Home Video Reviews
To date. In late 2008, Fox followed up Ford at Fox with an even more eclectic release designed to satisfy the most ardent cineaste: Murnau, Borzage and Fox. Comprised of twelve DVDs (twelve feature films and a feature-length documentary) and two oversized books of photographs, it explores a fascinating and unique chapter in American film history: when one Hollywood studio made a conscious effort to reach the pinnacle of artistic achievement. MGM may have mastered the market in masterful storytelling and technical polish, but studio head William Fox had higher aims. He cultivated a stable of visionaries who were encouraged to deviate from the factory-production model and open up the boundaries of cinema.
At the forefront of Fox's crusade was F.W. Murnau, who had been recruited from the Ufa studios, where he had made such influential films as The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926). Once Murnau arrived at the Fox lot and began work on his film Sunrise: A Song of Two Human (1927, winner of the first Academy Award for "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production," and commonly regarded as the greatest silent movie ever made), Fox encouraged other directors to observe Murnau and follow his example. He allowed them the freedom and the resources to pursue masterpieces of their own.
Prominent among these other filmmakers were Frank Borzage, John Ford, and Howard Hawks. Great directors in their own right, they didn't merely imitate Murnau (though at times they did), but learned the degree to which an intimate drama could unfurl into something cinematically transcendent.
Economic difficulties eventually forced the studio to adopt a more modest approach to art-making, but for a time, Fox was a place where certain directors were allowed to indulge their greatest creative fantasies. The films collected in Murnau, Borzage and Fox allow viewers to experience that short-lived, once-in-a-lifetime situation in meticulously-prepared DVDs.
The set is the perfect companion piece to the monumental Ford at Fox. It may contain fewer discs, but the fact that it represents the work of lesser known directors, and focuses on a particular moment in Fox's evolution makes it a more daring collection than its acclaimed predecessor, and one that film history enthusiasts will find even more satisfying.
The films are preceded by disclaimers, stating they were mastered from "best surviving source material available." The quality of film material varies greatly, but on the whole the films are at or above the technical standard for films of this vintage and obscurity. Anyone who watches silents on DVD will be pleased with the quality of presentation. Some digital cleanup could have been performed on some of the more obtrusive blemishes (particularly in 7th Heaven ) but one musn't quibble. A backlash against digital restoration (some call it tampering) has been building for some time, since it alters the integrity of the surviving film element. I personally have no complaints if a studio chooses to present a film in the condition in which the actual print/negative exists, but those who desire flawless image quality are hereby forewarned.
The cornerstone of Murnau, Borzage and Fox is, of course, Sunrise, Murnau's brazenly artsy tale of a rural man (George O'Brien) who is tempted to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) by a big-city seductress (Margaret Livingston). "The Man" falters, and travels to the city with "The Wife," where their relationship blooms unexpectedly. Sunrise is presented as a dual-sided disc. Side A presents the film almost identically to Fox's 2002 DVD release The "Best Picture" Collection (theatrical trailer, audio commentary by director of photography John Bailey, 1927 Movietone score, 2002 score composed by Timothy Brock, outtake footage, etc.). The material pertaining to Murnau's lost film 4 Devils (1928) has been removed from the Sunrise and relocated on the disc of City Girl (1930).
The only significant improvement over the old DVD of Sunrise is the inclusion, on Side B, of a print of the film held by the Narodni Filmovy Archiv in Prague. It is unclear whether the side B version -- referred to as the "European silent version" -- is comprised of different footage from the familiar "Movietone version" on Side A (as international release versions sometimes were). However, the image quality is substantially improved over the standard edition, with a clarity and range of contrast that has never been seen in the U.S. since its initial release. The only drawback is it is presented with Czech intertitles, so it is something that should be reserved for second-viewings (after one has experienced the film with the original, sometimes animated, English intertitles). One authoring glitch to beware of: there is no on-screen menu option for English subtitles -- only French, Spanish and none. The English subtitles usually appear beneath the Czech intertitles by default. However, when viewed on my particular Blu-Ray machine, the English titles did not automatically appear, and had to be manually located via remote, with some difficulty.
Most people are not buying this pricey and lavish boxed set for a new edition of Sunrise. They are seeking the lesser-known films that have either circulated in poor-quality bootlegs or been locked within the Fox vaults for decades. Such a film is Murnau's City Girl. Often overlooked because it survives in a version that was edited without Murnau's involvement, City Girl is a breath-taking rediscovery -- and deserves to have the asterisk removed from its reputation. It does not include the camera pyrotechnics of Murnau's earlier work. Instead it is a more delicate, low-key drama which, curiously, appears to have been influenced by the Borzage films (which had been inspired by the Murnau films). As a result, it has a depth of feeling and emotional maturity that is often lacking in Murnau's work (where characters feel more like symbols, rather than flesh-and-blood beings).
Charles Farrell (who starred in virtually all the Borzage high-art films) plays Lem Tustine, a Minnesota wheat-farmer's son who has been sent to the big city to sell the year's crop. He meets and falls in love with a lonely waitress (Mary Duncan) and takes her home to the folks. Upon their arrival, Kate discovers that Lem is controlled by his domineering father (David Torrence), who rejects her as a gold-digger from before the moment he meets her. Lem and Kate's relationship further crumbles when a band of rowdy laborers (led by Richard Alexander) arrive to harvest the crop, and begin flirting with the worldly woman whom fate has dropped onto the joyless farm. An approaching hailstorm pushes the workers to their physical limits, and puts an emotional strain on the Tustine family that seems destined to break them apart or, possibly, bind them together
City Girl survives in better condition than any other film in the collection. Its image quality is exceptional and virtually without blemish. The 2008 score, by Christopher Caliendo, is airy and bright. This generally suits the film well but is so cheerful that it tends to diminish the air of tragedy that lingers about the plot, from the very beginning.
Murnau's second American film, now lost, is 4 Devils, which is represented in script material and photos recycled from the previous DVD release of Sunrise. New in this collection, however, is a lavish book of photographs from the film, which serves to further whet our appetites for a film we are, unfortunately, unlikely ever to see.
Murnau and Borzage responded to the Fox windfall in different ways. Murnau had a more European approach. he designed every shot for the effect it would have upon the eye, and tuned every visual element -- production design, costume, camera movement, performance -- for heightened artistic expression. Borzage, on the other hand, was more American in his style, focusing his energy on storytelling, using the Fox resources to provide a rich and realistic canvas -- for heightened emotion.
The 1925 film Lazybones, made prior to Murnau's arrival on the lot, helps illuminate the degree to which Borzage's visual style was influenced by the emigre. Borzage is in full command of the emotionally complex characters and moments of bitter pathos that highlight his "prime" work, but it lacks the visual eloquence that Murnau brought to the studio. Cowboy star Buck Jones is Lazybones, a thoroughly unmotivated rustic bachelor who fatefully rescues from drowning a suicidal woman, Ruth Fanning (Zasu Pitts), who is despondent over revealing her infant child to her family. Lazybones agrees to not only protect Ruth's secret, but to raise the child until her family is ready to accept her. Unfortunately, little Kit remains an outcast from the intolerant Fanning clan, and Lazybones continues to father the pitiful waif, watching her grow to womanhood, ignorant of her own parentage.
The emotional texture of Lazybones is remarkable for a film of 1925, and it would surely stand alongside Borzage's best-known works, were it not for a misguided turn in the final reel, when Lazybones falls in love with his adoptive daughter Kit (Madge Bellamy), who has just come of age. The sudden shift from paternal affection to sexual desire derails our identification with the hero, and makes us aware of the filmmaker trying to pile more pathos onto the story than its narrative framework can support.
7th Heaven was made just two years after Lazybones but, stylistically, they are worlds apart. One immediately sees what effect carte blanche and a visionary mentor such as Murnau had upon a director who might have otherwise been nothing more than a capable dramatist.
7th Heaven stars Janet Gaynor as Diane, a Parisian waif abused by her absinth-crazed sister (Gladys Brockwell) and driven by whip into the streets, where she is rescued by Chico (Charles Farrell), a sewer-cleaner who aspires to advance above-ground to street-sweeper. When Diane is threatened with arrest, Chico claims she is his wife, and they are suddenly thrust into a relationship. To satisfy the police, Diane moves in to Chico's spartan seventh-floor apartment, the walk-up paradise of the film's title. In spite of the seedy milieu, Diane and Chico are a couple of innocents, who inevitably warm to one another. At the very moment when Chico finally professes his love for Diane, war breaks out and he is swept off to battle, leaving her to work in a munitions factory. Years pass and the war deals the lovers a fateful blow, and Diane faces the news that Chico has died in battle. Will she accept the truth -- or find some way of prolonging the delicate happiness she found in Seventh Heaven?
One of the most deluxe discs in the collection, 7th Heaven (1927) is loaded with significant extras. The "final shooting script" is presented in its entirety, typeset in the style of silent-movie intertitles. Without chapters or an index, however, paging through the hundreds of menu cards in one setting is a time-consuming task. Other bonuses include an exhaustive collection of production stills, and brief notes by music historian Miles Kreuger on the Movietone score by Erno Rapee that accompanies the DVD presentation. The most enlightening special feature is by far the audio commentary track. Unlike the typical supplemental audio comprised of obvious observations and free-associating filmmakers, the track of 7th Heaven is dense with historical and technical information provided by writers Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard. Even when they wander into speculation about Borzage's creative process, the insights are meaningful, the anecdotes amusing, and supported with an astonishing array of statistics and factoids.
The visual quality of 7th Heaven is below studio standards, grainy and scratched throughout, sometimes dupey. This is not the fault of the DVD producer, but a studio that did not hold silent films in high enough regard after the arrival of sound to more carefully preserve them (and Fox is by no means the only studio that took this stance).
On the flipside of 7th Heaven is a reconstruction of Borzage's The River (1929), which exists in fragmentary form, missing, "the beginning, two intermediary scenes, and the final reel." There remains enough of The River to see that Borzage could make a delicately observed romance in the mold of 7th Heaven and Lucky Star without Janet Gaynor in the lead. Farrell stars opposite City Girl's Mary Duncan in a delicate romance set in the Rocky Mountains near the site of a dam under construction. Of particular note is a brazenly erotic sequence in which Duncan discovers Farrell swimming in the nude.
The reconstruction was compiled from multiple of source elements, of varying quality. The missing scenes are represented in a collection of titles and stills that appears to have been compiled on film some years ago. The quality of these passages is not very good (seeming to come from an outdated analog video master), with considerable grain, "noisy" blacks, and an unstable image. Once we get to the surviving footage, the image quality appreciates considerably. The restoration, conducted by Herv Dumont on behalf of the Swiss Film Archive, includes all the surviving footage held by 20th-Century Fox, as well as a rediscovered scene located by Swedish film censors. It is backed with a surviving Movietone score, presumably the one composed for the film. Originally released at 84 minutes, the reconstruction of The River runs 56 minutes, 40 seconds, and includes an extensive gallery of production stills.
It should be noted that The River was released on DVD in early 2008 in PAL on the Filmmuseum label, along with Borzage's pre-Fox two-reelers The Pitch o' Chance (1915), The Pilgrim (1916), and Nugget Jim's Pardner (1916), which do not appear in Murnau, Borzage and Fox.
One of the most underrated romances of the silent era (partly because for decades no prints were known to exist), Lucky Star is another variation on the Farrell/Gaynor sensitive he-man/neglected waif story. Although it recycles numerous ingredients from the previous Farrell/Gaynor romances, it still manages to strike notes of exquisite emotional richness. Farrell is Tim Osborn, a rugged member of a power line crew, and Gaynor is a rural farmgirl who frequently interferes with their progress. Sent off to war, Tim's legs are crushed when his horse-drawn cart is struck by an artillery shell. Confined to a wheelchair, Tim returns to his mountain cabin. He maintains his good spirits, in spite of his isolation. He welcomes troublesome Mary's visits, and nicknames her "Baa-baa" because she is the black sheep of her family. Tim takes her under his wing, gives her gifts, washes her hair, and inevitably falls in love with her (echoing the surrogate father/daughter love story of Borzage's Lazybones). Childlike Mary is blind to his feelings and, in one of the most poignant scenes, scampers off to attend a Fireman's Ball, looking radiant in a cheap white dress, while Tim must remain behind in his chair. Circumstances cause Mary to become engaged to the local bully (Guinn Williams, who appears in a number of Borzage's films). Tim struggles for a way to intervene and stop the wedding but cannot steer his chair in the heavy snow. It seems that only a miracle will be able to reunite the deserving lovers and keep "Baa-baa" out of the goon's clutches.
Lucky Star has all the earmarks of a Fox specialty picture. The production design -- landscapes sculpted within a studio, constructed in forced perspective -- is particularly amazing.
In terms of source material, Lucky Star is among the best-looking films in the Borzage, Murnau and Fox collection. The 35mm film element was recovered by the Nederlands Filmmuseum of Amsterdam. Dutch intertitles have been replaced with English title cards, the content of which has been derived from historic records. The film is accompanied by a modest score composed by Christopher Caliendo, performed by a small orchestra, presented in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 stereo surround.
When Murnau, Borzage and Fox reaches the sound era, we suddenly discover the degree to which technology inhibited the visual expressiveness of cinema. One would hope that the dawn of sound would have provided Borzage with a new array of artistic opportunities. Regrettably, this was not the case. His first talkie, They Had To See Paris (1929) is completely lacking the emotional texture and aesthetic beauty of his recent silent films. It is not as wooden as some early sound pictures, but the sluggish pace, the stiff formality of the actors, the lack of visual richness, the reliance on stock footage, and the clumsy plotting make it the most unpleasant viewing experience of the entire collection. No film could provide a better example of the extent to which sound technology hamstrung some of Hollywood's finest directors.
Will Rogers stars as Pike Peters, a garage-owner in the small town of Claremore, Oklahoma. When oil is struck on his property, he becomes wealthy, and his wife Idy (Irene Rich) insists on raising the family's cultural awareness by taking them all to Paris. Some of the highjinks that ensue are amusing for a moment -- Pike befriending a stuffy Grand Duke (Theodore Lodi), Pike getting caught in the boudoir of a beautiful songstress (Fifi D'Orsay) -- but their pace so leaden that they are drained of life before they can conjure any chuckles.
Were it not for the opening credits, one would never believe They Had To See Paris was made by Borzage, at the top of his craft. The credits include a few names from The River, but the only significant contributor from the salad days of 7th Heaven is production designer Harry Oliver. Clearly, his creative input was severely limited, as the sets are consistently two-dimensional (like a stage backdrop) and without the expressive design of the prime films. Seeing Borzage and his crew being bridled by the demands of sound technology and studio politics is a heartbreaking thing to behold. Borzage could have made an expressive sound film. The same year, Rouben Mamoulian made the extraordinarily visual talkie Applause (1929). But Mamoulian had the support of the studio (Paramount), whereas Borzage was caught in a tightening of the belt at Fox as economic factors choked off the stream of self-indulgent art films that he, Murnau, and John Ford had been allowed to undertake.
Important to note that one of the screenwriters was Owen Davis, a playwright. Many studios made the fatal error of handing over the task of screenwriting to playwrights, under the simple assumption that they had superior skills at writing dialogue, not realizing the enormous difference between writing for the screen and writing for the stage. Instead of lingering on the expressive eyes of Janet Gaynor and the soulful gaze of Charles Farrell, Borzage let the story be told by Will Rogers, whose folsky witticisms occasionally warrant a nod of appreciation, but do nothing to engage the viewer in the storyline.
In terms of DVD quality, the 35mm film element of They Had To See Paris shows imperfections typical of a film of this vintage (watery stains that appear to be the early stages of nitrate decomposition), the overall look of the master is quite nice and sharp. The audio is very thin and at times difficult to decipher, but is an accurate representation of the early sound film experience. The disc includes a gallery of production stills and promotional artwork.
Liliom (1930) offered Borzage something of a return to the more stylized films of the late 1920s, being an intimate romance backed by high-concept production design. Based on the play by Ferenc Molnar, it centers upon a womanizing carnival spieler (Charles Farrell) who woos a young working girl named Julie (Rose Hobart). When Liliom and a friend (Lee Tracy) attempt to rob a factory clerk, he commits suicide rather than fall into the hands of the authorities. After death, his body is whisked away on a bizarre celestial locomotive (that recalls Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari  and Winsor McCay's The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend , while foreshadowing the style of Dr. Seuss). After being dispatched to hell for a decade (aboard a rocket-powered train), Liliom is allowed to return to earth to see Julie and his nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Will he be capable of performing one good deed to redeem himself -- or is he the foul brute all Julie's friends said he is?
Though a step back in the direction of prime Borzage, Liliom is hardly a return to form. His regular production designer, Harry Oliver, was given more resources than in the previous couple of films, but clearly not as much as he wielded on a film like 7th Heaven. The film has forced-perspective miniature sets, distorted trees, and low-key lighting, but the end result is stagy and flat (the design compares unfavorably with Fritz Lang's dark and moody version of Liliom, shot in France in 1934). Though not as rigid as, say, They Had To See Paris, Liliom's camera (commanded again by Chester Lyons) maintains too much distance from the actors -- giving the film a stiff theatrical tone it can do without. And there is very little movement from the actors, who stay mostly immobile so as not to wander too far from the boom microphone. The intentionally artificial sets would have worked much better if the viewer didn't spend so much time looking at them. The film's fatal flaw is its glacial pace. Borzage seems to have coached the cast to slowly enunciate every line and allow at least four seconds of silence after each character speaks.
The image and sound quality of Liliom are exceptional (though the Fox disclaimer appears yet again at the the beginning). Borzage manages to blend music with dialogue quite well (at a time when most directors considered it an either-or proposition). It is interesting to hear Farrell speak, after so many commanding silent roles -- and disappointing to find his voice is thin and high -- not at all what one imagines the burly farm-owner of Sunrise sounding like. The DVD includes a satisfying photo gallery.
Bad Girl (1932) earned Borzage an Oscar for Best Director, and the DVD is discussed at length in a review by TCM's ------- (HYPERLINK). After the Fox Studios had been forced to take a more conservative, formulaic approach to filmmaking (owing to the Great Depression and some ill-timed acquisitions made by Fox), Borzage worked on a number of projects that took him away from his area of expertise, and required that he expand his repertoire beyond the poignant, intimate romance.
After Tomorrow (1932) is an urban drama of an office worker (Charles Farrell) and his girlfriend (Marian Nixon) who seek happiness in spite of economic challenges, as well as a variety of family issues (examples). At times, we see flashes of Borzage's brilliance shining through, but screenwriter Sonya Levien did not bring the film very far from its origins as a stage play (by Hugh Stange and John Golden).
In Young America (1932) Ralph Bellamy stars as an unconventional juvenile court judge who tries to keep neglected boys from being victimized by a rigid legal system. At the behest of is wife (Doris Kenyon), Jack Doray (Spencer Tracy) takes troubled teen Arthur Simpson (Tommy Conlon) under his wing, but bad luck (and social intolerance) threaten to stand in the way of Arthur's long-term happiness. Young America is a Depression-era social conscience film of the type First National (Warner Bros.) specialized in, but this film lacks the pace, wit and edge of the films of William Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy, and Roy Del Ruth. It shows that when Borzage was assigned a "programmer," he was often unable or unwilling to raise it to the level of engaging drama or impressive art (They Had To See Paris is a previous example, and there would be dozens more later in Borzage's career).
The final disc in the collection contains Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008), a 105-minute documentary that spans the entirety of William Fox's career, from his early years as an exhibition entrepreneur (defying the monopolistic Edison Company), technical innovator (with the Movietone sound-on-film process and the 70mm widescreen Fox Grandeur process), artistic visionary (offering carte blanche to Murnau and encouraging his stable of filmmakers to challenge themselves visually), to his professional decline. Directed by John Cork and Lisa Van Eyssen, the documentary is rich in detail, and illustrated with a treasure trove of archival clips and photographs. Curiously, the documentary is much more detailed than the book, which is oriented more toward photographs than information. The only criticism is that -- being narrated by about 30 historians, experts, and descendants (who are infrequently identified) -- it is impossible to know who is speaking about 85% of the time. Furthermore, the cutting-and-pasting together of all these perspectives is brisk and incessant, leaving the viewer fairly exhausted by the end of the piece. But, in its own way, this suits the collection, which is all about packing as much content as possible into one DVD collection.
To say the set is handsomely packaged is an understatement. It is probably the most elaborate yet tasteful DVD packaging ever released. The discs are fitted into the cardboard pages of a faux-leatherbound album Within the covers of this album are fitted oversized paperbound books: Murnau, Borzage and Fox and 4 Devils: The Lost Film by F.W. Murnau. All of this slides into a sturdy box with a lid that is shaped to fit the contours of the nameplate on the exterior. The box and lid are also inlaid with photographs (of Sunrise and 7th Heaven).
The book Murnau, Borzage and Fox is one of the weaker elements of an otherwise breathtaking collection. While it showcases 128 pages of production stills and advertisements on high quality paper stock, it includes no studio documents related to the films (such as set design sketches, script pages, memos, etc.). The publicity photos offer little insight into the methods by which the films were made. Nor is the brief essay, by Janet Bergstrom, particularly insightful. The essay devotes most of its attention to Sunrise, and the manner in which Fox encouraged other directors in his stable to welcome Murnau's influence. Once Murnau leaves the picture (for Tahiti, to independently produce Tabu ) and Borzage resumes a more modest visual style in his films, Bergstrom's interest seems to wane, and she devotes no more than a cursory paragraph to such programmers as Young America and After Tomorrow that are nevertheless worthy of a bit more attention.
Viewers unfamiliar with Murnau and Borzage's work will no doubt welcome the historical context Bergstrom provides, but there is not much in the way of fresh observations and data to satisfy the silent film enthusiast reasonably well-versed in the topic (this admittedly narrow demographic will nonetheless comprise most of the purchasing public for the set).
As the epic length of this review suggests, Murnau, Borzage and Fox is a monumental DVD collection. It raises the bar high, demonstrating the degree to which a studio's video label can pay tribute to its own history, resurrect the neglected films of its past, and prove itself dedicated to the ongoing preservation of the moving image.
For more information about Murnau, Borzage and Fox, visit Fox Entertainment. To order Murnau, Borzage and Fox, go to TCM Shopping.
by Asa Kendall, Jr.