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Among the movies he made in the second half of his career, Moonrise (1948) is acknowledged by some cinema scholars as Frank Borzage's late period masterpiece, a film that is both a summation of the director's thematic concerns and a visually stunning marriage of pictorial lyricism with noir sensibilities. It stands out from any other American film made in the forties and is closer in tone and mood to the poetic realism movement in French cinema during the thirties (Julien Duvivier's Pepe le Moko , Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows ). It was also a commercial failure that attracted few moviegoers and, until recently, has remained an elusive title in Borzage's filmography.
Set in a swampy backwater town in the deep South, Moonrise is a tale of revenge and redemption that begins and ends with Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark), the black sheep and ne'er-do-well of the village. Haunted by the memory of his father who was hung for murdering the town doctor, Danny has grown up to become a tormented, conflicted man, seething with anger and hatred for those who oppress him. But his worst enemy is himself and, despite a deep need for love and acceptance, his violent, impulsive temper often dictates his fate. When he gets into a fight with Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), the town rich kid who taunts him about his dead father, the outcome is tragic; Jerry is killed and his body is hidden in the swamp by Danny. Though racked with guilt over what he's done, Danny still pursues Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a local schoolteacher who was engaged to marry Jerry. Their tumultuous relationship gives Danny a reason to live but he soon finds himself a major suspect as the manhunt for Jerry's killer closes in on him.
Produced and distributed by Republic Pictures, whose specialty was low-budget Westerns, Moonrise went through an erratic pre-production phase before it ever reached the screen in its final form. Based on a story by Theodore Strauss that would later appear in novel form and was being prepared for serialization in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan, the material was bought by Paramount Pictures prior to its publication (an unusual tactic at the time) and Strauss was hired to write the screenplay. Initially writer-director Garson Kanin had wanted to purchase the story as a John Garfield vehicle but was outbid by director John Farrow, who envisioned Strauss's tale as an Alan Ladd showcase. Then, a New York Times article reported that Moonrise had been acquired by Marshall Grant Pictures with Vladimir Pozner attached as screenwriter and Burt Lancaster as a possible contender for the leading role. Next, it was reported that William Wellman would direct with James Stewart as the star and then Variety announced that Stewart would also cast and direct the movie. The saga continued with The Hollywood Reporter announcing that Charles K. Feldman had purchased Moonrise and would produce it at Republic Studios with director Frank Borzage. Charles F. Haas was tapped to pen the screenplay and Lillian Gish was listed as one of the featured cast members but never appeared in the final film.
Despite the complicated backstory on Moonrise, it was intended to be a prestige picture for Republic, who were considered a poverty row studio by Hollywood standards. The production costs came to $849,452, which was high for a Republic Pictures budget (one of their typical Western programmers cost $50,000 in comparison) but this marked an attempt by the studio to enter the first-run market with a higher quality picture. To save money, Borzage ruled out location shooting and filmed Moonrise on only two sound stages for 30 different scenes. While this accounts for the film's artificial and highly stylized art direction, it also produces a claustrophobic, fever-dream intensity that works as an extension of Danny's world view, one which begins in brooding darkness and eventually sees the dawning light. The only other film that comes close to possessing the same dream/nightmare logic as Moonrise is Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter which didn't appear until 1955 and was also ignored by the public. In some ways, it's not hard to see why Moonrise wasn't popular with filmgoers. For one thing, it has more in common with European art films than other American movies of its era and it didn't fit into any distinct film genre. Though the theatrical posters for Moonrise depicted it as a romantic melodrama, the actual film played like a noir psychodrama. Yet, it wasn't a true noir because it ended on a note of hope and redemption like Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952) and surged throughout with moments of lyricism and unexpected beauty. The opening fifteen minutes of the film, in fact, is a visual tour-de-force that eloquently encapsulates Danny's entire history and psychological profile through expressionistic vignettes that seem like a homage to German silent cinema despite a minimal but heightened use of dialogue and sound effects.
Upon release, Moonrise received both pans and praise. The Los Angeles Times noted that "some scenes are so entirely out of key that they are laughable." The New York Times critic called it "a clouded tale filled largely with pallid people," and stated, "The ancient argument as to which medium tells a story best, written words or pictorial images, is again brought into focus by "Moonrise." And, using this adaptation of Theodore Strauss' novel... as a case in point, the book towers above the picture...Frank Borzage directed the melodrama at a leisurely pace in keeping with the yarn's sombre mood, a pace which is unrelieved except for a pair of pulse-quickening sequences..." In addition, The Washington Post accused the film of pretentiousness, stating, "Making matters worse is the fact that I'm afraid Republic Studios...feels that in Moonrise it is evolving a work of art."
On the positive side, Daily Variety called it "one of the finest produced pictures [Republic] has ever boasted...for audiences who are looking for straight absorbing drama here is a winner." Boxoffice also championed the movie proclaiming it "Undeniably first-rate...Brilliantly directed by Frank Borzage." The movie even garnered an Oscar® nomination for Best Sound Recording but Moonrise's commercial prospects remained poor and it marked the beginning of a long estrangement from Hollywood for Borzage, whose approach to cinema was no longer in vogue and was now struggling with a drinking problem. He began working again in 1955 for television (Screen Directors Playhouse) and then returned to filmmaking briefly, helming two more features (China Doll , The Big Fisherman [1959)]) and working uncredited on Edgar G. Ulmer's L'Atlantide , before dying in June 1962.
Moonrise enjoys a much more lauded reputation today due to its frequent revival at film festivals (in a restored print from UCLA) where audiences can finally appreciate its virtues. In addition to Borzage's artful craftsmanship are John L. Russell's moody, black and white cinematography (he later won an Oscar® for his work on Psycho, 1960), Lionel Banks's evocative art direction, Charles F. Haas's poetic screenplay, and impressive performances by everyone from Dane Clark, the poor man's John Garfield, to Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Harry Morgan (as a deaf mute) and Rex Ingram in a rare, non-stereotyped role for an African-American actor at the time.
Producer: Charles Haas
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Charles Haas; Theodore Strauss (novel "Moonrise")
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: William Lava, Walter Kent (uncredited)
Film Editing: Harry Keller
Cast: Dane Clark (Danny Hawkins), Gail Russell (Gilly Johnson), Ethel Barrymore (Grandma), Allyn Joslyn (Clem Otis), Rex Ingram (Mose), Henry Morgan (Billy Scripture), David Street (Ken Williams), Selena Royle (Aunt Jessie), Harry Carey, Jr. (Jimmy Biff), Irving Bacon (Judd Jenkins), Lloyd Bridges (Jerry Sykes), Houseley Stevenson (Uncle Joe Jingle), Phil Brown (Elmer), Harry V. Cheshire (J.B. Sykes), Lila Leeds (Julie).
by Jeff Stafford
Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity: The Film Work of Frank Borzage by Frederick Lamster (Scarecrow Press)
"The Moral of the Auteur Theory: Frank Borzage's Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss' Source Novel" by Holger Romers Senses of Cinema web site http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotslibas-Davis