspicious new DVD set called “Murnau, Borzage and Fox” grants pride of place to F.W. Murnau’s 1927 feature “Sunrise,” one of the most esteemed of late silent movies. It is not emerging from obscurity, however.

“Sunrise” was part of an earlier “studio classics” set released by 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. Although it began on a creative high note, the Murnau career at Fox proved shorter than either the director or company founder William Fox had anticipated; it ended after three pictures, one of them (“4 Devils”) a lost film for many decades.

Frank Borzage (1893-1962) was a contract director for seven years at Fox and completed 18 films during that period, 1925-1932. Ten of the 12 complete selections in “Murnau, Borzage and Fox” were directed by Mr. Borzage, so his second billing thinly conceals the fact that the set is by and large a Borzage retrospective.

Moreover, it’s a retrospective that revives several titles that have never enjoyed visibility in conventional television syndication or the home video market. This neglect has obscured even the legendary, rapturous romantic melodramas that co-starred Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, “Seventh Heaven” and “Street Angel.” Made right after “Sunrise,” these heartbreaking classics joined it as prominent nominees at the first Academy Award ceremony, where Miss Gaynor was named best actress for all three films and Mr. Borzage won as best director for “Seventh Heaven.”

Five of the 10 silent movies directed at Fox by Mr. Borzage are preserved in the new DVD collection. One of them, “The River,” which features Mr. Farrell as a lovesick and storm-tossed protagonist, survives only in fragments, and the source material looks pretty ragged compared to the other selections.

Six of the eight talking films from Mr. Borzage’s Fox tenure are also in the set. These include the first talkie that starred comedian Will Rogers, “They Had To See Paris,” circa 1929. It was followed by another invaluable showcase for a distinctive, durably appealing performer: “Song O’ My Heart,” an awkwardly fictionalized pretext for a 1930 recital film with the great Irish tenor John McCormack.

Mr. Borzage directed another theatrical landmark of a sort in 1930: the first sound-era adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s fatalistic allegory-monstrosity “Liliom,” almost 20 years old at the time and another 25 away from being improved by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II into “Carousel.” Mr. Borzage seems to have been under the influence of relentless expressionism on this occasion, perhaps reflecting a Broadway production of the late 1920s.

He became an Academy Award winner for a second time with a domestic comedy-melodrama of 1931 titled, inexplicably, “Bad Girl.” One of the revelations of the set is that “Bad Girl” has not aged as attractively as a 1932 successor, “After Tomorrow,” which champions the romance of Charles Farrell and Marian Nixon as struggling Manhattan sweethearts. Their happiness remains hostage to the character flaws and infirmities of their parents, superbly played by Josephine Hull, Minna Gombell and William Collier Sr.

Miss Hull’s genius for batty-maddening matrons was already evident in this film, her second, in which she was hired to re-create her Broadway role. This swell idea became a career bias: She appeared in only five movies, later re-creating her roles in “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Harvey.” She won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the latter.

In addition to preserving fleeting highlights of theatrical history (Will Rogers was transposing one of his stage successes in “They Had To See Paris”), the earliest Borzage talkies also supply an index to improvements in recorded sound with the Fox Movietone system, an optical format that eventually became the industry standard. As a matter of fact, the process of evolution begins even earlier, with the musical track for “Seventh Heaven,” dominated by the Erno Rappe-Lew Pollack standard “Diane,” alluding to Janet Gaynor’s heroine.

This still familiar love song is occasionally placed in dissonant conflict with a martial theme, once World War I has rudely separated hero and heroine. By the time John McCormack’s incredible vocal instrument is ringing out in “Song O’ My Heart” — most effectively in medium close-ups that also take full advantage of his genial presence — it’s easy to understand why voices became a huge enhancement to moviegoing pleasure.

Frank Borzage remained a prolific Hollywood director during the 1930s and 1940s. His flair for star-crossed love stories was exploited soon after he left Fox, in “A Farewell to Arms” with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, “Man’s Castle” with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, and “Little Man, What Now?” with Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery.

Mr. Borzage returned to musicals every so often, from “Flirtation Walk” and “Shipmates Forever” with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler to “Stage Door Canteen,” which reunited him with the Broadway producer (and Canteen organizer) John Golden, a co-writer of “After Tomorrow.”

An extended period under contract at MGM, from 1935 to 1942, resulted in multiple Borzage movies with Joan Crawford and Margaret Sullavan, from “Mannequin” to “The Mortal Storm.”

A salutary consequence of the “Murnau, Borzage and Fox” set would be to encourage a fresh appreciation of the Borzage prospect might be reinforced by the coincidental publication of Michael Sragow’s admirable biography, “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master,” which makes a persuasive case for rediscovering the career of another versatile, seasoned, pictorially astute Hollywood director who made a successful transition from silents to talkies.

Mr. Sragow recalls a 1940 interview in which his subject alluded to several colleagues who had been “thrown out on their ears and told they were through” during the transition period, only to prove their staying power. Evidently, he named John Ford, King Vidor, Henry King and Frank Borzage. The list could be much longer and justify a year or two of illuminating retrospectives.

Of course, in the 70th anniversary year of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind,” Victor Fleming looms larger than many of his contemporaries. But Frank Borzage didn’t do badly by MGM in 1938 with “Three Comrades” and “The Shining Hour” and in 1940 with “Strange Cargo” and “The Mortal Storm.” There’s a lot to be said for the generation that took creative command of popular filmmaking during the silent era and remained capable and savvy enough to enhance skills and reputations through the years of the studio system and the Production Code. Why not make it a year for celebrating the merits of the Old Pros?

TITLE: “Murnau, Borzage and Fox”

CONTENTS: 12-disc set with 12 complete movies and two fragmentary titles directed by F.W. Murnau or Frank Borzage from 1925 to 1932 at the Fox Film Corp., augmented by a documentary feature and two illustrated books

RUNNING TIME: About 20 hours, plus supplementary material

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.foxhome.com

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