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Frank Borzage's No Greater Glory (1934) is an adaptation of the classic children's novel The Paul Street Boys (A Pl utcai fik, 1907) by the Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnr. Borzage's version is especially noteworthy for how he and his scriptwriter Jo Swerling emphasize the anti-war message by opening with a World War I battle montage and by portraying some older characters as war amputees. According to the Borzage biographer Herv Dumont, the footage for the montage came from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
Although it predates the war, Molnr's novel already functions as an allegory on nationalism; the boys are fiercely attached a lumber yard which they use as a playground, calling it their "Grund." The novel also reflects the pervasiveness of military culture in Hungarian society under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his 1950 autobiography entitled Companions in Exile, Molnr wrote that his secretary Wanda Bartha recalled how he "spent evening after evening writing his novel The Paul Street Boys in a Budapest cafe, to the constant accompaniment of a military band that was playing an engagement there."
Born in Budapest as Ferenc Neumann, Molnr (1878-1952) achieved fame mainly as a playwright. His best-known work is probably Liliom (1909), which has been adapted multiple times, most famously the 1930 version by Borzage, a 1934 French version directed by Fritz Lang, and the musical Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Other noteworthy plays by Molnr include The Guardsman (1910), The Swan (1920), The Play at the Castle (1926) and The Good Fairy (1930), all of which have been translated into English and widely staged. In 1939 Molnr emigrated to the U.S. in order to escape rising anti-Semitism within Hungary. He remained in the U.S. until his death.
Since the mid-1920s Borzage was one of the leading directors at Fox, though in February 1931 he and Cecil B. DeMille, Lewis Milestone and King Vidor co-founded a company called Hollywood Screen Guild. That venture would fail a few years later, but in the meantime Borzage did get Harry Cohn to agree to house his personal production company at Columbia Pictures for a 2-film contract. Man's Castle (1933), the first film in the contract, was heavily cut by the censors and failed at the box office, though it is now commonly regarded as a classic with outstanding performances by Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young.
No Greater Glory offered an entirely different challenge: finding a cast of child actors who could play the unusually complex roles. A June 1934 article in the Los Angeles Times stated that Borzage, the casting director and the assistant casting director interviewed "practically every child motion-picture player in Hollywood." Borzage did not find any suitable child for Nemecsek until he came across George Breakston. Although it was Breakston's first film role, he had performed previously on radio. Breakston (1920-1973) later played Pip in the Stuart Walker adaptation of Great Expectations (1934) and made several appearances as Francis Bacon "Beezy" Anderson in the Andy Hardy films. Beginning in the late 1940s, he began to direct low-budget action films such as Urubu (1948), Jungle Stampede (1950) and Oriental Evil (1951). However, his most notorious film is no doubt The Manster (1959).
When No Greater Glory was released in May 1934, it earned mostly positive reviews. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that it was "rather too sentimental at times, but, nevertheless, compelling because of its vitality and the good work of the boys who portray the leading roles." He especially liked George Breakston as Nemecsek. Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "comes mighty close to being a classic" because of its "extraordinary singleness of purpose." He singled out for praise the performances of the boys and Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson as Nemecsek's parents. No Greater Glory was also listed among the "Ten Best American Films" of 1934 by the National Board of Review. Like Man's Castle, the film was not a great box office success; it was both the last film that Hollywood Screen Guild produced and Borzage's last film for Columbia.
The film's reception in Europe was an entirely different matter. As Dumont notes, it was alternately interpreted as a left-wing or right-wing ideological statement. According to a December 1934 article in the New York Times, the film was banned in France on the vague pretext of being "inopportune," most likely because of its anti-war message. At the 1935 Venice Biennale, it was awarded the Cup of the National Fascist Party for "the most artistically successful foreign film." Borzage later recalled, "That was a strange thing. It was an indictment against war... and got a citation from Mussolini!"
Director/Producer: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Jo Swerling, based on the novel The Paul Street Boys (1907) by Ferenc Molnr
Director of Photography: Joseph H. August
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Film Editor: Viola Lawrence
Musical Score: Louis Silvers
Sound: Glenn Rominger
Principal Cast: George Breakston (Ernő Nemecsek); Jimmy Butler (Boka); Jackie Searl (Gerb); Frankie Darro (Feri ts); Donald Haines (Csnakos); Rolf Ernest (Ferdie Pasztor); Julius Molnar (Henry Pasztor); Wesley Giraud (Kolnay); Beaudine Anderson (Csele); Bruce Line (Richter); Samuel S. Hinds (Gerb's Father); Ralph Morgan (Andros Nemecsek); Lois Wilson (Mrs. Nemecsek); Egon Brecher (Racz); Frank Reicher (Doctor); Tom Ricketts (Janitor); Christian Rub (Guardian).
by James Steffen